Ancient Rocketry

Rockets First Developed in 13th Century China

A rocket is a vehicle that obtains its thrust from the rapid conversion of fuel to superheated gasses, which are then rapidly expelled out a nozzle at the base.

The earliest written accounts of functional rocket technology date from 13th Century China.

Black Powder Rockets

The availability of black powder, also known as gun powder, was an important precursor to the development of rockets. It is thought that gunpowder was discovered accidentally by Taoist alchemists in Ninth Century China, while searching for the Elixir of Life.

The discovery quickly led to the development gunpowder weapons such as bombs, cannons and rockets.

It is not clear when rockets were first used as a weapon, but the first recorded use is thought to have been in the year 1232 against the Mongols. Ancient Chinese texts from this period describe the use of “fire arrows,” which may have been arrows or crossbow bolts with small gunpowder charges to increase their range. There are also references to iron pots filled with gunpowder that sent shrapnel flying distances up to 2,000 metres. It was also written that they could be heard up to 15 miles away when they exploded.

In the mid-14th Century, the Chinese artillery officer Jiao Yu wrote a book entitled Huolongjing. The book was one of the first to deal exclusively with the science of rocketry and in addition preserving what has been called the perfect recipe for gunpowder, it also includes a description of a device called a water dragon, which is believed to have been a form of rocket developed for the Chinese navy.

It has also been proposed that rocketry may have spread throughout Asia in large part due to the emergence of rocket festivals in Laos and southern China in the 13th and 14th Centuries.

Rockets Introduced to Europe

Rockets first became known to the Europeans when they were used by the Mongols in their conquests of Russia and Eastern Europe by Genghis Khan and his favourite son, Ogedei Khan. It is believed that the Mongols acquired rocket technology during their invasion of northern China. It has also been suggested that they employed Chinese rocket experts as mercenaries with the Mongol army.

Surviving report from the Battle of Sejo in 1241 indicate that the Mongols deployed rockets against the defending Magyars. By the 15th Century, rocket technology had spread to Korea, where the Hwacha was developed. The Hwacha was a wheeled cart with a box on top that could launch swarms of fire arrows at the enemy over a distance of 500 metres. Rockets were also used by the Ottoman Empire. There are records of rockets being employed by the Turks during the Siege of Constantinople in 1453.

According to a history of rocketry published by NASA, rockets first appeared in Arabic literature in 1258 AD. “Quick to learn, the Arabs adopted the rocket into their own arms inventory and during the Seventh Crusade used them against the French Army of King Louis IX in 1268.”

Numerous books were written about rocketry by Arab scientists and inventors, including one that contained 22 different recipes for rocket fuel.

Rockets continued to advance during the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th Centuries, gradually increasing in range and power. At the end of the 18th Century, during the Second, Third and Fourth Mysore Wars, the British were so impressed with the performance of the Mysorean rocket artillery, that they shipped several back to England, where they were reverse engineered.

The British employed rockets extensively, both at sea and on land, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Works Cited

Rockets in Ancient Times. Marchall Space Flight Centre History Office. US Government. Mar.19/09

Crosby, Alfred W. (2002). Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

NASA Spacelink – “A brief history of rocketry””. Mar.19/09

Rockets and Missiles By A. Bowdoin Van Riper


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