Tag Archives: rocket

First Citizen Science Project Was A Damp Squib

comic almanac 1831

“A squib is a type of firework, hence damp squib: something that fails ignominiously to satisfy expectations; an anti-climax.”

Oxford English Dictionary


The opportunities for non-scientists to do science have never been greater: it’s called Citizen Science.

Helping out the professionals can involve anything from counting ladybirds in your back yard, to looking for alien life, to classifying galaxies and discovering new planets, to monitoring the population dynamics of the Rose-Ringed Parakeet. Just take your pick from the Zooniverse Smörgåsbord.

But when was the first citizen science project? I’ve been thinking about it lately, and my starter-for-ten comes from some research I did last year about fireworks. There must be other examples, so please comment if you have any.

Not to be distracted by definitions (however interesting – see Openscientist), I’m taking citizen science to mean some sort of research or project where a scientist – or what passed for one at the time – appeals to the public to report observations, measurements, or such like.

My candidate project concerns Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) Benjamin Robins, who in 1748 made a general appeal to the public to observe and report the height of rockets – ultimately with military and surveying purposes in mind – during a firework display.

Without email, podcasts, or Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club, Robins’s request appeared as an anonymous bulletin in the November 1748 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine1 (in his excellent Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History2, Simon Werrett suggests Robins is the most likely author)

Gentleman's MagazineFor if such as are curious and are from 15 to 50 miles distant from London, would carefully look out in all proper situations on the night when these fireworks are play’d off, we should then know the greatest distance to which rockets can possibly be seen; which if both the situation of the observer, and the evening be favourable, will not, I conceive, be less than 40 miles. And if ingenious gentlemen who are within 1,2 or 3 miles of the fireworks, would observe, as nicely as they can, the angle that the generality of the rockets shall make to the horizon, at their greatest height, this will determine the perpendicular ascent of those rockets to sufficient exactness.

The Gentleman’s Magazine1November 1748

Robins had made a name for himself in gunnery and ballistics, calculating for the first time how air resistance affects military projectiles3. Now he enthused over rockets for their

very great use in geography, navigation, military affairs, and many other arts;1.

The light alone from a rocket was a useful signal in war; but Robins knew more was possible. Provided the rocket rises vertically to a known height, the observed angle between the horizon and the rocket at the top of its flight lets you calculate its distance. Before GPS and radio, this could tell you where someone was:

Measuring distance with rockets
A rocket’s distance can be found from its height and the angle it makes with the ground ©Tim Jones

The map maker John Senex had already used the method for surveying4, but Robins needed more height and distance data to refine and calibrate the technique. But where would the rockets come from?

As it turned out, Robins’s timing was perfect. Bringing to an end a series of tortuous European wars, the recently signed Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle was the latest cause for national, and therefore Royal, celebration. And George II planned to celebrate in style, with a sound and light spectacular involving the launch of thousands of firework rockets. The geo-politics of the day were about to lend Robins an unlikely and unwitting hand.

Held at Green Park, London, in April 1749, George’s display, famously accompanied by Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, was huge. No less than 10650 rockets weighing up to 6 pounds each rose into the night sky from a 410 ft long ornate Doric temple or ‘firework machine’5 – 6000 of them reserved to go up together in the finale6.

Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni's Firework Machine in Green Park 1749
Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni’s Firework Machine in Green Park 1749, V&A Museum no. 21228, reproduced under Creative Commons 3.0

Robins’ request for two types of data: angle measurements from those close in, and simple confirmations of visibility from those further out, came with instructions:

The observing the angle which a rocket, when highest, makes with the horizon, is not difficult. For if it be a star-light night, it is easy to mark the last position of the rocket among the stars: whence, if the time of the night be known, the altitude of the point of the heavens corresponding thereto, may be found on a celestial globe. Or if this method be thought too complex, the same thing may be done by keeping the eye at a fixed place, and then observing on the side of a distant building, some known mark, which the rocket appears to touch when highest; for the altitude of that mark may be examined next day by a quadrant; or, if a level line be carried from the place where the eye was fixed to the point perpendicularly under the mark, a triangle may be formed, whose base and perpendicular will be in the same proportion as the distance of the observer from the fireworks, is to the perpendicular ascent of the rocket.

