Episode 68: Stephen H Smith – India’s forgotten rocketeer

On 25th May 2012 the privately funded company, SpaceX used a rocket to transport supplies from the surface of the Earth to the International Space Station 400km above. Although completely incomparable in scope, the first ever delivery of supplies using rocket power took place 77 years earlier in India. The delivery of first aid materials and even the transport of living beings entirely by rocket power was demonstrated by practical experiment in 1935. Now almost forgotten, these experiments were conducted by a Calcutta based Anglo Indian called Stephen Hector Taylor-smith, usually abbreviated to Stephen H Smith.

Stephen Smith Credit Superior Galaries

Stephen H Smith Photo: Superior Galaries

Smith launched almost 300 rockets between 1934 and 1945 working mostly unfunded and primarily alone. At 15:35 on April 10th 1935, Smith used a rocket to deliver a parcel containing 12 items including a packet of tea, sugar, spoon, toothbrush and cigarettes about a kilometre across a river. In the aftermath of a devastating earthquake, he illustrated the advantages of rocket powered transport to cover difficult terrain quickly. On 6th June 1935, he successfully launched a  small consignment of first aid material consisting of rolls of bandages, lint, iodine and aspirin over the river Rupnarayan  in west Bengal.

Smith’s 65th rocket launch conducted on the morning of the 29th June 1935 was unique in its cargo and ambition. He demonstrated that living beings and not just inanimate objects could be transported by rockets. In a record making flight, rocket power was used to transport a hen and a cock about 1km across a river. Smith had added stabilising fins, cut almond shaped holes for ventilation and built shock absorbing properties in to the rocket design. The rocket did not employ a parachute, the soft sandy bank was critical and even to Smith’s surprise the hen and cock survived. Both flourished for at least 18 months in a private zoo in Calcutta (today known as  Kolkata).

During the early 20th century, the story of rocket development is told through the cumulative contributions of  iconic names such as Herman Oberth, Wernher von Braun, Sergei Korolev and Robert Goddard. Smith’s contribution cannot be compared to their work but his work was not insignificant and has been mostly forgotten.

Smith was not a trained scientist or engineer. Eventually he tested different types of rocket fuels, fins for attitude control and even designed a rocket to carry a camera to capture aerial images. Initially he was doing not much more than lighting the blue touch-paper of a traditional firework and then standing back. But he was a man of vision and conducted numerous practical experiments to understand and promulgate the potential of rocket power as a mechanism for transport.

Not much is known about his personal life. Smith was born in 1891 in Shillong, Assam. He was an Anglo Indian, a group of people with british lineage and officially recognised in the Indian constitution.  His father William Batt Smith was also born in Assam. He attended St Patrick’s Boys School in Asansol in West Bengal established originally by the Christian Brothers from Southern Ireland.  It was a school for Anglo Indian boys that he joined in 1903, the same year that the Wright brothers successfully demonstrated flight in an aeroplane.

The first aeroplanes to fly in India, did so relatively close to Asansol. On January 6th 1911, during Smith’s final year at school,  more than 750, 000 people gathered at the Calcutta racecourse to witness first hand the magic of man-made flying machines. Smith must have known about the event, he was probably amongst the huge crowd. In the following month, on 18th February 1911 with a formal sanction from the Indian Postal Service, the world’s first official airmail consisting of about 6000 cards and letters was flown from Allahabad to the town of Naini ten kilometres away. It is possible that this experience ignited an interest in aviation, airmail and eventually rockets that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The First World War had accelerated the development of aviation in the same way that the Second World War did for rocketry. In the early 1920’s, India saw the introduction of aerial transport of cargo, regular airmail and scheduled passenger flights. Smith took an interest in tracking and recording developments in airmail just as steam engine locomotives had attracted enthusiasts in the past and as spaceflight does today.

Pigeongram addressed to Stephen Smith’s home address  Photo: Grosvenorauctions

A global revolution was taking place in ariel transport just when Smith was starting out on his adult life. He had already been involved in Pigeon mail when the potential for airmail arrived. In the early 1930s it was unclear then what form of transport would triumph in the near future airships, aeroplanes or rockets. The first airmail service from Britain to India was conducted by Imperial Airways. The flight left Croydon airport on 30th March 1929 arriving in Karachi on 6th April. On the return flight on the following day, Smith sent a letter to the King at Buckingham Palace in London. The King’s Private Secretary responded on 19th April on behalf of the King “to thank Mr Stephen H. Smith for the letter which he sent to his Majesty by the first flight from India to Great Britain”.

Philately was Smith’s primary preoccupation throughout his adult life. During the 1920s he founded the Calcutta Philatelic Club and the Aero Philatelic Club of India (which changed its name to the Indian Airmail Society on 19th January 1930). Almost all of his rocket launches contained signed souvenir covers and specially designed rocket mail stamps.

Smith's Rocketgram stamps. There were 4 different colours, 2000 of each were printed.

Smith’s Rocketgram stamps. There were 4 different colours, 2000 of each were printed Photo: Gurbir Singh

For his first trip to Sikkim in April 1935, he sought and was granted permission to print rocket gram stamps in four different colours. Two thousand of each colour were printed. His rocket launches received international press coverage. In July, Smith received a request in writing (via the King of Sikkim) from a Mr A. W. Macintyre from New Jersey in USA. He sought covers from each of Smith’s seven rocket flights.  These flown covers were highly sought after by collectors then and are still today.

