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NEWS RELEASE - Former Queen's principal William Leitch explained space travel 30 years before any other scientist

Monday, October 5, 2015

KINGSTON - In a recently published paper, space historian Robert Godwin has proven that William Leitch, the fifth principal of Queen’s University, applied scientific principles to accurately describe the rocket as the best device for space travel in 1861 -- more than three decades earlier than previously believed.

Mr. Godwin says Reverend Leitch, who was appointed principal November 9, 1859 and joined Queen’s on Oct. 29, 1860, was a trained scientist and is the first person to correctly apply modern scientific principles to spaceflight in an essay he wrote in 1861 called A Journey Through Space. The essay was published in a journal in Edinburgh that year before being included in Leitch's 1862 book God's Glory in the Heavens.

Previous histories of spaceflight have maintained that the first scientific concept for rocket-powered space travel was envisioned at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century by such men as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Hermann Oberth and Robert Goddard.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Leitch deserves a place of honour in the history of spaceflight,” says Godwin. “The fact that he was a scientist is the key to this story. He wasn’t just making a wild guess. Not only did he understand Newton’s law of action and reaction, he almost dismissively understood that a rocket would work more efficiently in the vacuum of space; a fact that still caused Goddard and others to be subjected to ridicule almost six decades later.

Current Queen’s Principal Daniel Woolf, a historian and space enthusiast himself, says he is intrigued by the new findings.

 “These new documents reveal one of the earliest known references to the use of rockets for spaceflight and it’s interesting these revelations came from the fifth principal of Queen’s University,” he says.” It’s a fascinating discovery that could change the history of astronomy.”

Asked why this discovery was so long in coming, Mr. Godwin explained that Rev. Leitch’s proposals “seem to have fallen through the cracks of history” because he died at a young age and the copyright to his writings fell victim to the bankruptcy of his publisher in 1878.

“His suggestion to use rockets in space remained in print for over 40 years, but his name had been stripped away from the work. The problem was compounded by the title of his book being changed at the last minute to remove all references to astronomy, which led to it languishing for 150 years in the theology section of libraries,” Mr. Godwin says.

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Contact:

Anne Craig, Media relations

613-533,2877 or anne.craig@queensu.ca

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