"The ages live in history," Oscar Wilde once wrote, "through their anachronism."
Seeing something that at first seems out of place in its epoch, like "ROCKET" emblazoned on the heavily-riveted iron boiler of this early 19th century British locomotive, can cause you to pause and wonder.
The Rocket was built by a father and son team, George and Robert Stephenson, in 1829—built for speed, briefly achieving a jaw-dropping 36 miles per hour at the Rainhill Trials that year, causing it to be picked as the design for the Liverpool & Manchester Railroad, beating three other contenders, including John Ericsson, who would go on to design the first ironclad warship, the USS Monitor, for the Union navy in the Civil War.
When I saw the vehicle, on display at the Science Museum in London*, for a moment I pondered if we got our word "Rocket" from this train engine.
But I immediately realized that the word was already in use, 15 years earlier, when Francis Scott Key wrote "The Defence of Fort McHenry," the poem that would become the Star Spangled Banner: "And the Rockets' red glare, the Bombs bursting in air..."
Rockets were used in battle far earlier than we might think. The Congreve rocket was used effectively in the Napoleonic wars, though they were not particularly accurate when it came to hitting targets.
They worked better as fireworks. The definition of "rocket" from Samuel Johnson's magnificent 1755 dictionary doesn't mention military use, but describes a rocket only as: "An artificial firework, being a cylindrical case of paper filled with nitre, charcoal and sulfur, and which mounts in the air to a considerable height, and then bursts."
(The British Museum)
"[Rocchetto, Italian]"** and leaves it at that, which is shame, because if you dig deeper you find quite a tale: rocchetto is a diminutive for rocca, which is Italian for "distaff."
A distaff is spindle that wool is wound on during spinning—though if the word rings a bell, it's probably not from making yarn, but because in more recent decades the word lingered as a code to describe the realm of women, a tad condescendingly. "With all her distaff classmates mooning nightly by their phones for a call from one jock or another..." Frederick Exley writes in the late 1970s in Last Notes from Home.
|From a 1634 British book |
"composing all manner of fire-works
or Triumph and Recreation."
But it's pleasing to imagine the plant came first. There's a joy in finding low-tech origins hidden in modern words. One of the more unexpected words in Johnson's dictionary is "computer" which, in the mid-1700s was a person, a "reckoner, accountant, calculator." Before picking apart "rocket"—to idle away the time before dinner on a Saturday—my favorite example of this was "dashboard," which Mr. Garman, my cagey 7th grade English teacher, once used to bore the rest of our class at Roehm Junior High School and fascinate me, lodging in my mind for 40 years.
Think about it. The control panel of an automobile is called a dashboard. Why would that be? What is dashing? The reason it's called that is when cars were still buggies pulled by horses, there was a low, angled board at foot level to keep horses from flinging mud up on the driver as they dashed. When newfangled automobiles were rolled out, the name carried over because it was in roughly the same location, even though the original use was gone.
Cars are filled with anachronisms—the "trunk" of course harkens back to the era when a large suitcase was strapped to the back, the "glove compartment" on the passenger time to when that passenger was often a lady a lady invariably wore gloves.
I think that's what Wilde meant when he commented on anachronism making history live. It is a thread that connects us today with the people of the past. The next time you read of the latest rocket boosting a satellite into space***, or hurling robot explorers toward some distant planet, think back on those Italian wives and sisters and mothers, working flax methodically around their roccos, perhaps gazing out a window at the stars.
*To visit the Science Museum in London, and see how well the Brits do this kind of thing, is to forever cringe in shame at the corporate puffery and Hollywood junk foisted on the public by the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
** Anyone familiar with how Samuel Johnson constructed his dictionary knows that there was a lot of guesswork involved, so the connection between "rocket" and "rocchetto" could be more whimsical than real. If you consult Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, he offers a completely different etymology for "rocket"as "probably from the root of crack and racket." Although Webster's sounds more like the hunch of a man who didn't know Italian, and I would place my bets on Johnson.
*** A "rocket" has been an engine thrusting a missile into space for nearly a century, since inventor and physicist Robert Goddard began using the term. "It is possible to convert the rocket from a very inefficient heat engine into the most efficient heat engine that ever has been devised," he wrote, in 1919.