Stephen Smith (rocket scientist)

4 Feb 1891
15 Feb 1951
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Stephen Hector Taylor-Smith (4 February 1891 – 15 February 1951) often known as Stephen Smith, was a pioneering Indian rocket scientist who developed techniques in delivering mail by rocket. Unlike Friedrich Schmiedl, whom the Austrian Authorities banned from further experimenting, Smith was encouraged in his experiments by Indian Officials. In the ten-year span of his experiments (1934-1944), Smith made some 270 launches, including at least 80 rocket mail flights.

He was born on 14 February at Strawberry Hill, in Shillong, Assam. Even as a boy, along with other schoolmates Smith attempted to transport live garden lizards in rockets over the swimming pool of St. Patrick’s School, Asansol. He attended St. Patrick’s from 1903 to 1911. Smith was the first rocket experimenter to successfully transport foodstuff, medicine and livestock via rockets.

Smith made careers as a customs official, a policeman and a dentist. He became the Secretary of the Indian Airmail Society, and combined his work with his interest in rocketry. His first launch was on 30 September 1934, experimenting with 270 more by 4 December 1944. 80 of these contained mail, and his achievements include the first successful rocket mail sent over a river and the first rocket to carry a parcel.

On 30 September 1934, he launched his first mail rocket, using a rocket made locally by the Orient Firework Company of Calcutta. The flight was a ship-to-shore launch, The rocket carrying 143 covers, left the D.V. Pansy and exploded mid-air scattering the mail over the sea. 140 covers were recovered and taken to the Saugor Lighthouse, where the keeper postmarked the mail. This was followed by: shore-to-ship, night, and miniature newspaper flights.

Smith’s flights in Sikkim, a British Protectorate in the eastern Himalayas, received official sanction from the local ruler, Here he carried out 20 successful rocket experiments and achieved the first rocket parcel mail. The Oriental Fireworks Company supplied Smith with 16 rockets between 23 March 1935 and 29 June 1935. Between them, these “Silver Jubilee” flights carried over a thousand covers.

Smith made history once again, when he used his rockets to carry a food package across a river to the Quetta region, which had suffered an earthquake. The package contained: rice, grain, spices, biris (Indian cigarettes) and 150 rocketgrams.

Stephen Smith also effected the world’s first livestock transport when on 29 June 1935, a rocket carried a cock and hen together with 189 rocketgrams across the river Damodar. Both animals survived the flight and were donated to a private zoo in Calcutta. A later effort, successfully carried; a snake (Miss Creepy), an apple and 106 covers. Smith demonstrated his experiments during the war years, few items of mail were carried on these flights, The last series of rockets were gas propelled and the last flight took place on 4 December 1944.

Stephen died on 15 February 1951, 11 days after his 60th birthday, and is now immortalised as the Father of Aerophilately in India. The Department of Posts in India issued a stamp honouring this Anglo-Indian pioneer of airborne mail.

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