The Gentleman’s Magazine1November 1748

Bearing in mind astronomy and triangulation are skills likely absent from most readers’ day jobs, this is quite an intimidating, albeit educational, set of instructions. So much for the procedure; how did the results pan out?

There were some issues on the night, including a large portion of the Doric temple unexpectedly catching fire during the show, and various eye witness accounts suggest the event was a little lack-lustre. But the rockets went up, and George’s spin-doctors took care of any negative PR.

The response to Robins’ experiment was more disappointing, with only one report appearing in the follow up edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine, and that from a Welshman 138 miles away near Carmarthen:

I had a clear prospect of several miles eastward where I waited with impatience till near 10 o’clock, and then saw two flashes of light, one a few minutes after the other, that rose east of me to the height of about 15 degrees above the visible horizon. I don’t pretend that I saw any body of fire, only a blaze of light, which neither descended like a meteor, nor expanded itself abroad like a lightning, but ascended and died. Clouds interrupted, that I could see no more.

Thomas Ap Cymra, Gentleman’s Magazine, May 17497

Let’s remind ourselves what 138 miles looks like:

Robins’s ‘Citizen Science’ project had one response (©Tim Jones)

So, how believable is Thomas Ap Cymra’s report?

At this distance, a line-of-sight view of the rocket at the top of its trajectory is out of the question, thanks to the curvature of the Earth – never mind the Brecon Beacon mountain range. But we shouldn’t write Thomas off just yet. 6000 rockets going off together would make a hell of a flash, and we know lightning from thunderstorms can be seen from many miles away. And in the First World War there were reports of flashes from the fighting in France being visible from London.

In his full letter, Thomas logically argues why his observations could not have been meteors or lightning. Off the technical topic, he then questions the suitability and cost of the event, saying how he struggles to rationalise the irony of using fireworks to celebrate a military cessation. The moaning somehow makes his observations more credible.

All the same, a single response with no elevation data must have been a disappointment to Robins. And just as well he’d taken the belt-and-braces precaution of making some of his own elevation measurements, with the help of a friend stationed 4000 yards away in Cheapside,

Observations from Cheapside

From these measurements, taken with a sextant with the starry background as reference, Robins was able to publish in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, that the highest Green Park rockets had risen to 8.75 degrees above the horizon, equivalent to a height of 615 yards8.

At six pounds, the Green Park display rockets were relatively small

Robins made further tests after the Green Park display, trusting to friends and colleagues placed at various locations tens of miles from London – itself a non-trivial task without mobile phones – and using rockets of more consistent specification9

Robins trusted to friends in further tests

We have to hand it to Robins, that despite a poor public response, his was a valiant effort to stir up interest and participation using the latest communications media available to him.

We should also remember The Gentleman’s Magazine was the first publication of its type (est. 1721) and the first to reach anything like a wide audience – albeit one excluding women and the not so well-to-do. The concept of a publicly visible two-way conversation via a publication was itself recent, having first appeared in pseudo form in the fictional dialogue between characters in the Spectator Magazine (1711-12). So maybe it was just all too new.

These days, I suppose Robins might suggest participants send him a geo-mapped digital photograph of the rockets.  Some would understand what they were doing – others wouldn’t – but the data would still be good.  But that brings us back to asking exactly who counts as a citizen scientist, which is a whole new question, and probably a good place to stop.


References and further reading

1. ‘A Geometrical Use proposed for ‘the Fire-Works’, Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 18 Nov. 1748, p.488.

