Establishing astronautics: P E Cleator, A M Low, and the British Interplanetary Society
In 1930s Britain, astronautics was not an established field of science in the sense of being a feature of educational curricula, researched in government scientific institutions, or developed by large engineering corporations. At this time, the science of aeronautics, which included ‘heavier-than-air’ conventional flight as well as ‘lighter-than-air’ balloons and airships, had itself been in existence for just a short period, while rocketry consisted only of small self-propelled projectiles used for fireworks and sometimes as short-range ballistic weapons. While individual pioneers and experimental research groups in other countries such as had started to theorise about astronautics, and in some cases progressed to the testing of high-altitude rockets, their work was either ignored by governments (in the case of Tsiolkovskii and Goddard) or manoeuvred into ballistic or aeronautical weapons research (in the case of Oberth, von Kârmân and Malina). In Britain in the early twentieth century, there were no abstract theorisers of spaceflight, let alone practical experimenters, partly because the Explosives Act of 1875, passed in the context of domestic unrest posed by advocates of Irish Home Rule, meant that any applied research with rockets was effectively prohibited. Yet, importantly, there remained a strong culture of speculative writing about spaceflight in Britain, evidenced through the works of Stapledon. Wells, and others in ‘scientific romance’ fiction (see Chapter 2), while an emerging popular science literature had also started to consider some of the practical possibilities of spaceflight.21 It was inevitable, therefore, in the increasingly globally connected societies of the early twentieth century, that some of the new theories of spaceflight would become known to interested individuals in Britain, and that the concept of space exploration would take hold in the imaginations of many others. The main way in which these ideas formulated in Britain was through the British Interplanetary Society, and considering the ways in which this group coalesced in Liverpool in the early 1930s, and London towards the end of that decade, can illustrate how technologies and cultures of spaceflight were closely integrated in the emergence of astronautics in Britain.
The BIS was founded in 1933 by Philip Ellaby Cleator (1908-1994), an amateur scientist and popular science writer from Wallasey, near Liverpool. Initially, the Society attracted a handful of young members from the Liverpool area, who were overwhelmingly male and came from a variety of middle- and working-class professions including engineering, journalism and publishing. Its membership rose gradually to over a hundred, and among this initial group, there was a strong interest in science-fiction, with some members affiliated with a Liverpool-based science-fiction club called ‘The Universal Science Circle’.22 The growth of popular science publications during this period also provided an opportunity for the Society to circulate its ideas, with, for example, notifications about BIS meetings being published in Practical Mechanics from 1933.23 The BIS was notable for the publication of its own regular journal, which was established in 1934 and continues today as the world's longest-running journal on astronautics. The contents of the BIS Journal reflected the broad basis of interplanetary science as conceived by the Society, with articles published on a diverse array of topics, from the existence of alien life in outer space, to the latest developments in rocket technology and concepts of interplanetary navigation. Indeed, while it started out as a local group, the BIS always had broader ambitions, both in the sense of extending its membership to national and international scales, but also in terms of its intellectual activities, thinking beyond just rocketry to theorise about the myriad possibilities of interplanetary space. This ambition led to the Society transferring its headquarters to London in 1936, where its membership was growing more rapidly and was better connected to influential figures, such as the Society’s second President, Archibald Montgomery Low (1888-1956). Further examination of the Society’s leadership figures will help to outline the ways in which the social and the technical aspects of space science became co-reliant in the formative years of the BIS.
Philip Cleator had a life-long fascination with the concept of spaceflight, and his overlapping enthusiasm for science-fiction, popular science and outer space led to him becoming the driving force behind the BIS in its Liverpool years. A committed writer as well as an amateur scientist, Cleator had published a number of fictional and non-fiction works on interplanetary themes by the mid-1930s. Typical of this writing was a short article titled ‘The Possibilities of Interplanetary Travel’, which outlined what Cleator knew of rocket research being undertaken around the world and the potential application of this work to spaceflight. It ended with the conviction that, ‘whether we like or dislike the idea, believe or disbelieve, interplanetary travel will come.’24 The release of his first book. Rockets Through Space, Or, The Dawn of Interplanetary Travel, consolidated Cleator’s legacy as one of the first people in Britain to theorise and publish substantial works on space science.25 In September 1933, Cleator had a letter published in the Liverpool Echo as a call for interest to form an interplanetary society.26 While not having much of an immediate impact in terms of prospective new members, the letter drew the attention of N E Moore Raymond, a correspondent of The Daily Express newspaper, who subsequently arranged to meet Cleator in person. Following this encounter, Cleator was able to secure a front-page article in the Express advocating the idea of establishing an interplanetary society, after which its first would-be members began to contact him.27 It was, therefore, Cleator’s ability as a writer, mediator and publiciser that had helped him establish the BIS in the first instance, while the scientific concepts of interplanetary travel had largely been already established by this time.
