Biography of Russian Scientist Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky Part 1

About the famous Russian scientist Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky, history and biography of the pioneer in the field of rocket fuel.


Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky


Soviet national idol and father of Soviet astronautics, Tsiolkovsky himself never built a rocket and possibly never saw one. An accomplished theoretician and futurist, he made his major contribution to science writing numerous articles on the problems of flight, both in and beyond the atmosphere. The Soviets credit him with designing a single-winged airplane in 1894 that was superior to the biplane the Wright brothers flew in 1903--even though Tsiolkovsky's plane was never built. Earlier, in 1886, he invented a corrugated metal dirigible that had advanced features not found in Count Zeppelin's invention of 1900. Unfortunately, like most of Tsiolkovsky's inventions, these flying machines were never built.

Tsiolkovsky was born on Sept. 17, 1857, in the small town of Izhevskoye in Russia. Although his father was a Polish noble by birth, the political fates had relegated the elder Tsiolkovsky to an obscure position as a forestry official and a self-styled but unsuccessful inventor. The boy lost most of his hearing at age nine after a bout with scarlet fever, and his parents withdrew him from school when it became obvious that he could no longer benefit from conventional instruction. After his mother died four years later, he became withdrawn and sought comfort and security in his father's library. It was apparently around this time that he read a Russian translation of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon, a book that was to have a pronounced influence on his life. He developed an interest in mathematics and physics, constructed his own lathe, and built a number of scientific instruments with it. In 1873 his father sent the precocious boy to Moscow to study. With the aid of an ear trumpet he designed himself, he was able to attend lectures on chemistry, mechanics, astronomy, and mathematics. Years later, he would describe the ear trumpet as "one of my inventions that worked."

When, in 1876, his father discovered that young Konstantin's meager allowance was going for the purchase of sulfuric acid and quicksilver rather than food and clothing, he called the boy home. In spite of this abrupt termination of his formal study, Tsiolkovsky was still able to pass an exam to become a "people's schoolteacher" in Borovsk, about 100 kilometers from Moscow.

He reacted to this novel condition of financial independence by constructing a workshop where he could build kites and electrostatic machines, balloons, and other curiosities. Unwary visitors found their hair standing on end and sparks flying from their bodies. Startled villagers caught him skimming across the frozen river in an armchair on runners, propelled by a sail. He constructed a large mechanical vulture that flew well enough to scare the children of the town. On one occasion, he built a wood fire under a large paper balloon attached to a string, only to have the string catch fire and the balloon escape. After raining live cinders on the town, the balloon finally landed on the roof of a shoemaker who was so angry that he refused to return it.

But Tsiolkovsky's interests came to be dominated by more serious matters. He began writing significant scientific papers, married, and began a family. He was elected to the Society of Physics at St. Petersburg, and in 1892 was transferred to nearby Kaluga, where he was to teach, speculate, experiment, and write for the next 43 years.

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