2. Fireworks: Pyrotechnic Arts and Sciences in European History. Simon Werrett, University of Chicago Press, 2010.

3. New Principles of Gunnery, Benjamin Robins, London, J.Nourse, 1742

4. John Senex Wikipedia article

5. A description of the machine for the fireworks; with all its ornaments, and a detail of the manner in which they are to be exhibited in St.James Park, Thursday, April 27th, 1749, on account of the General Peace, signed at Aix-la-Chappelle, October 7, 1748. Published by His Majesty’s Board of Ordnance. By Gaetano Ruggieri and Gioseppe Sarti.

6. The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction. Vol 32, 1838, p.66

7. Fireworks Observed. Gentleman’s Magazine, Vol 19, May 1749, pp.217-18

8. Observations on the Height to Which Rockets Ascend; By Mr. Benjamin Robins F. R. S. Phil. Trans. 1749 46 491-496 131-133; doi:10.1098/rstl.1749.0025

9. An Account of Some Experiments, Made by Benjamin Robins Esq; F. R. S. Mr. Samuel Da Costa, and Several Other Gentlemen, in Order to Discover the Height to Which Rockets May Be Made to Ascend, and to What Distance Their Light May be Seen; by Mr. John Ellicott F. R. S. Phil. Trans. 1749 46 491-496 578-584; doi:10.1098/rstl.1749.0109

Monkeying About In Space

With the news today that Iran has sent a monkey into space, it seems appropriate to post these pictures of the less than luxury accommodation occupied by chimpanzee Ham in an earlier era of space exploration.

Mercury-Redstone 2 Capsule (Photo: Tim Jones. Taken at California Science Center)
Mercury-Redstone 2 Capsule (Photo: Tim Jones. Taken at California Science Center)

I checked out the Mercury-Redstone 2 capsule on display at the California Science Center while waiting to view the Space Shuttle last week.

Mercury-Redstone 2 Capsule (Photo: Tim Jones. Taken at California Science Center)
Mercury-Redstone 2 Capsule (Photo: Tim Jones. Taken at California Science Center)

Four year old Ham, who was an ape rather than a monkey, launched into space on 31st January 1961.  He proved that beings similar to humans could survive and perform functions in space: to which end Ham was given a series of levers to pull on command (red, white, and black above).

Ham on his way (Photo:NASA)

It’s quite a mess in there:

Mercury-Redstone 2 Capsule (Photo: Tim Jones. Taken at California Science Center)
Mercury-Redstone 2 Capsule (Photo: Tim Jones. Taken at California Science Center)

Amazingly, the capsule Alan Shepard piloted to orbit three months later didn’t look that much different.

Ham beats the Iranian monkey on altitude, reaching 157 miles against the Iranian’s 75 miles – not that either would be aware of how high they were.  The BBC report suggests the Iranian’s were testing the acceleration and deceleration of the rocket – although there’s the inevitiable ambiguity over why they’d want to do that, and the implications for weapons testing [monkey survives = warhead survives ?].

In related news, the U.S. National Institutes of Health announced this month they’d be stopping the use of chimpanzees for medical research; although I’m not sure where that leaves potential future space chimps.


Also of interest:

Guardian article on Ham http://www.theguardian.com/science/animal-magic/2013/dec/16/ham-chimpanzee-hero-or-victim?

Of Physics, Firearms, and Fireworks

Physics, Firearms, and Fireworks
(photo: Tim Jones, Darkroommatter.com)

I learnt only recently, while researching the early use of computers in schools, that my physics teacher from the late seventies, John Page, had died during 2009. Better known with implicit consent by his nickname ‘Bumble’ (possibly after the Dickens character, I was never sure), he was certainly a character himself.  He was also a teacher who encouraged me to think.

Reproduced from the Gateway Magazine

For sure, Bumble covered the official syllabus – wheeling out totally worthy but ultimately plain vanilla air pucks, weights, springs and the like.  But the most interesting discussions – the ones that have stuck with me –  followed some of his more wacky off-the-wall demonstrations.

On one memorable occasion, as an introduction to Newton’s Laws of Motion and the Gas Laws, Bumble kicked off the lesson by discharging a black powder pistol at the front of the classroom.

