For­got­ten tale of Rocket Post

Back in the 1930s, a Ger­man sci­en­tist made an au­da­cious at­tempt to mod­ernise the Outer He­brides postal ser­vice by send­ing let­ters by rocket across the Scarp Sound to Hushin­ish on Har­ris. Rus­sell Lead­bet­ter hears the amaz­ing story from the di­rec­tor of a ne

Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS -

THE Western Isles are re­plete with leg­ends, and one of the most colour­ful in­volves an au­da­cious at­tempt to mod­ernise the He­bridean mail ser­vice us­ing rocket power. Glas­gow-based theatre-maker Lewis Hether­ing­ton was on hol­i­day in Har­ris visit­ing rel­a­tives when he first heard about Ger­hard Zucker, the long-dead Ger­man sci­en­tist who started it all. “I can’t pin­point the ex­act mo­ment,” says Hether­ing­ton. “At some point I heard about the story, and I think I read it quite quickly in a guide­book. It seemed like a lit­tle side-note, along the lines of, ‘Oh, an ec­cen­tric sci­en­tist’. But I al­ways thought that there must be more to him.

“So I read it, and thought it was in­ter­est­ing, but then it just kept com­ing back to me, over and over again. The more I thought about it, the more in­ter­ested I be­came, and I thought for Zucker it was not a side-note: it was his life, his whole vi­sion, and I started to look into the man who had been writ­ten off as a silly, ec­cen­tric sci­en­tist.”

Zucker’s ex­per­i­ments with send­ing mail by rock­ets, back in the 1930s, didn’t amount to much, sadly, but they have lin­gered in the imag­i­na­tion. He has in­spired a film, The Rocket Post – and, now, the lat­est theatre project by Hether­ing­ton. Called Rocket Post, the Na­tional Theatre of Scot­land pro­duc­tion opens at An Lan­ntair, in Stornoway, on Septem­ber 23, fol­low­ing a brief preview at Glas­gow’s Plat­form. It will then go on an ex­ten­sive tour of Scot­land.

So what was it about Zucker’s work that has led to a new stage play for fam­i­lies, more than 80 years on?

On June 7, 1934, The Glas­gow Her­ald, re­ported that the young in­ven­tor had car­ried out his first rocket-mail ex­per­i­ment on the Sus­sex Downs, the pre­vi­ous day. “Be­yond the fact that the tests proved suc­cess­ful – that was ad­mit­ted by one of the spec­ta­tors,” the pa­per re­ported, “noth­ing is known as the whole process is veiled in secrecy.”

Zucker is said to have been drawn to the Outer He­brides for his next at­tempt by news sto­ries re­lated to the trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence of a woman on the tiny island of Scarp, which is sit­u­ated to the west of Har­ris. In labour but un­able to sum­mon a doc­tor from main­land Har­ris be­cause of bad weather, she gave birth on Scarp then en­dured a hazardous jour­ney by row­ing boat, horse and cart then bus to Stornoway on Lewis, where her se­cond twin was born the fol­low­ing day. The story made news­pa­per head­lines, ques­tions were asked in Par­lia­ment – and it’s be­lieved this scan­dal helped per­suade the gov­ern­ment to fund Zucker’s tri­als.

Thus, on the last Satur­day of July 1934, Zucker, watched by dig­ni­taries in­clud­ing two MPs, at­tempted to send a rocket laden with parcels from Scarp across the Sound to Hushin­ish on Har­ris, half a mile away. More than 4,000 let­ters, ac­cord­ing to the Her­ald, had been amassed for the ex­per­i­ment; four were ad­dressed to the King and sev­eral oth­ers to the Prime Min­is­ter, Ram­say Mac­Don­ald and mem­bers of the gov­ern­ment.

Re­ported the Her­ald: “In­stead of the rocket shoot­ing over the Sound of Scarpa there was a dull ex­plo­sion, and when

Pho­to­graph: Mu­seum nan Eilean

Disas­ter strikes Ger­hard Zucker’s Rocket Post ex­periement, leav­ing the let­ters singed and dam­aged

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