beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

The Rise and Fall of Wan Hu, Chinese Rocketeer

In his 1944 book Rockets: The Future of Travel beyond the Stratosphere (the book that would evolve through several editions into Rockets, Missiles, and Outer Space), Willy Ley tells a story:
Another such isolated instance of the application of rocket power is a story which may be legendary or it may be true-- there is no way of telling. It centers around the otherwise completely unknown person of a Chinese official whose name is given as Wan-Hoo.

This Wan-Hoo, the story goes, committed a rather spectacular suicide in or around ad 1500 by inventing and testing a rocket airplane. He took two large kites and connected them with a framework in the center of which a saddle was fastened. Forty-seven large powder rockets had been attached beneath the kites in strategic places and forty-seven coolies stood ready with flaming torches to ignite these rockets at a prearranged signal. When everything seemed ready, , the learned and daring Wan-Hoo seated himself in the saddle and finally signaled to the waiting coolies. They rushed at the machine, each one applying his torch to the rocket he was to ignite, and Wan-Hoo and his machine disappeared in a noisy cloud of black smoke.
Other writers about rocketry loved this story, and put it into their own books. Herbert S. Zim, 1945. G. Edward Pendray, 1947. The Civil Air Patrol, 1949. After that, practically everybody.

The name is sometimes rendered Wan Hoo, sometimes Wan Hu. In 1970, a crater on the Moon was named Wan-Hoo (alternate transliteration Van-Gu). Mythbusters attempted to re-create his experiment. Even if the legend isn't true, people want it to be true. The guy is a star.

Here's what I want to know:

Where did Willy Ley get this story?

I'm not finding it in Google Books earlier than Ley's book. He was a hard-working researcher. He probably learned about Wan Hu in some dusty library, maybe in Germany, maybe in the U.S. I can't ask him; he's gone. (But he has his own lunar crater.) The trail is cold.

Presuming Willy didn't make it up, how did the tale of the ingenious official, the two kites, and the forty-seven servants get handed down from 1500 to Willy's time?

Maybe someone who knows about Chinese technology has a clue. Maybe someone who knows about European perception of Chinese culture has a clue.

Whom can I ask?

Edited to add:
Ron Miller, that's who. In his history of spaceship ideas, The Dream Machines, he writes:
Most authorities consider the story of Wan-Hoo apocryphal, including noted Sinologist Professor Joseph Needham, due to the large number of internal inconsistencies as well as an inability to discover any published reference to the tale earlier than 1909. It is most likely that the story was fabricated during the Chinoiserie period in Europe, during the 17th and l9th centuries, which was characterized by a fascination with all things Oriental. The earliest published account that historian Frank Winter has been able to locate was as late an October 2, 1909 issue of Scientific American (in which the name is given as “Wang Tu”). The story, however, is so charming that Wan-Hoo, fictional or not, has had a lunar crater named for him.
Interesting. That issue of Scientific American is available on Ebay. It has a Zeppelin on the cover, at a time when Zeppelins were barely two years old. Speaking of birthdays and rocketry, Google also mentions to me that 2 October 1909 is also the birthdate of Alex Raymond, creator of Flash Gordon!

Anyway, I now know a little more than I knew.

With the information that Frank Winter is involved, I am led to a citation in another book, which informs me of Winter's article "Who First Flew in a Rocket?" in the July 1992 issue of Journal of the British Interplanetary Society. Gee, I probably have that somewhere. In 1992, I probably read it, because I am a fan of Winter's work. But I had forgotten it.

Edited again to add:
Here's what John Elfreth Watkins wrote in Scientfic American, October 2, 1909, page 243:
Tradition asserts that the first to sacrifice himself to the problem of flying was Wang Tu, a Chinese mandarin of about 2,000 years B.C. who, having had constructed a pair of large, parallel and horizontal kites, seated himself in a chair fixed between them while forty-seven attendants each with a candle ignited forty-seven rockets placed beneath the apparatus. But the rocket under the chair exploded, burning the mandarin and so angered the Emperor that he ordered a severe paddling for Wang.
Tags: history, rockets
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