The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
ROCKET TO VENUS
On January 6, 1928, an editor at the Gaffney SC Cherokee Times ripped a paragraph of filler off the press syndicate teletype.
From Miami Beach, Fla., comes the information that Robert Condit, of Condit, O., will attempt on January 24 a trip to the planet Venus in a machine he had been working on for the past 15 years.
That's it, the whole article. You might think that a rocket to Venus would be front page news. To be fair, it had been. The United Press and Associated Press both sent out announcements on December 16, 1927. OHIO MAN BUILDING WEIRD MACHINE is one of my all-time favorite headlines. Many compared him to Lindbergh, still a national hero for his solo Atlantic flight earlier in the year. The announcement came with science info of a sort.
The motive power for the machine, he said, to be used through the earth’s atmosphere for the first thirty or forty miles will be principally from a slow explosive derived from the most powerful alkali known – peroxide of sodium, used as a direct propeller.
After leaving the earth’s atmosphere the propelling power will be a network of units capable of being polarized with the attraction of other planets and orbits of meteor streams other than the earth’s.
That's some authentic frontier gibberish, and it should have set off alarm bells at any newspaper with a science editor. It didn't. Americans were enthralled with the advances of science and technology and would accept any and all advances with awe and belief.
Little was known about Robert Condit. He was variously 30, 32, or 35, a world war veteran, a college graduate. Articles describes him as a chemist, an engineer, a chemical engineer, a mechanical engineer, or hedged their bets by plainly describing him as an inventor. The reporters had just as tough a time coming up with facts about the trip. He would fly at 2400 miles a minute. No, 3600 miles a minute. One typoed that as 36,000 miles a minute and that mistake got copied. Venus was 50,000,000 miles away. Or 67,000,000. Or 28,000,000. Or 63,000,000. At those speeds distance didn't matter much. He thought he'd fly there and return in forty hours. Nobody questioned any of these numbers. Or did the math. 3600 miles a minute is a fair clip, but it's only a bit over 5,000,000 miles every 24 hours. He was "well supplied with funds" because he surrounded his hanger in secrecy with a six-foot fence. Or else, he was lacking funding and housed the rocket in a shanty.
Talking to Condit directly cleared up very little. He told the International News Service that he had been experimenting in Mexico, but moved to Miami because latitude 26 is "where the 'cosmic magnetism,' on which he depends, exerts its greatest effect."
January 24 came and went. A George Nemeth traveled from California begging to be a passenger. Stunt flyer "Daredevil Art" Fisher offered his services. So did Foreign Legionnaire Georges de Mengin, who asked only that some provision be made for his 12 children if things went wrong. Sorry, said Condit, room for only one. The media circus was in full swing.
"Is Anything Impossible?" asked the editorial page of the Albany, GA, Herald. Recent reports of robots and giant brains made the incredible seem quotidian. "When a man invents a machine smarter than the maker, who shall dare say that Condit can not fly to Venus?'
Many raised their hands. Letters to the editor printed snark as regularly as comment sections of today's websites.
Condit invented his own new explosive fuel for the craft, which he refused to call a "rocket," possibly because the papers frequently referenced "sky-rockets," whose life spans were notoriously short. Navigating the windowless craft wouldn't be a problem. He would "depend upon planetary and magnetic attraction." Returning from Venus might be more of an issue, but he was blasé. "Why cross bridges?" he asked. "I'm not there yet and I may not want to return if I do make it."
Condit kept pushing the launch date off, seeking perfect "meteoric" conditions. Money continued to be an issue. With "hundreds" of people daily visiting his "impregnable stockade" he abruptly changed his mind about this being a purely scientific expedition off limits to the public and proposed that he charge admission to the hordes. The Miami Beach city commissioners turned him down flat.
Worse came when a wirephoto hit newspapers, showing him entering the top of his capsule rather like a circus clown entering a cannon. Another picture that appeared the same day showed him standing next to a ship that clearly couldn't contain enough fuel to get it to the beach. His talk of carrying a sandwich and an oxygen tank as his only supplies also raised eyebrows. The great Venus craft suddenly shrank to toy size. As a scientific achievement it more resembled a barrel going over Niagara Falls.
