THE FIRST JETPACK?

1936 Buck Rogers Solar Scouts Manual

The Jetpack is the Urban Legend of the Consensus Future. Nobody in the period went around asking "Where's My Jetpack?" Heck, there's no evidence that the word was ever used before about 1960. My guess is that the public heard the term with its modern meaning for the first time when the Air Force announced its "jet pack" for astronauts in late 1962.

Popular Science, November 1962

The Army's Transportation Research and Engineering Command (TRECOM) put out a Request for Proposal for a flying belt - in military jargon "small rocket lift devices"  - in 1959, getting responses from Bell Aerosystems, Thiokol Corporation, and Aerojet-General, all of whom had already been thinking along those lines. Thiokol's Reaction Motors division actually had a story planted in the ever-acquiescent hands of Popular Science in December 1958, promising a working "Flying Belt" in two years. Bell won the contract, which everybody remembers not because it ever worked worth a damn but because James Bond used one in Thunderball, relying on special effects to get the bulky bastard flying over rooftops and into Claudine Auger's heart. That wasn't a jet pack, though; the Bell was a rocket pack. What's the difference? A jet uses atmospheric air, a rocket contains its own fuel that is expelled as a propellant gas, a distinction without much a difference especially as the rocket blast comes out of jet nozzles.

Popular Science, December 1958

Worse, the term jet pack was already in use. It seems backward to us, but jets came later than rockets, which had been around since 1920, and the burgeoning use of jets in commercial air fleets made them cool and hip and a buzzword that drove sales. Air France, e.g., offered Jet Packs, bundled vacations through Europe. Every other industry wanted to be associated with jets. You could buy a jet pack for your lawn mower - a bag to catch the clippings. Cadillac - the boat company, not the car maker - sold a 35 HP outboard motor with jet pack for boost. Scott's Grocery of Delphos, Ohio, advertised a 50 lb bag of potatoes and called it the "Bud Jet Pack," apparently code to be read by a midwestern Soviet mole. In the ultimate indignity, Schmidt's Discount Department Store in Oshkosh, WI, sold a "Speed Jet Pack" of 30 pencils for 80 cents. And Jet Pack returned $9.00 when it won the second race at Gulfstream Park on April 7, 1961. (Don't go back in time and start putting down money. Jet Pack ran out of the money on March 20, 1962, the same day that the speedier-sounding Atomic Jet did the same.

All right, rocket belt then. Who first dangled a rocket belt before an unsuspecting public's crazed libido? That's harder than it looks to answer, because the canonically accepted date is dead wrong. Look up any account of rocket belt history and you'll find a picture of the cover of the August 1928 Amazing Stories. Rocket belt, right? Sorry, no. The image is from "The Skylark of Space," the first story written by E. E. "Doc" Smith, in collaboration with Lee Hawkins Garb. All-American clean-cut genius and hero chemist Richard Seaton (did I mention that Smith's doctorate was in chemistry?) discovers Element X, which has near-magical anti-gravity properties. That joystick that Seaton holds isn't a controller; the glowing part is the radioactive metal that's lifting him. So powerful is Element X that Seaton whips up a faster-than-light ship in a trice, which he names the Skylark and sets off to derring-do the spacelanes.

Amazing Stories, December 1928, cover art by Frank R. Paul

In the sort of coincidence that no one would accept in fiction, that same issue of Amazing saw a second institution of the field make his first-ever appearance, and use a nearly-identical flying belt. Philip Francis Nowlan dropped a humdinger titled "Armageddon 2419 AD," the adventures of one Anthony Rogers, who falls into suspended animation and wakes in the Mongol-conquered America of the future. He quickly encounters the lovely lady soldier Wilma Deering, who can jump 40 feet at a time when wearing her belt made from inerton, “a synthetic element, built up, through a complicated heterodyning of ultronic pulsations, from 'infra-balanced' sub-ionic forms.” The tunable inerton field reduces weight to a couple of pounds, allowing wearers to bound through treetops as if on a low-gravity alien planet. Cool, but also essentially anti-gravity.

 

If the names sound vaguely familiar, you're probably remembering the comic strip, the Big Little Books, the movie serials, the radio show, and the zillions of toys and promotional items all featuring the renamed and far more memorable "Buck" Rogers and his gal pal Wilma. An instant smash, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. comic strip debuted on January 7, 1929, a faithful adaptation of the novelette, meaning that Buck and Wilma stuck to their anti-gravity jumping belts.

 

Somewhere in the 1930s, Dick Calkins, illustrator of the comic strip and all the associational materials, gave in and started making Buck's jumping belt into a rocket belt. The date is lost somewhere in the hundreds of daily strips that followed. Then the deluge. Cream of Wheat boxes in 1936 told the lucky boys and girls of America that they could become one of Buck Rogers' Solar Scouts, the "Secret Club of the Radio Friends of Buck and Wilma." The 16-page manual of premiums has a soaring Buck on the cover, unquestionably held aloft by the soaring puffs from the twin rocket engines strapped on his manly back. By sending in green triangles cut from the tops of the packages, along with a few measly old-fashioned 20th century coins, boys could get a Space Ship That Flies!, an Official Solar Scout Knife!, A Disintegrator Pistol!, or even a full Official Solar Scout Uniform! And girls could get a Wilma Deering Pendant and Chain!

 

The rocket belt sat on Buck's back ever after, a symbol of an exciting future so exclusive that Solar Scouts couldn't even share in it. There it is again, along with his disintegrator pistol on 1939's Official Enlistment Papers for the Solar Scouts - Earth Division. In addition to asking for the applicant's Favorite Newspaper Adventure Strip - a push poll if ever there were one - a space is left to fill in Previous Rocket Ship experience, if any. I think that more than any relic from the 1930s I would love to see the answers to that question.

 

EK

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