A Brief History of Rocketry – Early Rockets to Goddard

Rocket Use in Europe and Its Colonies

Mysorean Rocket Attack on British Colonial Troops in the Anglo-Mysore Wars, circa 1793, by Robert Home.

Further research throughout Europe occurred after the war concluded, with the Germans conducting experiments by 1668. In 1680, Peter the Great of Russia developed the first facility to make rockets. These Russian rockets were mainly illumination rockets – flares – to use in lighting up battlefields at night.

The last three decades of the 1700’s saw the Anglo-Mysore Wars – a series of conflicts between the Indian Kingdom of Mysore and the British East India Company. A Mysorean army under Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan had, within its ranks, a 1200 man rocket corps which was regularly pressed into the attack upon British troops. After the fall of Srirangapatna after the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799, the conflict finally came to an end. In the fortress of the city, British troops recovered 600 rocket launchers, 900 empty rocket tubes, and 700 prepared rockets which consisted of two types: those with pierced cylinders which could be used as incendiaries, and rockets with iron points or blades that would spin during flight. This recovered material led to the beginning of research at the Royal Laboratories of Woolwich Arsenal, in Kent, England.

A Mysorean Soldier lighting a rocket, by Robert Home.

In 1801 a rocket research center was developed at Woolwich Arsenal. Several rocket tubes had been collected in India and sent to be studied. Informed that the rockets had killed more men in Seringapatam than other weapons, Sir William Congreve set up a research and development program at the Woolwich Arsenal’s laboratory to study the Mysore material and develop his own rockets, first with a cardboard tube in 1804 and, by 1806, a sheet iron tube. Numerous types of rockets were developed at the lab an put into production – among them 18, 24, 32, 42, 100, and 300 pound weapons. The most widely used was the 32 pound rocket, three and a half feet long, with a diameter of 4 inches and a range of 3000 yards. It was these 32 pound rockets used in the 24 hour barrage of Ft. McHenry, in Baltimore harbor, in 1814. The British also used Congreve’s rockets in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Sir William Congreves, who initiated rocket research at Woolwich Arsenal, England, circa 1812, by James Lonsdale.
The bombardment of Fort McHenry by Congreves 32-pound rockets – the inspiration behind Francis Scott Keys “The Rockets’ Red Glare,” 2016, by Abraham Hunter.

The early 19th century saw even more interest in rockets, with military rockets being tested in St. Petersburg, Russian in 1817 and a special army brigade being created for their use, and by 1826 a factory was producing military rockets which were used in the Russo-Turkish War. In 1818, an rocket brigade was created in England, “…with the Austrian Army followed suit the same year, creating their own rocket brigade using rockets manufactured at a factory located in Wienerisch-Neustadt.” With all of this experimentation and rocket production, it made sense that improvements in rocket flight and performance would result. Scientists understood that giving a projectile spin would make it more accurate. Englishman William Hale created the first spin-stabilized rockets in 1844, with tail fins and additional exhaust nozzles along the body to control spin during flight. Though their range was considerably shorter than Congreve’s rockets, at 2000 yards, they were lighter – either 6 or 16 pounds – and far more accurate.

Illustration plates from Sir William Congreve’s “Details of The Rocket System,” 1814.

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