Great Engineers & Scientists Blog

Great Engineers & Scientists

In 1676, Sir Isaac Newton wrote "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants." In this blog, we take Newton's words to heart, and recognize the many great engineers and scientists upon whose shoulders we stand.

So who do you think of when you hear "Great Engineer"? Let us know! Submit a few paragraphs about that person and we'll add him or her to the pantheon. Please provide a citation for the material that you submit so that we can verify it. Please note - it has to be original material. We cannot publish copywritten material or bulk text taken from books or other sites (including Wikipedia).

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William H. Pickering: Rocket Scientist (Part 1)

Posted December 14, 2007 12:01 AM

William H. Pickering was an electrical engineer who directed the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) from 1954 to 1976. Under Pickering's leadership, JPL developed America's first satellite (Explorer I) and the first U.S. space probe to escape Earth's gravity (Pioneer IV). Pickering also played an important role in NASA's Mariner flights to Mars and Venus, the Ranger missions to the moon, and the Surveyor lunar landings.

Early Life

William Hayward Pickering was born in Mount Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand on December 24, 1910. After his mother died when he was six years old, young William was sent to live with his grandparents in Havelock. While his father, a pharmacist, left New Zealand to build a new life, William H. Pickering attended the old primary school of Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. Later, Pickering enrolled at Wellington College, a secondary school in Mount Victoria. There, he was inspired by a mathematics instructor who founded the school's observatory and encouraged Pickering to look skyward. At Wellington, Pickering also developed an interest in radio signals, using Morse code to communicate with other radio operators around the world.

From Canterbury College to Caltech

After high school, William H. Pickering enrolled at historic Canterbury College (now the University of Canterbury) in Christchurch, New Zealand. He completed one year of study there before an uncle who had lived in California encouraged him to apply to Caltech, a new school in Pasadena with a strong reputation in science and engineering. At Caltech, Pickering earned a Bachelor's degree (1932) and Master's degree (1933) in electrical engineering. He also received a Ph.D. in physics in 1936 before joining the Caltech faculty as an instructor in electrical engineering. Put in charge of the school's radio and electronics program, Pickering was also appointed to the Scientific Advisory Board of the U.S. Army Air Corps, forerunner to the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF).

Jets, Ramjets, and Rockets

During World War II, William H. Pickering joined Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a new aeronautical research facility that would later play a large part in America's space program. Although JPL began with the word "jet", scientists of the mid-1940s often referred to rockets as "jets" or "ramjets". In his part-time role with JPL, Pickering led wartime efforts in telemetry and electronics. He also participated in studies of Nazi Germany's V2 rocket, the world's first ballistic missile. After the war, Pickering went to work for JPL full-time as project manager for Corporal, the first operational missile developed by the California-based laboratory, and the first U.S. guided weapon to carry a nuclear warhead.

The Sputnik Crisis

In 1954, William Pickering was named director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. A year later, the United States and the Soviet Union declared their intentions to develop satellites, a move that would send the Cold War into outer space. In the fall of 1957, the U.S.S.R. alarmed Western observers with the success of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2. In response, the U.S. National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) – the forerunner to NASA - established a Special Committee on Space Technology, naming named Pickering to the 16-member group. Back at JPL, Pickering re-doubled his efforts with the Explorer program, the U.S. response to the Soviet Union's success. Although a test launch of December 7, 1957 ended in disaster, Explorer 1 was successfully launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on January 31, 1958 – less than four months after Sputnik.

Editor's Note: Part 2 of this biography will run later this month, right here on CR4.



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