Space historian Frank Winter, who interviewed Cleator in 1978, suggested that it was his ‘maverick individualism’ that helps to explain Cleator’s role as a champion of interplanetary science in this period.28 This was a time in which the notion of space travel received hardly any broader credibility as a serious scientific endeavour and it could well be argued that it was Cleator’s sheer force of personality that convinced many people in Britain of the potential of spaceflight. He was profiled widely in the national and international press upon the release of Rockets Through Space in 1936, with the Yorkshire Post describing him as ‘a visionary’ in an illustrated full-page article and the New York Post announcing him as a ‘well-known scientist’, with reviews praising the book for its detailed reporting of the latest developments in rocketry and its wide-ranging speculations on concepts of spaceflight.29 Cleator’s interest in language and the written word was reflected in his decades-long correspondence with the prominent American journalist and critic Henry L Mencken (1880-1956), in which they discussed astronautics, as well as their shared interest in aspects of culture and politics.30 Cleator’s command of the English language, as well as his sometimes acerbic wit, undoubtedly helped him to communicate the science of outer space effectively, while his public profile as a type of charismatic visionary scientist certainly helped to publicise the interplanetary concept to a wide
Synthesising outer space 43 audience. Through this profile, he perhaps embodied an early version of the archetypal figure of the ‘rocket scientist’, that featured prominently in postwar popular representations of science.31 The peak of Cleator’s involvement with the BIS came around the time that his book was published, and as its centre of gravity was transferred to London in 1936, his influence in the Society he founded started to wane.
The second President of the BIS, Archibald Montgomery Low (pictured centrally in Fig. 3.1), was a freelance radio engineer, inventor and author, and has been presented in his biography as a flawed genius who ‘never reached the heights to which he had a right’.32 His inventions included an early form of television in 1914 that he called the ‘TeleVista’, and he had patented well over a hundred devices, in areas such as radio guidance, infrared photography and internal combustion engines. He had already been awarded Honorary Membership of the BIS during the Liverpool era and his status as a kind of arbiter between the worlds of the professional and the amateur seemed to be a major attraction to the BIS, as it was looking for a figurehead for its new London headquarters. At the same time. Low found himself the subject of ‘bitter antagonism’ and ‘much personal abuse and ridicule’ from some professional scientists because of his somewhat ambiguous academic standing.33 Although he held a position as ‘Associated Honorary Assistant Professor of Physics’ at the Royal Ordnance College from 1919 to 1922, Low continued to trade on his status as ‘professor’, even though he was not strictly entitled to do so.34 This controversy is said to have indicated ‘a tension between the elite and those who focussed exclusively on
Inaugural Meeting in London. October 27, 1936.
Back row (left to right): Unknown, C. G. Smith. Allen, • !. G. Strong, Unknown, *R. A. Smith, Unknown, F. Day. *C. »ein. •M. K. Hanson, Unknown.
Front row: Unknown. E. J. Camell, *A. C. Clarke, *W. H. Gillings. “A. M. Low, Dubois, J. H. Edwards. Miss E. Huggctt.
• Present members of the Society.
Figure 3.1 First London meeting of the BIS in October 1936
Source Credit: British Interplanetary Societyapplied science’.35 This did not seem to matter to members of the BIS. and Cleator, for one, viewed Low as ‘a brilliant eccentric with a penchant for embracing what, at the time, were dismissed as wild and improbable ideas’, while post-war BIS Chairman Vai Cleaver described Low as an ‘interesting personality [who] has a flair for publicity which might be useful’.36 Low’s connections in the publishing industry were to prove valuable, and as editor of the popular science magazine Armchair Science, he commissioned articles from BIS members on various interplanetary topics. Low is known also to have penned a number of science-fiction stories, including such titles as Adrift in the Stratosphere, and he believed that speculative fiction could, in fact, encourage real developments in technology that would be of great benefit to society.37
In these respects, Cleator and Low had much in common. Both were seemingly aware of the effect of their public profile and the need to forge connections between the emerging science of astronautics and the public-at-large, through embracing the printed media, especially science-fiction and popular science. To a certain extent, Cleator and Low conform to the figure of the ‘space persona’, being ‘a particular type of scientific person [...] presupposing a certain degree of socio-cultural recognition’, an archetype whose importance has been recognised in shaping the pre-history of space science, not just in Britain but across Europe.38 Certainly, examining their respective circles of contacts and engagements helps to emphasise the value of social relations and popular interest in supporting the early development of astronautics in Britain.