This week’s milestones in the history of technology include communicating through the ether and travelling through space.
On March 16, 1926, Robert Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket. Goddard and his team launched 34 rockets between 1926 and 1941, achieving altitudes as high as 2.6 kilometers (1.6 miles) and speeds as high as 885 km/h (550 mph). Six year earlier, an editorial in The New York Times scoffed at Goddard’s assertion that it’s possible to send a rocket to the Moon, and called into question his understanding of physics:
That Professor Goddard, with his “chair” in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action and reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react—to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.
Arthur C. Clarke in Profiles of the Future: “Right through the 1930s and 1940s, eminent scientists continued to deride the rocket pioneers—when they bothered to notice them at all… The lesson to be learned … is one that can never be repeated too often and is one that is seldom understood by laymen—who have an almost superstitious awe of mathematics. But mathematics is only a tool, though an immensely powerful one. No equations, however impressive and complex, can arrive at the truth if the initial assumptions are incorrect.”
Forty-nine years after its editorial mocking Goddard, on July 17, 1969—the day after the launch of Apollo 11—The New York Times published a short item under the headline “A Correction.” The three-paragraph statement summarized its 1920 editorial, and concluded:
Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.
On March 18, 1909, in Denmark, Einar Dessau used a shortwave transmitter to converse with a government radio post about six miles away in what is believed to have been the first broadcast by a ‘ham’ radio operator.
Susan Douglas in Inventing American Broadcasting on the emergence in the U.S of a “grass-roots network of boys and young men,” amateur radio operators, between 1906 and 1912:
To the amateurs, the ether was neither the rightful province of the military nor a resource a private firm could appropriate and monopolize. The ether was, instead, an exciting new frontier in which men and boys could congregate, compete, test their mettle, and be privy to a range of new information… This realm… belonged to ‘the people.’ Thinking about the ether this way, and acting on such ideas on a daily basis, was a critical step in the transformation of wireless into radio broadcasting.
From the forward (by Jack Binn) to The Radio Boys First Wireless (1922): “Don’t be discouraged because Edison came before you. There is still plenty of opportunity for you to become a new Edison, and no science offers the possibilities in this respect as does radio communications.”
Today, as Singapore-based Broadcom has launched a $117 billion hostile takeover of US-based Qualcomm, there is “so much scrapping… by companies and countries over a next wave of wireless technology known as 5G.” And Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is hiring an Astronaut Experience Manager as it is “inching closer to launching tourists into sub-orbital space,” while Elon Musk’s SpaceX is aiming to colonize Mars, envisioning that “millions of people [will] live and work in space.”