Rocketry in the 19th Century

Early Rockets Used as Light Artillery

The Congreve Rocket was a military weapon developed in England at the end of the Napoleonic Wars by Sir William Congreve in the early 19th Century.

By the end of the 18th Century, rockets had evolved from primitive Chinese and Arab devices into reliable weapon systems, capable of hitting targets over reasonable distances.

Rockets in the Anglo-Mysore Wars

At the end of the 18th Century, the British saw the potential of rocket power first hand during the Second, Third and Fourth Anglo-Mysore Wars. The British were greatly impressed by the performance of the rocket used against them by the Indians in these conflicts. Following the end of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, the British took several captured rockets back to Britain for study, where William Congreve was ordered to reverse engineer them.

The rocket that Congreve developed was based on a similar design developed by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of the Indian kingdom of Mysore. Tipu Sultan used his rockets as a form of light artillery that was more easily able to keep up with Mysorean infantry, yet still hit targets up to 1,000 yards away. Tipu Sultan described the tactics developed for rocket attacks in a military manual entitled Fathul Mujahidin. Tipu Sultan’s manual called for 200 rocket men to be attached to each infantry unit.

These men were trained to calculate the rocket’s trajectory to the target based on the angle of the rocket and the distance to the target.

The sizes of the rockets varied but were usually between 1.5 and three inches in diameter. Each rocket was attached to a four foot long bamboo pole. The rocket body consisted of an iron tube that acted as a combustion chamber and a conical nose cone that acted as a warhead.

The Mysoreans also developed a wheeled rocket launcher, similar to the Korean Hwacha, which was capable of firing five to ten rockets at once.

During the Battle of Pollily in 1780, the British ammunition dumps were blown up by Mysorean rockets during the Second-Anglo Mysore War.

In 1792, two rocket units were deployed against the British, as they attempted to advance to the Kaveri River.

During the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, the Duke of Wellington witnessed an enemy rocket attack, which was described by one of the officers under his command. “So pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from the destructive missiles.”

Congreve Rockets

After the fall of Seringapatam, 600 launchers and 700 serviceable rockets were captured. Some were found to have modifications that allowed them to act as incendiary devices. Others were found to have blades attached to their tails, causing them to spin like scythes, cutting down anything in their paths.

Several spent rockets were collected and sent back to England for study. Beginning in 1801, William Congreve, the son of the Controller of the Royal Armoury, Woolwich, began a careful analysis of the captured Indian rockets. The rockets built by, and named for, Congreve were very similar to rockets used by the Indians in the Anglo-Mysore Wars. In 1805, Congreve demonstrated one of his rockets for the British Army, who adopted them shortly afterward.

Congreve Rockets were used frequently in Britain’s imperial wars.

  • The Napoleonic Wars at Boulogne, Copenhagen and Danzig
  • The War of 1812 at the Battle of Bladenburg, which led to the burning of Washington DC.
  • In the New Zealand Wars, Congreve Rockets were used to attack Maori fortifications.

Today there are a large number of Congreve Rockets on display at the Royal Artillery Museum in London, England.

Works Cited

Biography, Mysore HistoryTipu

Forrest D (1970) Tiger of Mysore, Chatto & Windus, London

Narasimha Roddam (2 April 1985) National Aeronautical Laboratory and Indian Institute of Science,

Bangalore 560017 India, Project Document DU 8503,Rockets in Mysore and Britain, 1750-1850 A.D

Baker D (1978) The Rocket, New Cavendish Books, London

Beckland; Millard (1992). “Congreve and His Works”. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (British Interplanetary Society) 45: 281–284.

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