Smith hand drawn map from his book

Smith hand drawn map from his book – Credit: Stephen H Smith

In addition to the regular newsletters for the Indian Airmail Society, Smith wrote “Indian Airways”, a work in three volumes detailing the first and special flights within and through India up to March 1930. In 1927, he authored a small book, “The World Flyer’s Danger Zone” covering the hazards of mail flights south east from Calcutta across the Bay of Bengal to Burma and Thailand. He dedicated the book and its proceeds to the widow of Arthur B Elliott who was killed on July 4th 1926. Smith had met Elliott personally in 1925.

By early 1930s rocket mail experiments were being conducted in America, Europe and Australia. Smith was the only one launching rockets in India. He experimented with rockets launches from ship to shore, shore to ship, at night time, across rough terrain and across rivers.

Smith recorded information about his flights, including sketches in his diary and took many pictures. The rockets were launched at a variety of angles, 30, 45 even 80 degrees.  He recorded details of the wind speed and direction and the distance the rocket covered for every launch. He does not appear to have used any instruments to measure altitude, distance or speed so the measurements are likely to have been qualitative rather than quantitative. His largest rocket weighed about 7kg with a total length of around 2m. The payload was typically about half a kilogram but larger rockets were capable of carrying a kilogram.

In February 1936, Smith joined the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) that had been founded in Liverpool three years earlier. He was probably the BIS’s first member from India. The BIS was one of many societies around the world established to promote the development of rocket technology and its application for space travel. Through the BIS’s bulletin and journal which reflected the contribution of its international membership, Smith would have been aware of the technological developments in rocketry worldwide but there is no evidence of how much of what he learnt he put in to practice in his own experiments.

After the start of the Second World War, Smith appears to reduce the details he recorded and published on his rocket experiments. In 1940, he attempted two rocket launches carrying brownie cameras with an intension to take aerial pictures. Neither succeeded. By December 1944, still based in Calcutta, Smith was experimenting with compressed air and compressed gas instead of traditional solid fuel as a means of rocket propulsion.

King of Sikkim with one of Smith's rockets

King of Sikkim with one of Smith’s rockets Credit: From the diary of Stephen H Smith

Despite his pioneering work with rockets he probably did not accomplish his ambitions. He visited the kingdom of Sikkim twice in 1935 to conduct his rocket experiments. On the second time he took his wife and son with him. The king of Sikkim not only supported Smith’s work but actively participated in his experiments by personally igniting some of the rockets. On April 11th 1935, following a successful firing of his rocket number fifty four, a certificate was awarded to him in the presence of the king. This formal recognition was “certifying the utility of the rocket as a means of transport during floods and landslips”. Smith wanted to realise the potential of rocket power for transport for mail and materials just as he was witnessing aeroplanes doing so in his time. His  limited skills and resources prevented him from making significant advances. In 1992, a year after the centenary of his birth the Indian government celebrated his achievements by issuing a stamp and first day cover dedicated to him and his work.

Commemorative stamp 1992 - Credit: Philately World

Commemorative stamp 1992 Credit: Philately World

Not much is known of his personal life. After leaving school, Smith worked briefly at the customs department in Calcutta before joining the Calcutta police force as a Round Sergeant on 18th March 1913 on a salary of 100 rupees per month. Whilst with the police, he successfully completed his training as a dentist. His time with the Calcutta police was otherwise uneventful and he resigned on the 4th December 1914. It was as a dentist that he served in the First World War after which he continued in this profession with a private dental practice based at his home address, on 25A Elliot Road in Calcutta.

He married Fay Harcourt in 1918, most probably another Anglo Indian that he had known at least since 1913. They had one son Hector, who did not share his father’s interests. Smith died in 1951 and his wife in 1985 and both are buried in Kolkata. His son Hector married and had a son whose name is not known and daughter, Gloria. The son grew up with learning disability and was sent to an institution. Hector with his wife and daughter Gloria emigrated to Britain. hector died fairly soon after arrival in Britain. Eventually Gloria too got married and had a daughter called Lucy. As Smith’s only living decedent, Lucy may be living somewhere in Britain today.

Smith's house in Kolkata - 2014

Smith’s house in Kolkata – 2014 Photo: Gurbir Singh

The following clip is an interview with Mr Melvyn Brown. An anglo Indian who writes on Anglo Indian topics, he lives on Elliot Road in Kolkata, a short walking distance from where Smith lived. He never met Stephen Smith but near the end of this short interviews, he recalls his meeting with Smith’s son Hector.



Audio –



  1. Walter M. Hopferwieser says:

    I wish you a good day.
    I am writing a catalogue on pioneer rocket mail and space mail.
    Do you know: Did mail-rocket piomeer Stephen H.mSmith die in Calcutta? What was the reason of his death?
    Thank you very much in advance to your help!
    With kind regards,

  2. Following a conversation with Professor Rajesh Kochhar (historian from India) during a conference in London in June 2016. Following a series of leads, I eventually tracked down Stephen Smith’s family living in East London. Although Smith’s son Hector died many years ago, Hectors wife, now in her 90s, shares a family house with her daughter (Gloria) and grand daughter (Lucy).

    Gloria tells me that her Grandfather is not an Anglo Indian. His father Charles William Bath Taylor from Lincoln had travelled to Assam to work as the Superintendent of the Hoolingurie Tea Estate.His mother, Arabella was the daughter of an English tea planter.

    She also said that her father, Hector had destroyed all of his fathers papers and materials associated with his rocket experiments, soon after Stephen Smith died.

Speak Your Mind