Prankster or visionary? Curator Joanna looks at Rocket Mail inventor and his early experiments.
In the 1930s, Gerhard Zucker experimented with rockets, claiming missiles could be the future of mail delivery. But was he a visionary pioneer or a self-promoting prankster, profiting from the sale of philatelic curiosities?
Throughout the 1930s, a number of scientists experimented with transporting mail by rocket at extreme altitude. Gerhard Zucker’s first experiments, for Nazi officials, in the early 1930s were not successful. In 1934 he travelled to the London Air Post Exhibition and met C. H. Dombrowski, a stamp dealer and fellow German. Together they forged the British Rocket Syndicate. In the following months, the Syndicate embarked on a series of demonstrations across the British Isles.
This little recorded experiment took place just outside London, shortly after the Air Post Exhibition. Three witnesses, including a journalist and a businessman, watched Zucker set up an ‘aluminium cartridge propelled by a rocket’. Zucker fired the rocket from a launching rack and ‘when the rocket had exhausted its energy a parachute floated the mail bag down to earth’.
Second Demonstration: 6 June 1934, Rottingdean, Sussex
Zucker loaded letters into his rocket, bearing special stamps sold by The British Rocket Syndicate. Contemporary reports state that the rocket carried ‘upwards of 3000 letters.’ However, the rocket didn’t really deliver any mail. The rocket shot into the air and returned to earth. The letters were retrieved, taken to the Post Office, and delivered by Brighton postal staff.
Third and Fourth Demonstrations: July 1934, Outer Hebrides
In July 1934 Zucker travelled to the Outer Hebrides, claiming that his rockets could provide a vital communication link between the islands and the mainland. He even claimed that his rockets could transport medical supplies. Zucker performed two demonstrations at the Outer Hebrides. Both were failures.
On 28 July 1934, Zucker attempted to fire a rocket from Harris to the Island of Scarp, over The Sound. He sold special stamps for 2s 6d, bearing the words ‘Western Isles Rocket Post’. Zucker claimed that envelopes bearing Rocket Mail stamps from previous experiments were re-selling for 5 shillings.
Once fired, there was a ‘terrific explosion’ and the rocket crash landed. For public safety, the next demonstration was moved to Amhuinnsuidh Castle. On 31 July 1934, the rocket exploded ‘scattering mail’ like ‘confetti’. The Daily Record reported that the ‘fiasco’ resulted in mail ‘scorched and blackened with smoke’. According to the article, Zucker fainted following the disaster.
Mr MacPherson, Head Postmaster of Lochmaddy, described the ‘dangerous’, ‘haphazard’ failure he witnessed. MacPherson explained that Zucker could give ‘no guarantee that rockets would be undamaged’ during flight, nor could he offer a breakdown of what the technology cost to run.
Fifth Demonstration: 5 December 1934, Lymington, Hants
Apparently undeterred by the failure, Zucker began promoting his next ambitious scheme: to send mail from the mainland to the Isle of Wight. The British Rocket Syndicate overprinted the stamps from the Outer Hebrides demonstration with the words ‘Isle of White First Flight’.
However, this time the envelopes did not contain any actual post, following a warning from the General Post Office that the Rocket Mail stamps infringed the Postmaster General’s monopoly. Once launched, the rocket went off course, travelled about 1.5 miles in the wrong direction, and landed in Pennington Marshes.
The risk to public safety
The Home Office informed the GPO, by letter on 5 January 1935, that attempts had been made to stop Zucker’s Isle of Wight experiment. Flouting the Home Office’s directive, the Syndicate ‘defied us and fired their rocket.’ The Home Office chastised the GPO for giving permission for ‘certain labels to be placed on the envelopes’ and stated that the presence of Postmasters of Lymington and Newport at the demonstrations had given ‘official encouragement’ to the trials.
The Director of Public Prosecutions interviewed Zucker and Dombrowski, warning them of ‘criminal proceedings… should they carry out the experiments’. The demonstrations were dangerous and Zucker was reckless with health and safety, claiming to have been arrested for leaving gunpowder in a railway station cloakroom. There are reports that Zucker was later imprisoned for manslaughter after witnesses were killed during a demonstration.
Even before the Isle of Wight demonstration took place, Zucker promoted the future expansion of his work in the press: touting a Dover to Calais route as the next venture. He told reporters that he would ‘then go to Holland, Switzerland, and America’. The General Post Office received enquiries from Post Offices in Europe about these plans, but the GPO responded that they were not involved with the experiments. Dover postal officials were instructed to give no official support to the ‘performance’.
Zucker claimed that ‘negotiations were carried out with the Post Office on my behalf’, however, there is no record of any correspondence. The GPO informed the Home Office in January 1935 that ‘the scientific development of rocket conveyance is of less importance to Herr Zucker and Herr Dombrowsky that the manufacture of philatelic curiosities.’
Explore other unusual and even bizarre methods or delivering mail in our Discovery Room.
– Joanna Espin, Curator