Today, model rocketry is a popular hobby, with an almost impeccable safety record. But that wasn't always the case. From the late 19th century to the late 1950s, generations of kids were taking their lives (or at least their fingers) into their own hands, setting off unsafe and unsound devices. Here's the daredevil history of model rocketry.
The hobby of model rocketry as we know it today was pretty much invented by G. Harry Stine and Vernon Estes. Stine (1928-1997) was a science writer (who also wrote science fiction under the name Lee Correy).
At one time he worked as a civilian scientist at the White Sands missile test range. While fielding questions from young people who wanted to build flying models of rockets like the V-2, he became concerned about safety. He expressed some of these concerns in an article he wrote in 1957 for Mechanics Illustrated. This led to an invitation to join forces with Orville Carlisle, who wanted to start a company that would produce safe, standardized solid-fuel motors for model rockets. Model Missiles became the first company to offer model rockets. During this time, Stine founded the National Association of Rocketry and wrote the safety code that is still in force today.
Model Missiles folded after a short time, but the company that had been contracted to produce their rocket motors, Estes Industries, took over the market, creating its own line of kits. Today, Estes dominates the hobby, in spite of past competition from companies like Centuri and Cox.
But as Stine's concerns about safety suggest, people—especially kids—had been building and flying model rockets for a long time.
(Maybe this might be the time for me to stop and try to define what I mean by "model rocket." What makes one rocket just a rocket and another a "model" rocket? I suppose the simplest definition would be say that while anything reaction-propelled is a "rocket" a model rocket is deliberately intended to recreate, in miniature, a full-size rocket such as a V-2, X-15, Titan or Saturn V.)
And this had been going on long before Stine came along. In fact, even before Stine had been born. Alexander Graham Bell, for instance, was fooling around with rocket-propelled model airplanes as early as 1893 (and got one to fly 75 feet). Pretty much as soon as the airplane was invented, kids began making models—and it didn't take long for someone to wonder what might happen if they attached a rocket to one. In France, for instance, in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers flew their first airplane, designs for rocket-propelled model planes were published.
A few years later, another French magazine, Le Constructeur des Petits Aeroplanes, published plans for a rocket-propelled model of a Bleriot monoplane, though the rocket itself was omitted from the drawing for the sake of "clarity."
One of the first model rocketeers we know by name was a young German named Carl Neubronner who, in 1912, built and flew the first rocket-powered aircraft (model or full-size) in that country. Most model airplanes at the time were powered by rubber bands. Carl had been having difficulty getting his to work so he had the idea of using a rocket, which he had made specially for him. He entered his "Raketoplan" in the Frankfurt Aeromodel Exhibition but it was disqualified on the grounds that it "was not an aeromodel as it it lacked a propeller."
No one in this country wanted to take a backseat to the Europeans, so plans for the "All-American Model Rocket Plane" appeared in the early 1920s. It would have been a monster, with a nearly 4-foot wingspan and propulsion provided by a 2.25-ounce rocket.
Realizing that all of this interest might translate into a market, people started offering model rocket kits as early as the 1920s, and well into the early 50s. Since this was long before G. Harry Stine, standardized rocket motors or anything resembling a safety code, God alone knows what the kids who ordered these things from the backs of comic books and science fiction magazines got. Many of these were offered by the Johnson Smith Company, best known for introducing the Whoopie Cushion to civilization.
By the 1930s and 40s, building and flying rocket-propelled model aircraft had become a more or less acceptable part of the model airplane hobby world. More acceptable, perhaps, to the enthusiastic model-builders, perhaps, than to their parents and local fire departments.
Non-flying rocket models were hardly any less popular — and I haven't the slightest doubt but that more than one kid succumbed to the temptation to stuff a skyrocket into the tail end of one of these things.