Condit had been given the courtesy title of "Professor" in some articles. At the end of February, an enterprising reporter for United Press finally thought to ask some actual professors what they thought.
Professor Edmund S. Manson, of the astronomy department of Ohio State University, wasn't the least bit optimistic about the project and seemed to have no scruples about discouraging ambitious rocket-hoppers.
"Why, the man is absurd," said Manson. "His rocket is absurd. The whole plan is absurd. He has about 28,000,000 miles to travel where he will have no oxygen to breathe, and if he takes enough along to survive the trip, he won't have any when he gets there. And if there is no oxygen, there are no inhabitants," the professor pointed out.
However, in the face of all untoward incidents, ... the starting of the rocket from the earth would make a lovely fireworks exhibition.
And that was about it. In early March Condit announced he was postponing his flight to summer, and in April to the "next spring." When he did launch and was well away from earth, "he will peer out of a periscope to locate 'a meteoric stream.' When he finds one he will guide the rocket to it and 'float to Venus.'" And he wouldn't worry about warmth because he would wear a pair of knickers. This level of nonsense was fatal. After mid-March, the articles stopped entirely except those wondering what ever happened to him.
In newspapers, that is. Because of the longer lead times in magazines, Modern Mechanix didn't manage to squeeze in a mention of Condit until its November issue. The sheer nonsense about space and rockets written by ordinary reporters in 1928 can perhaps be excused. A popular science magazine should have had higher standards. Instead, they inexcusably scammed their audience. In the page shown below, any reader would assume that the rocket was Condit's, but it was an old design of real rocketeer Herman Oberth. Calling it an "interstellar" rocket is almost as bad, but I've run across several uses of interstellar when interplanetary was meant in pre-WWII publications. In fact, this article uses both.
And that really was it. I could find no more mentions of Robert Condit and his rocket. Dream? Delusion? Con game? We'll never know, but my vote would go for publicity seeker.
Those who want to follow up on Condit with a Google search will quickly wonder about my research skills. The website of Rocket to Venus, a restaurant in Baltimore, proudly explains its odd name via an article written by a Harry B. Uhler, giving copious details of how he, his brother, and Robert Condit continued his work in August 1928, culminating in an actual takeoff!
A bit more digging might find what is supposed to be the original article, from the Baltimore Sun Magazine of September 21, 1969, which is even longer and mentions that the landing had a bit of a glitch. The rocket crashed into the tenth story of a Baltimore office building and Condit broke both legs.
And you'll find mentions of this feat in a number of places all over the Internet.
So why not here?
Because it's not true. The rocket never got off the ground
The culprit is David Johnson. Johnson loves alternate history. He had a website and a zine, Point of Divergence, devoted to it. That's no longer up but the pages can be found on the Wayback Machine. He forthrightly lists the Uhler article as alternate history on his Text page, so there's no doubt about its lack of authenticity. A fine hoax, and obviously a successful one.
There really was an article in the Sun magazine. Johnson copied it all except for the last couple of paragraphs, where he invents an actual launch.
Here's the original.
Here's Johnson's alteration.
Can Uhler's remembrance be true? No paper in America seemed to have reported on this very public attempt, not even the Baltimore Sun, which had in March revealed that the 32-year-old Condit had been an artist's model in the city for years. (Which makes it inexplicable that every early newspaper article said he was from Condit, OH, a real small town.) Surely a traffic-stopping rocket launch by a local man who had made headline news for months earlier in the year would have been worthy of front-page coverage.
However, Uhler was definitely connected to Condit. A tearsheet from a March 3, 1928 Baltimore News exists on the Rocket to Venus restaurant site, showing pictures of the two with their friends building the rocket. A headline reads "ROCKET FOR SKY/TRIP BUILT HERE," indicating that it had been done before he left for Florida, since all other mentions of him at that time were from Miami Beach.
Except for this possibly dubious claim, the last mention of Condit's activities is in April when the Miami News reported he skipped out on a bill for a motorless airplane. How that was connected to the rocket was never explained. Nevertheless, it's another stain on Condit's thin legacy.
Originally posted February 13, 2018; revised July 21, 2020 to note that Johnson invented only the ending to Uhler's story, and adding additional material