Andrea Berger“A New and Useful Rocket Apparatus”

Matt Korda, fellow Canuck and master of North Korean missile puns, submitted this piece on publicly available missile patents. It’s wonderfully in the weeds, but then again we are called Arms Control “Wonk” for a reason, right? 

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When I’m bored, I sometimes like to scroll through the latest patents listed on Google. It’s the height of wonkiness, I know, but it’s actually pretty fun to see what new inventions are being patented everyday—it gives you a bit of a strange glimpse into the future.

But a couple weeks ago, looking for something to do on a transatlantic flight, I took a trip into the past instead— and tumbled down the rabbit hole of early-generation missile patents (accidentally freaking out my airplane seat-mate in the process).

The Google Patents database is a historical treasure trove for weapons technology: you can find patents for pretty much every component of a missile, complete with wonderfully detailed drawings like this one, for a ballistic missile nose cone:

For missile wonks who, like myself, don’t have an engineering background, I’ve found that flipping through these patents is a fun and useful way of learning the ins and outs of rocket science. Each patent clearly explains the context for the invention, how it fills a specific gap, and a step-by-step explanation of how it works.

I’d encourage everyone to scroll through one series of patents in particular: those belonging to Robert H. Goddard—one of the fathers of modern rocketry. He was granted 214 patents in total—48 during his lifetime and 166 after his death (most of which were filed by his wife Esther, based on Robert’s sketches and notes).

Goddard’s first patent, for a “new and useful Rocket Apparatus” was granted on 7 July 1914 for “a primary rocket, comprising a combustion chamber and a firing tube, a secondary rocket mounted in said firing tube, and means for firing said secondary rocket when the explosive in the primary rocket is substantially consumed”—essentially, the first multi-stage rocket.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center History Office has compiled a list of all of Goddard’s 214 patents. In addition to his all-encompassing Rocket Apparatus, he patented most of the individual components found within a missile, including a combustion chamber, a propulsion apparatus, and an apparatus for igniting liquid fuel, among many others. It’s a fun exercise to fit them together like puzzle pieces; you can effectively splice together a complete missile using the patents of individual components.

A century later, many of Goddard’s patents look incredibly simple; today, we’re living in an age of hypersonic glide vehicles and nuclear-powered cruise missiles and salted tsunami missiles. For those so inclined, it’s worth reflecting on the roots of the missile industry — these early patents can teach us a lot, not just about rocket science, but about how far we’ve come in just 100 years.

P.S. For those interested in patents relating to nuclear weapons, Alex Wellerstein has already done some excellent work on this.

P.P.S. I’m going to start regularly posting details of some of the weirder and wackier missile-related patents on my Twitter feed, so feel free to follow along @mattkorda.

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