Monthly Archives: January 2011

Tipu’s Rockets!!!


William E. Burrows in his This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, has the following description of warfare at Srirangapattana.

The first major battles with rockets that involved Europeans occurred during a revolt against the British which began in 1781 in the Mysore region of southwest India and lasted through 1799. The Indians fired crude but effective rockets against British regulars during battles at Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799. “No hall could be thicker,” a young English officer named Bayly lamented in his diary. “Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them.”

The Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal was therefore ordered to design and develop a dependable war rocket that could be produced in large quantities as standard equipment for the artillery. This was done by William Congreve, a Cambridge-educated socialite who was an intimate of the Royal Family and whose father was commandant of the Royal Artillery and Woolwich’s comptroller. Congreve had studied law and run a newspaper. As the eighteenth century turned into the nineteenth, and in the aftermath of the battles in India (and in anticipation of others with France), he responded by turning his keen intellect and imagination to inventing a better rocket.

After at least three years of experiments, Congreve published A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System, in November 1807. Even then there were those who fretted about national security and the danger of leaks, and since Congreve was one of them, he happily “sanitized” his report. “In the following pages I have cautiously avoided any disclosure which might lead to a discovery of the interior structure and combination of the rocket, on which all powers depend, this rule I have observed for obvious reasons,” the inventor wrote with evident pride.

Noting that the Indian rockets had had a range of less than a thousand yards, Congreve designed one that traveled twice as far. It was an iron cylinder stuffed with seven pounds of compressed powder, and it weighed thirty-two pounds. The breakthroughs were using metal “carcasses” instead of paperboard; refining the powder through granulation machines to give more predictable results; and using pile driver presses to compact the powder so it was a denser and therefore more even-burning charge. He also incorporated noses into his design–warheads, in today’s jargon–that could carry a variety of munitions, including incendiary, shrapnel, explosive, or shot. Other models would follow in relatively quick succession.

Congreve realized early that rockets were particularly suited to naval warfare because, unlike cannons, they did not recoil and destabilize the ship. He therefore suggested that his 2,000-yard model be used as part of a plan, soon accepted, “for the annoyance of Boulogne” by the Royal Navy. Ten boats were fitted with incendiary rockets for an attack on the French port city on November 21, 1805, but a fierce storm prevented the attack. A second attempt, on October 8, 1806, was successful. “In about half an hour above 2,000 rockets were discharged,” Congreve reported with evident relish. “The dismay and astonishment of the enemy were complete–not a shot was returned–and in less than ten minutes after the first discharge, the town was discovered to be on fire.” The rockets were used with even greater success to shell Copenhagen in 1807 and then other European cities. And Congreve was at least indirectly responsible for the national anthem of the United States. On the night of September 13-14, 1814, his ubiquitous rockets were used to shell Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, causing the “red glare” that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Thanks to Anoop Sarkar