How Taoist philosophers inspired the quest to outer space. | Matter of Form
The Taoist Yin and Yang philosophy is famous for its concept that seemingly contrary forces are interconnected. 11th century Taoist monks, in search of The Elixir of Life (the key to immortality), conducted experiments to determine the yin and yang properties of various substances. They found that an interaction between saltpeter and sulfur (and charcoal dust) provoked an explosion.
"The resulting black powder was initially stuffed into bamboo shoots to create makeshift fireworks"
The resulting black powder was initially stuffed into bamboo shoots to create makeshift fireworks (called ‘ground-rats’), initially for the purposes of entertainment at ceremonious rituals.
Soon they began inserting lit arrows into the tubes, powering makeshift weapons with the escaping gas. After this, the use of rocket weapons spread relatively quickly.
However, only in the 16th Century did a Chinese inventor by the name of Wan Hu attempt to use rockets as a form of propulsion for flight. It is said that Wan built a splendid chair, clad himself in his finest attire, and instructed forty seven servants to light the forty seven rockets he had attached to it.
Wan built a splendid chair, clad himself in his finest attire, and instructed forty seven servants to light the forty seven rockets he had attached to it.
Things did not go particularly well: following a dramatic explosion, Mr Hu and his chair were nowhere to be found. Despite speculation at the time that he might in fact have successfully travelled to a higher world, it seems more likely the unfortunate man was blown to oblivion.
Hundreds of years later, a crater on the far side of the moon was given his namesake, in appreciation of his valiant but primitive attempt at spaceflight.
By 1903, a Russian schoolteacher by the name of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky proposed a more pragmatic approach to space travel. His well substantiated report was published in 1903, and subsequently an American physicist, Robert Goddard, brought his research to life through a series of experiments with rockets that first used gunpowder, and later liquid fuel compound.
On March 16th, 1926, Goddard successfully launched a rocket fuelled by liquid oxygen and gasoline. It ascended 12.5 meters, flew for two and a half seconds, and crashed into a cabbage patch 56 meters away.
Goddard, who paved the way for manned rocket propelled space travel, in part owed his success to the discovery of a simple interaction between two opposing substances, as first discovered by Taoist philosophers some 900 years before.