It's one of the most familiar images from nineteenth century science fiction: an eager, ferret-faced gentleman named Mr. Golightly riding a rocket like a steeplechaser. It appeared in countless different forms for decades, usually as part of a cartoon or poster caricaturing some political cause or another. The rocketeer even made an appearance in Disney's classic "Man in Space" series. Today, he is a steampunk icon.

But who was he? And, more importantly, did he really exist?

The earliest known version of Mr. Golightly even identifies the rocket he is riding. It's one of "Mess. Quick & Speed's new patent high-pressure, Steam Riding Rockets." This lithograph — which came in both B&W and color — was first published in London ca. 1828. Who or what was the artist's inspiration?

Well, there may have been someone. An American inventor named Joseph Perkins who lived in London from 1818 until his death in 1849. He took out many patents, one of which — No. 4952 of November 15, 1824 — was for a method of "Discharging Projectiles by the Force of Steam". His plan called for a cast-iron rocket filled with water and closed at one end by a brass plug. This is then placed on an inclined ramp that was a combination furnace and launcher. The water was heated until it boiled, the steam blew out the plug in the rear and the rocket, with any luck, shot into the air. Perkins had great hope for his invention, pointing out the 50,000 psi internal pressure it developed as opposed to the mere 500 psi in a gunpowder rocket.

The Duke of Wellington was distinctly underwhelmed. "If this had been invented first," he sniffed, "what a capital improvement gunpowder would have been."

The ridicule didn't stop there. About a year later, a cartoon by George Hunt appeared. It showed a gentlemen flying over the English Channel, propelled by a tea kettle attached to his back. But the first real Golightly cartoon didn't see light until 1825 or 1828 (depending on who you are talking to). "Real Golightly," meaning that it depicted a character sitting astraddle a speeding rocket.

It took other artists, apparently, about fifteen minutes to start producing their own versions of Golightly. A dozen different cartoons depicting the natty rocketeer appeared during the rest of the century, published not only in England but in numerous other countries as well. Even Winslow Homer did a watercolor of Golightly and his rocket. (At left.) There were drawings of Golightly crossing the Atlantic and Golightly heading for the California gold fields and even Golightly and his newly wed wife heading for the moon. (By the bye, this is probably the very first depiction of a female astronaut in history!)

But this wasn't the end of the Golightly mystery.

In 1841 a British patent was taken out for something called "Motive Power". Strangely, where a descriptive text and drawings might be expected are only the words, "No specification enrolled". And the patent was issued to... "Charles Golightly".