Lesson protocol started in the usual way.  The class in silence, with Bumble making his ponderous walk up to the front bench of the teaching laboratory.  He tended to always look downwards, his eyelids giving the impression of one who is asleep.  Just normal procedure so far then.

Except today there was a revolver in his hand, one chamber of which he proceeded to load: methodically inserting pieces of cloth, then gunpowder, then cloth again (no actual slug thank goodness), before compressing the package with a small ram rod.  We all remained silent, and nobody moved.

Gateway Grammar School Leicester
Gateway Grammar School, Leicester (Photo: Tim Jones)

This was before the time, in the UK at least, that any crazies had run amok in schools massacering innocent children with firearms; so I guess we felt intrigue rather than fear.  This was Bumble anyhow – he did weird stuff.   With the last addition of a copper percussion cap, the gun was pointed in the general direction of the laboratory wall, and fired.

Seconds after the most enormous bang echoed through the now smoke-filled laboratory, the Head of Physics, Mr Gill, closely followed by the Head of Chemistry, Mr Scottow, tumbled into the lab looking suitably alarmed.  They’d clearly not been pre-briefed on this one, and were expectant of some terrible fate having befallen us.  I remember their expressions changing from shock to relief, with an after-smirk of resignation, as the gunman stepped out of the smoke.

Stunts like Bumble’s Colt Navy demo got our attention, but were also the intro for quite stretching discussions in the more formal lesson that followed.  In this case, when we’d all settled down, Bumble got us thinking about how long a gun barrel would have to be before the bullet changed direction and went back the other way.

Imagine the thought processes needed for that.  First off, there’s the non-intuitive realisation that a projectile in a tube can change direction if the pressure behind it falls sufficiently relative to the pressure in front of it – which theoretically can happen in a long enough gun barrel.   Then there’s the skill of mentally extrapolating the familiar (short barrel) to unfamiliar extremes (hugely long barrel).  Thinking in abstraction and at scales beyond normal experience is useful, for scientists and non-scientists alike, in appreciating the scales relevant to fields as diverse as evolutionary biology and cosmology (and presumably also super-gun design).

Sections of Big Babylon at Fort Nelson, Portsmouth
Sections of the 'Big Babylon' Iraqi super-gun at the Royal Armouries, Fort Nelson, Portsmouth (Photo: Tim Jones, Darkroommatter.com)

Then comes the actual physics and chemistry of the deal: mechanics, thermodynamics, kinetics, friction, shock-wave propagation – not to mention the maths needed to sort the thing out (I don’t remember if we came up with an actual quantitative answer, and suspect an analytical solution is only possible with major simplification.  I’ll have a think and report in a future post.)   So, all sorts of good stuff.  And of course the follow-on lesson can cover ballistics, catching up with the bullet when it leaves the gun.

In a similar vein, my introduction to fluid flow through constrictions and Bernoulli’s principle took the form of the largest firework rocket I’ve ever seen being launched from the school playground.  In the follow-on lesson, we talked about rocket nozzle design.   No one was surprised to learn Bumble, as well as being a physics teacher, was a licensed firework maker who designed and cast his own nozzles.  I still marvel that the thing came down ‘safely’ in the confines of the school yard.

So that’s how I remember Bumble.  I guess we might at times have got distracted into non-syllabus material; but that’s a danger with all real-life problems if they’re studied with sufficient rigor.  And as Bumble’s teaching style was pretty much the antithesis of spoon-fed exam practice, it wouldn’t have suited all-comers.  On a practical note too, with the security position being what it’s become, even since the late seventies, it’s probably unwise for teachers to be firing pistols and launching rockets in quite the way I experienced.

In principle though, I love the attitude and approach to education Bumble represented, and hope kids are still enjoying equivalent spectacles – albeit in a tamed down form.

For all our sakes, I hope we haven’t seen the last of the Bumbles.