(1905 – 1959)
Ralph Smith said that he designed his first spaceship at the age of twelve, in 1917. Though the drawing no longer exists, he left an extensive collection of line drawings and pictures covering most spheres of astronautics. Even his most complex drawings were completed in a few hours, usually without preliminary sketches. Nevertheless Smith was not satisfied with a purely artistic rendering. Many of his pictures were not commenced until he had spent a long while proving by calculation that what he would draw was a reasonable engineering possibility. Surprisingly, Ralph Smith did not paint astronautical pictures for his own satisfaction, and rarely painted anything else. Occasionally he might make a pen-and-ink landscape, or copy detail from an old master, and sometimes he did a picture to give to a friend; but in the main the 100 or so paintings and diagrams were prompted by requests or commissions.
Before the War he was principally engaged in architectural decoration. He was responsible for the interior décor of several famous London hotels and metropolitan and provincial super-cinemas – affording good grounding for such pictures as his colour painting of the interior of Lunar City. His picture of the construction of the Space Station in orbit won an award by The Perspectivist magazine.
The first (pre-War) Headquarters of the BIS after transfer from Liverpool to London, and where Jack Edwards (q.v.) had a flat, was at Ralph’s house in South Chingford. (At this time he met, and became lasting friends with, H.E. Ross (q.v.). In those days the BIS was liable to swallow its officers whole. Ralph was Organizing Secretary, Member of the Council, the Technical Committee, the Experimental Committee, and chief and unaided designer. Although the Technical Committee debated Edwards’ proposals for a spaceship, it was Ralph Smith who evolved the engineering and laid the foundation for subsequent studies.
During the War Ralph spent 18 months in a sanatorium, but afterwards he came to live in High Wycombe where he resumed work as a design draughtsman in the radio-tube MAP factory for which he had provided the layout. After the War, government interest in rocketry gave Ralph an opportunity to work on rockets, and for some years he was a Leading Draughtsman in the Drawing Office at Westcott. I believe that some of Ralph’s happiest years were spent at Westcott. However, the fact that design was moving towards the production of missiles, with which he did not want to be associated, forced Ralph ultimately to resign and take the post of Senior Chief Designer with the firm of IV Pressure Controllers.
Ralph Smith was responsible for writing the letter to members of the “BIS Emergency Committee” in Sep- tember 1945 regarding the refounding of the BIS in collaboration with the CBAS, and was an active member in the post-War activities of the Society, being elected as Chairman from 1956-57. In August 1958, and without warning, Ralph suffered the stroke from which he did not fully recover, and finally succumbed to coronary thrombosis on 14th February 1959 whilst under treatment in Harefield Hospital.
(In 2007 he was given the Lucien Rudaux Prize and inducted into the Hall of Fame by the International Association of Astronomical Artists (IAAA) in recognition of the pioneering importance of his artwork.)
Information used with kind permission from Dr Bob Parkinson, Editor of the book “Interplanetary – the History of the British Interplanetary Society”, published by the BIS.