The Making of a Maker: A Tribute to the 1970 Estes Model Rocket Catalog

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The Making of a Maker: A Tribute to the 1970 Estes Model Rocket Catalog

Stefan Jones sent us this wonderful backstory on how he got involved in model rocketry. It really brought back memories for me because I was introduced to model rocketry through the same year’s Estes catalog and had a similar reaction. I’m sure many makers of our generation had similar experiences. -Gareth

I was set up to become a maker in the last hour on my last day of summer camp when I was eight years old. I was sitting on my duffel bag amidst a sea of duffels, killing time until my mother arrived to pick up me and a friend from school. The other, more athletic kids were across the road, getting in a last game of baseball. I spotted, on the ground between two bags, what looked like a paperback book with a winged spaceship on the cover. I picked it up. It was a catalog, not a book. I recognized the name — Estes Industries — from advertisements in the back of Boys’ Life. While I was a big fan of the then-roaring space program, I was also a big fan of MAD Magazine and thus primed to be very dubious of the claims in those ads. Build your own rockets? Multi-staging? Cameras? Yeah, sure.

My cynicism was cured by the time I’d reached page seven. Besides some gorgeous pictures of sleek rockets being built and flow by kids about my age, there were explanations, clearly written and accompanied by beautiful graphics, of how it all worked. These weren’t clunky plastic toys powered by vinegar and baking soda, or a rubber slingshot; they were actual rockets that ascended on a pillar of smoke and flame.

After the earnest introduction and assurances of the safety of the hobby, there was page after page of kit descriptions. Simple, elegant ones offered for beginners. Goofy models like a flying badminton shuttlecock and the Man In Space. Scale models of the Titan and Apollo spacecraft, plus others I’d never heard of. Fantasy spacecraft like the nuclear powered Trident, the Mars Lander, and the Orbital Transport. And cameras! You could buy a nosecone with a danged Super 8mm movie camera in it!

Then, the Technical Manual, a thirty-page guide to the hobby. It told you how to build a rocket, how to give it a nice finish, and how to get it ready to fly. There was a technical section explaining stability, and how multi-staging worked. There was a section on the parts of a rocket engine, how they operated, and how to pick the right one for your model. The line-art illustrations in the Manual were simple but gorgeous, copiously labeled and accompanied by clearly written blocks of text.

And after the Technical Manual, still more. Tables listing two dozen types of rocket motors. Parts to build rockets of your own design. And a treasure-trove of sci-tech wonders: Electrical gear, drafting supplies, hobby knife sets, tracking theodolites, scales and wind gauges, slide rules, and four pages of books, newsletter collections, and technical reports. It was baffling and wondrous. Imagine the thoughts of a farm boy reading through the Sears & Roebuck catalog after years of thinking that the general store down the road contained the sum total of what you could buy.

Revelatory wouldn’t be too strong a word for what that catalog was for me that day. I’d built models before, and read plenty of books about science and technology. Model rocketry combined the two, and so much more. Craftsmanship, engineering, and high-flying thrills, all in one. And you were specifically invited to invent stuff; the Design of the Month contest offered a $50 prize to rocketeers who came up with something new and amazing.

Being an honest kid, I put the catalog back where I found it, but ordered my own as soon as I got home. I have no doubt that the marriage of technical depth and the hands-on challenge of model construction that rocketry offered got me started as a maker.

The entire 1970 catalog is scanned in and available online.

Stefan Jones is a software QA engineer, freelance writer, gamer, and maker. He lives in the “Silicon Forest” west of Portland, OR

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

View more articles by Gareth Branwyn


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