ROCKET MAIL PIONEER
AND FIRST-CLASS CHARLATAN
The headline in the London Daily Express read "FIRST BRITISH ROCKET MAIL" with the subhead "Syndicate Plans 1-Minute Postal Service Between Dover and Calais." Across the English Channel by rocket! Three test flights on the Sussex Downs the previous day - witnessed by an Express reporter and photographer - saw the mail-laden aluminum rocket soar a half mile into the air. Coming up next, the first-ever rocket flight across a body of water, designed to connect the UK to the dangerously remote islands that surrounded it.
1984? 1964? No, June 6, 1934. The story gets even better. The intrepid inventor had to overcome near-crushing obstacles. His special rocket fuel could not be exported from Nazi-controlled Germany. Lubricants for the rails off which the rocket would launch weren't available so he improvised by coating them with butter. Backed by a stamp dealer who raised a full £50,000 for the venture, Gerhard Zucker seemed to be the genius inventor of the era.
Though his birthdate is set in 1908 in Hasselfelde in the Harz mountains of northern Germany, nothing else is known about Zucker until 1931, when he surfaces as another of the rocket-crazy young men of the day. As part of the German defeat in World War I, the Treaty of Versailles forbade the country from research in virtually every known area that could have military significance. Rockets existed merely as fireworks and science fictional sensationalism in 1919; they flew under the also-not-yet-invented radar. Not only was rocketry cool and futuristic, therefore, it was entirely legal. Rocket societies sprang up, inventors strapped rockets to cars, trains, and boats, launches could be found seemingly in every large field and also a few city streets.
Zucker's obsession was for mail-carrying rockets. He wandered the country with small demonstration rockets, setting them up in any village that would tolerate him. Nobody paid him much attention as bigger and more successful rockets took all the news, as they always would. So Zucker scaled up. He built a 5 m (16 ft) rocket that could lift 200 kg (440 lb) of mail and in 1933 announced a staggering flight from the mainland to Neuhaven Island, a full 15 km (9 mi) offshore. The rocket went 15 all right, but 15 m rather than 15 km. Failing to achieve the other 99.9% of his target didn't faze him. He went right back to his travels.
Zucker, you see, was a total fake. Unlike Oberth, Ley, van Braun, or the other later famous young men in German rocketry, Zucker never really built a true rocket. He designed large canisters surrounding old-fashioned blackpowder firework-style rockets and made the money to fashion these by selling postage for his rocket mail. The stamp world has a term for this, vignette, a non-official stamp created for publicity or posters or other purposes. Most vignettes are legitimate as long as the buyers understand they can't be used for regular mail. Zucker - and lots of others; this was a common practice for rocket mail - printed up thousands of stamps and covers (envelopes with the stamps and other printing commemorating an occasion) and presold them to collectors and faddists who wanted to be part of a cool event. If the letters never reached their intended recipients, well, that was a chance you took with such a new technology. If the scorched remains of the cover was recovered from the fiery remains of a failed launch, well, people always act like people: they resold at 100 times their original cost.
By this time, the Nazis had achieved power, and their all-consuming interest in studying this one weaponry loophole should have been an early indication of future intentions. They quickly took over all rocket research, meaning that anyone who cared about the subject had to accede, like a young Wernher van Braun, or go elsewhere. Zucker later claimed that he turned down a Nazi request to modify his rockets to carry bombs, but this is not only unconfirmed but self-serving: his career would have been extremely short if a real rocket expert studied his fireworks. He chose to go elsewhere, and Britain looked like a ripe sucker, er, prospect.
At the May 1934 London Air Post Exhibition he exhibited another set of vignettes for a proposed launch that never happened. The news got better when stamp dealer C. H. Dombrowski decided to back him with that £50,000 - a fortune for the day that would have given him a larger budget than any other rocket experimenter in the world who wasn't part of the German government. Photographer Robert Hartman became his press agent, successfully so, cutting an exclusive deal with the Daily Express so that they would cover every move he made.
Another water hop to an island was the best publicity move, and a perfect candidate presented itself. A woman on the Isle of Scarp, in the Outer Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland, was about to give birth to twins. Bad weather initially prevented anyone from seeing her signals that she needed a doctor; she went into labor and delivered one child but the other was delayed. Finally, after a harrowing trip by boat, horse-cart, and bus, she made it to a hospital and delivered her other twin two days later. Britain was supposed to be as advanced as any country on earth and a communications fiasco of this nature was downright embarrassing. Zucker proposed a demonstration flight from Scarp to the town of Harris for the Royal Mail. Selling yet another lot of 1200 covers with a "Western Isles Rocket Post" vignette made back quite a few shillings. Amazingly, 793 covers survived the fire after the rocket exploded. A few days later Zucker tried again from Harris. A piece of the exploded rocket made it to Scarp: none of the letters did. A rocket did manage to survive its launch that winter as Zucker tried to get it to fly from Hampshire to the Isle of Wight, but never reached its target, instead burying itself in mud on the mainland.
Things can always get worse and did. After bizarrely leaving a large cache of gunpowder in a railway station cloakroom, Zucker spent a couple of nights in jail before being deported for mail fraud. Germany wasn't an improvement. He spent more than a year in jail there for fraud and embezzlement. Apparently selling vignettes for rocket flights that never took place was frowned upon. Despite persistent rumors than he was a Nazi spy or, conversely, a traitor giving away German rocket secrets, he never overreached his status as a small-time crook.
When the real rocket age blossomed after Sputnik, Zucker was rediscovered and feted as a rocket pioneer by Germany. Anniversary covers were issued in 1961 and 1963
Zucker resumed rocket experiments, but this time his ineptness had tragic consequences. Shrapnel from one of his exploding rockets killed two schoolboys in 1964 and he went to jail a third time, serving six months for involuntary manslaughter. West Germany then banned all non-governmental rocket experimentation, ending the era of amateur rocket mail once and for all. Zucker died in 1985.
Though Zucker left behind nothing that could be called a legacy, his enthusiasm for rocket mail did produce a world-class collection of rocket mail stamps, vignettes, covers, and other stamply goodness. I had the chance to buy up a small slice of this collection, much of it personally signed by Zucker, who loved to put his name on anything he touched. A slideshow of some of the dozens of vignettes from a multitude of countries in the 1930s, before WWII curtailed all private rocket flights, can be seen on my Stamps from the Gerhard Zucker Collection page. (I use stamps instead of vignettes because that simply the more understandable term.) Many of them are well-designed; most feature a 1930s-style rocket ship that is the ultimate symbol of retrofuturistic style.