Back in Zanesville, Ohio, a young dreamer was looking up into the night sky. The very thought of space travel and of visiting other near worlds thrilled the mind of young Thomas Townsend Brown. Tom studied existing rocket engines and rocket engine performance. These revealed great new possibilities for getting into space. In his mind and hands, a far better dream would be weave itself. It would be one, which would challenge every fundamental doctrine of science.

He simply wanted to build a rocket engine. A new kind of engine. A small, compact engine which could use very little chemical fuel, and deliver gravity defying thrust. In order to begin this quest, he first took to the library to see what was known about rocket engines. The physics and chemistry texts, which he consulted, were not encouraging. Dead laws, walls, boundaries, restrictions, and limits were encountered at every turn of a page! They were the same writings used to turn Dr. Goddard’s funding requests down.

Tom did not believe that Nature was not ironclad, certainly never limited by “restrictions”. Books were not the face of Nature; books were descriptions of small pieces of Nature. It sure was funny how whenever Nature showed a new thing, the books were rewritten and taught again as ironclad truth! Despite his every search through the physics books, it seemed that conventional avenues of pursuit were walled in by laws, which said “no” to his rocketeer dream.

The avid young mind was never satisfied with these academic “limits, bounds, and laws”. This disappointing wall of resistance from which the young fifteen year old could not turn caused him to move into a new line of thought. Putting the heavy and disappointing texts away, his mind clearly embraced the numerous possibilities inspired by the very thought of space travel. There just had to be some better way to launch out into space! And he would find it.


Tom Brown’s mind raced. If chemicals could not supply enough thrust, then new fuels and systems could be developed. Potent propulsion systems might be discovered by combining numerous ideas together. There must be a way. Nothing would stop him. Zarkov’s spaceship was surrounded by a ring of rockets, spouting electrical ignitions and mysterious applications. Maybe electricity held a secret, yet untapped.

Why did rockets work? Rockets worked because they arranged for the controlled explosion of their fuels. The explosion was shaped and directed by a temperature resistant “reaction chamber” in a single direction. The action of these escaping gases produced the reaction of the rocket mass. Newton was right in this case. The key to a rocket’s thrust was the mass of the flame per second and its speed. The mass of a flame was a nothingness, so where did the thrust come from? It came from the velocity of the flame.

A small mass per second was multiplied by the high rate of explosive escape. This product gave the reactive momentum. Chemical explosions gave thrusts, which were dependent on their “burn” temperature. The flame speeds could be measured against the speed of sound by several factors. Chemists of the day called this the “fugitive pressure”, that is, the explosive pressure.

Tom stopped reading and thought. Could there be another means for reaching higher thrusts with a smaller unit? What could make a flame get even hotter? The hotter the flame, the higher the thrust. The higher the thrust, the smaller and more compact an engine could be. What flame gave the very highest gas velocities? What was “hotter” than the very hottest chemical flame? The local drugstore had a neon sign in the window. This was always a fascination to Tom. Growing up, he spent time looking into its buzzing glass tubes to watch the red feathery gas which filled the sign with light. Now when he looked into the tube, he suddenly realized something of great importance in his study of rockets. Was the glowing neon a gas whose “velocity” was faster than a chemical rocket? Was the answer to his quest always right in front of his face?

An electrical rocket, of course! Electricity, lightning! These were things whose velocities were close to that of light itself! The highest velocities could be achieved through electricity. Now, here was something to really dig into. How fast would a gas move in an electrical field? It would have to be much faster than any chemical explosion could ever yield. Now he had a direction. Rather than having the texts guide his vision, his new vision would guide the use of texts.

Every book, which mentioned electrical discharges, gave unbelievable velocities for the glowing gases. Sir William Crookes described these molecular “mean free paths”, the free space through which ions could accelerate in the applied electrical fields. Their velocities were enormous, far more than chemical explosions could produce. It was known that a very small spark could produce tremendous pressures (Riess). Such velocities should explode ordinary neon tubes, he thought. Why did this not happen?

Neon signs were low-pressure gas discharge tubes. The constant electrical current, which passed through them “pinched” the gas into a tightly constricted glowing thread, pulling it away from the tube walls. Tubes operated with constant electrical currents never exploded. But neon tubes were known to crack when the electrical current was applied in a sudden impulse. This released a tremendously explosive thrust … and at such low pressures! This meant that the velocities had to be incredibly rapid, since there was practically no gas inside the tube.

Tom studied on. There were cases when lightning exploded massive objects in which a small amount of air was trapped at normal pressures. Such phenomena taught that electrical discharge in impulses could be coupled with gases at normal pressures to produce tremendous thrust. Furthermore, there were tradesmen who employed this principle daily, when welding metals together. The local welder coupled high current impulses with various gases to weld metals together. He was told that handheld welding apparatus often gave quite a “kick” in certain applications. In addition, there were times when very massive metal objects were thrown clear of the brilliant arc, propelled at high speed by intense arc pressure.

Tagged on: , , , ,