The Space Historian

The Space Historian

Robert Godwin is a Burlington-based author, publisher, and space historian. While in Seattle on a business trip, Godwin visited a local used bookshop as he does when traveling, and naturally headed straight for the space section.

“I found a book called Space Travel by Ken Gatland, published in 1953,” says Godwin. “This was before Sputnik, and so I bought it.”

The Game is Afoot
Reading it on the flight back to Toronto Pearson, he came across a quote from the Victorian era, about using rockets for spaceflight, cited from the (1899) book Half Hours in Air and Sky by an unattributed author.

“This made my eyes light up because I was thinking well wait a minute if that’s the name of the book I wonder if I can get a copy of it to find out who wrote this.”

On reaching his office in Burlington, Godwin searched for the book online. He found the unattributed quote, with the Google edition dating back to 1877.

This was decades before when the history books claimed that the first scientific concepts for rocket-powered space travel were proposed. Previous accounts credit scientists such as the Russian Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and the American, Robert H. Goddard. And both men got their inspiration from the pioneering science fiction of Jules Verne.

Cover of an early English translation of Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon

To identify the unattributed author, Godwin picked a particularly obscure sentence to cut-and-paste into Google. This led to a magazine published circa 1867, with the byline Reverend William Leitch of Queens College in Kingston, ON.

“So you can imagine my jaw hit the floor,” says Godwin. “We are back to two years after Jules Verne, and it’s a Canadian college principal. I literally jumped out of my chair and punched the air.”

A Journey Through Space

Further sleuthing revealed the magazine story was from the third edition of Leitch’s book God’s Glory in the Heavens. Obtaining the first edition of the book from a bookseller in Wales, Godwin found it had been published in 1862. And the introduction indicated some of the content was originally published the year before in the magazine Good Words, which Godwin tracked down a copy of at the archives of Guelph University.

In the end Godwin proved Leitch was the first trained scientist to have correctly applied scientific principles to spaceflight, in his essay A Journey Through Space which was published in 1861—four years before Jules Verne’s fictional “space gun”.

Godwin says Leitch was inspired by advances in telescopes, newly spin-stabilized military projectiles, and Isaac Newton.

Leitch’s proposals had long been forgotten due to both his death at a young age, and the fact that the copyright to his works fell victim to the bankruptcy of his publisher in 1878.

“The problem was compounded by the title of his book being changed at the last minute to remove all references to astronomy, which led to it languishing for 150 years in the theology section of libraries,” Godwin says. “But it was still in print when Goddard and Tsiolkovsky made their mark on the field.”

Godwin released his discoveries in the paper The First Scientific Concept of Rockets for Space Travel in October, 2015.

News of Godwin’s findings went out through the Canadian Press, Associated Press, New York Times, Daily Mail and the Guardian (UK), and was published in 12 languages, in part propelled by a Tweet from Chris Hadfield, and support from his fellow astronaut Dr. Dafydd “Dave” Williams who gave TV interviews on the subject. Williams commented “It’s exciting to learn that these principles of spaceflight were postulated and articulated so far before aerodynamic flight, let alone spaceflight.”

Godwin’s accomplished research has also been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, the British Interplanetary Society, and American Astronautical Society.

The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow presented the first Leitch Space Scholarship in 2016.

Leitch was born in 1814 on the Isle of Bute in western Scotland. He studied at the University of Glasgow and worked with some of the most brilliant minds of the 19th century including the legendary Lord Kelvin. Leitch graduated BA 1837, MA 1838, and was awarded honorary doctor of divinity 1860. He was an astronomer, naturalist, and mathematician, and minister of the Church of Scotland.

Leitch was appointed Principal of Queen’s College at Kingston, ON in 1859, where he struggled to convince Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. MacDonald to try and establish a fair educational system for all Canadians. Leitch passed away in 1864.

“He was buried on October 4th of that year—a date which has a certain resonance for space historians,” Godwin says in reference to the launch of Sputnik in 1957, ninety-three years later.

“I also wonder what he would have thought of Elon Musk being a graduate of Queen’s.”

Godwin’s latest book is William Leitch Presbyterian Scientist & The Concept of Rocket Space Flight 1854 – 1864.

Next Episode is The Space Historian, Part II

About the Author

Van Hansen

While Van is not allowed to sing, he is allowed to write songs and stories. Mostly stories. Published in magazines such as Canadian Aviator, Canadian Geographic, Costco Connection, Photography Monthly, and The Walrus, Van now shares with you the Profiles and everyday adventures of the People in Your Neighbourhood™, Community Spotlights, plus News & Reviews in the NEW Hansen House Blog! Van is a Certified Executor Advisor, and a Real Estate Broker with the full-service boutique brokerage Apex Results Realty Inc. in Burlington, ON.

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