I can't remember where I first came across it, but I know that I read at least one old SF story as a child which referred to "rocket tubes". I'm not asking for story identification. I know there were many stories that used the concept. I can tell this even without reading many such stories, because 1930s-50s SF pulp cover art (among other things) frequently depicts spaceships with clusters of tubular engines. Example of them being explicitly "tubes".

This doesn't match the real appearance of rocket nozzles. Where did this concept come from?

What exactly am I looking for? My assumption was that there was an influence other than those early examples of clustered solid rockets, and that influence was part of what I was looking for. That said, there was another aspect I was looking for.

I want to find the earliest appearance of this design in SF art or film, and the earliest appearance in written SF of rockets (not solid fuel) described as 'tubes'. It could be telling whether it appears first in writing or art.

  • 1
    – Valorum
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 20:16
  • 1
    – Joe L.
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 20:29
  • The idea of a rocket being more than a simple tube goes back at least to the 1500's ( Conrad Haas (1509–1576) described bell-shaped nozzles.)
    – Joe L.
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 21:02
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    @Tristan Klassen: Can you clarify exactly what you're asking about? Are you looking specifically for SFF works that use the term "Rocket Tube", or are you looking for where the idea of a rocket as a simple tube filled with some kind of propellent came from?
    – Joe L.
    Commented Mar 11, 2015 at 22:49
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    This reference (spaceline.org/history/3.html) indicates clusters of rockets were used as early as 1928. In time for depicting in early movies (e.g. Flash Gordon). However, this may have just been an artistic preference having no relation to real engine designs.
    – Jim2B
    Commented Mar 12, 2015 at 14:31

3 Answers 3


From a design perspective, a single larger engine is more efficient (better thrust to weight) but for a quick and dirty build, it's easier to just take a smaller existing engine off the shelf and cluster them to get the desired thrust / performance.

Rocket Tubes
Rocket Tubes

This reference, History of Rocketry, indicates clusters of rockets were used as early as 1928. In time for depicting in early movies (e.g. Flash Gordon).

German automobile manufacturer Fritz von Opel tested his Opel-Rak I, the first rocket-powered automobile, in 1928. Opel-Rak I was an experimental modified racing car powered by a battery of Sander solid-propellant rockets used for life-line rescues at sea.

The final version of the Opel-Rak I employed 12 Sander rockets, after initial test runs using clusters of six and eight Sander rockets were completed. Although only seven of the 12 Sander rockets actually fired when the car was tested on April 12, 1928, the Opel-Rak I reached a maximum speed of 70 m.p.h.

However, clustered rocket engines frequently look nothing like the tube clusters shown in early movies. So the rocket tubes depicted may have just been an artistic preference having no relation to real engine designs.

Rocket Motor Clusters Rocket Motor Clusters


All rockets have nozzles but in the case of the rocket-tubes, these nozzles are internal. This design is still used for many types of model solid fuel rocket engines. However, in the case of most modern nozzles, they are external because they are also used for directing the rocket and therefore they must be orientable.

In the case of your example with the "Comet" from the Captain Futur novels, this vessel has lateral rocket tubes for directing the appareil and therefore doesn't need to have external orientable nozzles.


Here's a fairly early example from "The Sargasso of Space" by Edmond Hamilton, originally published in Astounding Stories, September 1931, available as a Project Gutenberg etext:

"We left Jupiter with full tanks, more than enough fuel to take us to Neptune. But the leaks in the starboard tanks lost us half our supply, and we had used the other half before discovering that. Since the ship's rocket-tubes cannot operate without fuel, we are simply drifting. We would drift on to Neptune if the attraction of Uranus were not pulling us to the right. That attraction alters our course so that in three ship-days we shall drift into the dead-area."

[. . .]

Their ship floated at the wreck-pack's edge. Directly to its right floated a sleek, shining Uranus-Jupiter passenger-ship whose bows had been smashed in by a meteor. On their left bobbed an unmarked freighter of the old type with projecting rocket-tubes, apparently intact. Beyond them in the wreck-pack lay another Uranus craft, a freighter, and, beyond it, stretched the countless other wrecks.

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