For our final Object of the Month for 2023 we are ending the year with a bang by featuring the work of English inventor and rocket artillery pioneer Sir William Congreve.
Readers of The Times on Friday 20 June 1828 might have seen an advertisement for the Waterloo Fete taking place in the Royal Gardens, Vauxhall. That evening an exact representation of the field of battle was to take place with a superb display of fireworks “during which the novel exhibition of a real Congreve War Rocket as used against Algiers and other fortified towns and against the Burmese, and at the capture of Bhurtpore” could be seen. It continued that “the intensity and power of burning of this dreadful machine must be seen to be described.”
Twenty years earlier the British inventor Sir William Congreve developed this rocket artillery based upon those used by the Kingdom of Mysore against the East India Company during the Anglo-Mysore Wars between 1780 and 1799. Fortunately, captured examples were sent to Britain where Congreve was Comptroller of the Royal Laboratories and Superintendent of Military Machines at Woolwich. Here at the Royal Arsenal an 1801 military rocket research and development programme was so successful that the first demonstration came in 1805.
Congreve’s rockets were of various sizes consisting of a cylinder of soft hammered iron of around 200 mm (8 inches) long and 38 mm to 76 mm (1.5 inches to 3 inches) in diameter. Closed at one end this was strapped to a bamboo shaft of around 1219 mm (4 feet) long. The cylinder acted as the combustion chamber and contained compressed gunpowder as the propellant and included half a kilogram (1 lb) of gunpowder as the explosive charge.
By 1813 heavy 45 kg and 136 kg (100 pounder and 300 pounder) rockets were available for long range use as were medium 11 kg and 19.5 kg (24-pounder and 42-pounder) rockets as well as light 2.7 kg to 8.2 kg (6-pounder to 18-pounder) rockets. Extreme range for the heavy varieties was around 2286 m (2500 yards).
This was a successful weapon used during the Napoleonic Wars (1796-1815), the War of 1812, the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824) and even the Crimean War (1853-1856) and Indian Rebellion (1857). Congreve Rockets were superseded by William Hale’s spinning rockets in the 1870s.