Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Goddard and Google Patents Online

I happened to be on Clark University's web site last night and decided to check on what they had online related to their favorite son, "father of rocketry" Robert H. Goddard. Turns out it's quite a lot - many of Goddard's diaries, notebooks, and papers have been digitized and are available for search and even as PDF's for download and printing. Pretty cool.

Goddard grew up in Worcester, MA and attended WPI (Worcester Polytechnic Institute) for his undergraduate work in physics, graduating in 1908 (he was 26 - his education had been delayed by several periods of illness). He entered Clark (also in Worcester) in 1909 where he received his Ph.D. in 1911. He designed, built, and launched the first liquid fueled rocket in 1926, but he was thinking about ways to get off the planet long before that. In 1907, when he was still at WPI, he wrote an essay called "On the Possibility of Navigating Interplanetary Space" (search the online document database for "interplanetary" and look in the document "1898-1914 - Speculation and Preparation"). He submitted this article to "Scientific American" but it was rejected, "chiefly on account of length," according to the letter they sent him. It was certainly an interesting article, though his concerns were a bit odd in retrospect. For example, he was especially worried about meteor swarms. He was also worried about propulsion, but he didn't really have the ideas of rocketry in mind at this point. He considered that raising a mass to a great height would require a lot of energy, and first discussed solar energy which he dismissed as too diffuse (he may have been thinking about the photoelectric effect which had been explained by Einstein in 1905, but he doesn't mention this). He spends most of the rest of the paper talking about the energy released by radioactive decay in radium, which had also been explained by Einstein in 1905 (E = m c squared), but he doesn't mention that equation or Einstein's name. He concludes that the rate of energy release is too small to be useful for propulsion but speculates that someday a way could be found to release this energy more quickly (he was right, of course, but that involved nuclear reactions that were unknown at the time, not electron transitions as he speculated following J.J. Thomson).

His speculations may have been off the mark here, but he was certainly a curious and clever fellow and not much later he started to think about rocketry. His first rocketry patent from 1914 is shown above, courtesy of Google Patents (beta), which by the way, is amazing. Similar to Google Books, Google has digitized and placed on line in easily searchable and downloadable form millions of US patents from 1790 up to a few months ago. While we are used to the idea that "everything is on the web," this was new to me, even though there have been other ways to get patent information online for years (usually requiring a paid subscription). The internet (and Google!) never ceases to amaze.

1 comment:

Elliott Broidy said...

Thats pretty nifty.