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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter

Robert Goddard's Patents

The portfolio of patents granted to Dr. Goddard covers most of the components used today in liquid-fuel rockets. As Wernher von Braun said later, "This man had everything." I will not attempt to do more than list the highlights here. But the first two, from 1914, deserve mention. Patent 1,103,503 describes a combustion chamber, with expander nozzle, into which liquid fuels are pumped. Patent 1,102,653 covers the multi-stage rocket concept.

Among Dr. Goddard's other technical achievements in rocketry are:

  • A solid-fuel projectile launched from a tube (1918)
    As mentioned, this was developed into the bazooka during WW II. [1]
  • A "resonance chamber" motor for an air-breathing rocket (1934)
    It is known that this patent was translated into German. The motor used in the V-1 was based on it. [2]
  • Ways of handling and using cryogenic propellants (liquid oxygen)
  • Methods of using in-flowing fuel to cool the combustion chamber and nozzle
  • Pressurization of fuel tanks by an inert gas to push the fuels into the chamber
  • The pressure regulators for above
  • Centrifugal high-pressure pumps for fuel feeding.
  • Seals for above pumps
  • Movable vanes to steer a rocket by redirecting exhaust gases
  • Gyroscopically controlled stabilization system using above vanes
  • Various igniter systems
  • Variable-thrust rocket motors
  • Methods of measuring rocket thrust and other parameters
  • Remote-control methods for rocket launches

What is noteworthy about this list (still incomplete) is its scope. Essentially on his own, Dr. Goddard worked out and actually demonstrated much of the practical basis of astronautics. Now, recall that the U.S. government could not be persuaded to make use of these ideas until the Third Reich drove the point of their utility home in the closing days of World War II.

Nor were his advances confined to propulsion. Before Lee DeForest had patented the famous Audion tube, Dr. Goddard developed an electronic oscillator circuit using a vacuum tube of his own design. His 1912 dielectric measurements at Princeton needed a stable source of high-frequency radio waves, so Goddard invented one. This patent (Patent #1,159,209 — November, 1915) was later instrumental in helping Arthur Collins of the fledgling Collins Radio Company win a legal battle with giant RCA, which held Lee DeForest's patents. [3]

The pressures of World War II brought about a spate of applications for rocket science. The development and production of the technology soon became a multi-billion-dollar industry. In 1951, Dr. Goddard's widow and the Guggenheim Foundation filed suit against the U.S. government for infringing a number of Goddard patents. This suit was settled in June, 1960 by an administrative award of one million dollars to the plaintiffs. It was to that date the largest settlement from the U.S. government in a patent litigation. [4]

Finally, if I may venture beyond solid engineering into the realm of speculative concepts, Dr. Goddard was ahead of his time here as well. In his early writings, he described such far-out ideas as freezing protoplasm. The objective was suspended animation, which would enable humans to travel to the stars. Other visions found in these early notebooks, which he never made public, include solar-sail craft, nuclear rockets, and methods of protecting spaceships during re-entry.

If only we had listened . . .


Other than the Patent Office archives themselves, the best source for information on Dr. Goddard's patents is Milton Lehman's book. This book was reprinted by Da Capo Press in 1988 (ISBN 0-306-80331-3), with a new introduction by Frederick C. Durant III.



[1] — Lehman, pp. 301-306

[2] — Lehman, pp. 379-381

[3] — Lehman, pp. 357-360

[4] — Lehman, pp. 404-405

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