This is part of an article originally printed is the catalogue of the Nederland National Philatelic Exhibition 1990. Written by Bert van Eijck and translated for Orbit by Charles Bromser.
Over seventy years ago, a hand full of people with some technical skills in Europe and abroad, independently, were developing a rocket that would be faster than airplanes. Some pioneers had financial backing but most of them had to foot the bills themselves. The way to defray some of these expenses was to add some souvenir covers to the test flights and sell these to enthusiasts after the flight. Thus Rocket Mail was born.
During the thirties, the rockets were made with metal skins, usually cylindrical and filled with solid or liquid fuel, which was ignited with the aid of a wick or electric spark. Some rocket skins were cardboard, hence they were more like special firework sky-rockets than rockets as such. The “Spacecraft” developed its speed from the reaction force of the exhaust gasses and in this manner achieved speeds of 2 — 4 km per second.
The mail was usually contained in a separate asbestos compartment in the nose of the rocket or attached to the side of the rocket. The rocket landed safely by means of a parachute located in the nose, which became deployed when the rocket lost altitude. The Austrian engineer Friedrich Schmiedl fired the world’s first postal rocket on 2nd February 1931. He also developed a two stage rocket and initially received the co-operation of the Austrian Postal authorities.
Schmiedl developed the idea of a postal rocket during WW1. The population of Przemysl in Poland, who were under siege by Russian troops tried to send messages into unoccupied territory by means of primitive paper balloons. This tailed since nearly all the balloons fell into Russian hands. A rocket, even a simple one, would carry the mail thought Schmiedl at the time. This idea remained with him. Ten years later he had made enough preparations to take the World into the realms of rocket mail.
In the summer of 1928, Schmiedl released a stratosphere balloon, at a height of 16 to 18km, instruments registered air pressure and wind velocity. It also carried 200 numbered lightweight covers, which had a triangular vignette applied. On the vignette were printed a picture of a balloon and “Hochflugpost 3 Groschen”. The covers were addressed to friends and acquaintances and had a 25g stamp applied. Both the stamp and the vignette were postmarked at the Graz Post Office (June 10, 1928) and then dispatched.
Today the covers are scarce and cost about $500 at auction. The covers carried on his six experimental flights (V1 -V6) are very scarce, since only 15 — 19 were produced. On 2nd February 1931, Schmiedl launched the first Rocket Mail. On this flight (V7), 102 covers and cards were flown from the top of Mount Schockel to the village of Radegund in the valley below. Only 57 item received the 10g stamp which had been numbered and inscribed by Schmiedl, which are now in such great demand by collectors.
The successful rocket flight of 1931 marked the start of a series of some 20 other flights though few Austrians showed much interest in these developments. Schmiedl improved after each new flight and produced the first rocket label on 9th September 1931. The Austrian Post Office remained skeptical but were prepared to produce pre-paid envelopes for Schmiedl’s V-14 flight. The Postal authorities even gave official sanction for the 27th December 1933 flight. Schmiedl kept on experimenting, even a two-stage rocket.
The mail in the first—stage would take off to fly on to its target. By the end of 1935, Schmiedl and the authorities had fallen out. Schmiedl was to cease his rocket experiments, Probably the authorities had become aware of the military significance of rockets, Just four years before WW2.
One of the 200 numbered covers flown in Schmiedl’s stratosphere balloon which reached a height of 10-11 Miles.