A new book provides a detailed account of the life and work of Stephen H Smith.
Now available. For discount codes and purchase options look here.
During 1934 and 1944 in Calcutta, he worked alone and unsupported on developing rocket transport. In 1935, he was the first to demonstrate the successful transport by a rocket of livestock, food and medicine.
The book charts the story of Stephen H Smith, described by a contemporary as “the greatest one-man campaign for rocketry”. He dedicated his life working alone in northeast India to develop a new revolutionary means of transport using rocket power.
The development of rockets in India is commonly understood to have ended with Tipu Sultan in 1799 and started again in 1963 with what is now called the Indian Space Research Organisation. However, in the intervening period, rockets were built, and championed by one man, working alone in Calcutta. In 1925 he set up the Indian Air Mail Society and it is amongst the philatelic community globally where his work is still known but is almost entirely forgotten from the popular imagination in India.
On 14 February 1891, Stephen H Smith, the only son of a tea plantation manager originally from Norfolk, England was born in the Strawberry Hill region of Shillong. Between 1934 and 1944, he conducted over 200 rocket experiments to demonstrate the utility of a rocket as a means of transport.
The 20th century was the harbinger for new revolutionary means of transport. Trains, airships, aeroplanes and automobiles were the key technologies fueling the developed nations. Mesmerised by aeroplanes as a child he engaged head-on with the new and transformative technology of rockets as an adult. In September 1934, he conducted his first rocket experiment to transport mail from a ship on the Hooghly River to the Sagar Island. In the decade that followed he conducted over 200 experiments. He built multi-staged rockets, and boomerang rockets and tested compressed air and gas as propellants. Like many early rocket mail experimenters, he supported his experiments financially by flying specially designed souvenir covers on his rockets. These flown items carrying his recognisable signature are spread around the world and even today can fetch up to $20,000 each.
Small self-funded groups to develop rockets were established in USSR, USA, Britain, Australia and Germany. It was from these groups that Sergei Korolev and Wernher von Braun emerged and competed in the epic space race that resulted in Sputnik, Gagarin and Apollo 11. Stephen H Smith was their contemporary but worked alone and unsupported in India. This book reveals the challenges faced by one man working alone at the forefront of new ground-breaking technology.
Long after he had died, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the American Airmail Society in 1989. In 1992, a year after the centenary of his birth, the Indian government celebrated his achievements by issuing a stamp and a first-day cover dedicated to his work. Today his work is found in official NASA publications, the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society and in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.
Smith’s work inspired a science fiction story during his lifetime. Human achievements in space – the Apollo programme, the International Space Station and India’s accomplishments including Mars Orbiter Mission at Mars and Chadrayaan on the Moon owe more than just inspiration to those early rocket pioneers during the early 1930s around the world including Stephen Smith in India.
A new study of his contacts with the King of Sikkim, with King George V, with a member of parliament in London and a 25 year-long correspondence with a Swiss philatelist reveal in his own words his struggle to attain recognition and support for his work. His reluctant attempt to work with the military authorities in India during World War II ended in frustration. His multiple attempts in 1949 to contact the Governor of Bengal and Prime Minister Nehru in the newly independent India failed to generate a response.
Stephen Smith lived and worked through some of the darkest periods of the 20th century, the Great Depression, World War Two, the Bengal Famine and the post-Indian Independence riots in Calcutta. In December 1950 his mentor and friend in Switzerland Dr Robert Paganini died leaving him, someone he had never spoken with or ever met, a part of his will. Sadly, Stephen Smith himself died two months later.
Stephane Cloutier says
Hi Gurbir, I have some personal correspondence and many covers / labels from Stephen H Smith regarding his rocket mail experiments. This is a new find which has just surfaced after having been tucked away for over 60 years. Please get in touch with me for further details.
Thank you for the information Stephane. Anyone interested in this new find, please see https://sparks-auctions.com/auction-32/pont-india-airmail/. The items are online here https://stampauctionnetwork.com//IK/ik32.cfm. The Mr. Pont material is lots 1502 to 1633, and the Rocket Mail material is lots 1587-1594.
Any queries please contact Stephane. He is based in Ottawa, Canada.
Stéphane Cloutier, FRPSC, FPHSC Director of Lotting & ConsignmentsSparks Auctions
1770 Woodward Drive, Suite 101
Ottawa, ON K2C 0P8
(613) 567-3336 tel | (613) 567-2972 fax
(844) 252-2032 toll-free email@example.com
Paul Fenton says
I notice a number of Rocketgrams were sent to Lady Rachel Ezra, Calcutta, some from the ship “David Ezra”. Can you enlighten me on the relationship between Smith and the Ezras?
Thank you in anticipation.
David Ezra was an influential member of pre-war Calcutta high society. He married Rachel Sassoon – another familiar name in the substantial jewish community in India until the formation of Israel in 1947. It was Rachel Sassoon who was the more active of the two in the philatelic community and member of the Indian Airmail society of which Smith was the secretary. David Ezra (no doubt at the request of his wife) made his house available for many of the Indian Airmail Society events.
In addition, through Rachel Sassoon Smith approached a British MP -Sir Philip Sassoon. He sought financial assistance for his Rocket Mail activities but none came.
Here is what I wrote about him on P112 & 113 in the book
“As an Anglo-Indian, Smith always saw himself as something of an outsider. Within the cosmopolitan Calcutta of the early twentieth century, he probably felt comfortable in the company of those from other countries who had chosen to make their home in India.
The Jewish community in India can be traced back to the earliest Jewish communities in Cochin about 2,000 years ago. But the Ezra’s belonged to a subsequent wave of immigrants known as the Baghdadi Jews. According to one archive in 1798, Shalom Cohen a Jewish jewel trader from Syria became the first Jew to settle in Calcutta. Over time many more came from the Middle East and a large numbers from
Baghdad established the community that came to be known as the Baghdadi Jews. They were traders actively exploiting the commercial
opportunities opened up by the British Empire.
Gradually the community grew and thrived in the opium, indigo and silk trades as well as in real estate. In the 1930s and 1940s, India experienced
further Jewish immigration of European Jews fleeing persecution by German Nazism. The Jewish community from Burma also relocated to
Calcutta as the Japanese army invaded Burma. Albert Einstein was offered the post of Vice Chancellor of Travancore University in Kerala but declined and went instead to Princeton in the USA.
The Jewish community in Calcutta was around 3,500 strong for most of the 20th century which had grown quickly to around 5,000 during World War Two. After the war many of the European Jews were keen to return to their former homes but most went to the new State of Israel once it was founded in 1948, the numbers dropped dramatically and in the 1991 census there were around 5,000 Jews in the whole of India. Stephen Smith served as the Indian Airmail Society’s secretary for most of the 1930s during which time he recorded the development of airmail in India in the society’s monthly bulletins.
These bulletins highlight his regular interactions with the Ezra family. David Ezra had come from a prominent Iraqi Jewish family and
married Rachel Sassoon daughter of another successful Jewish family.
Ezra was both a successful businessman and a real estate tycoon. is remembered for his philanthropy and served as a Director of the Reserve Bank of India, Sheriff of Calcutta, the President of the Asiatic Society in 1938 and established a private zoo at his home in Calcutta. His name is associated with many of Calcutta’s buildings – Esplanade Mansions, Chowringhee Mansions and has a street named after him. It was Lady Ezra who played a more active part in philately or aero-philately as it was just being established. She joined Smith’s Indian Airmail Society and became a philatelic collector. She frequently hosted the society’s meetings during the 1930s in their mansion on Kyd Street close to where Smith lived.