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Sir William Congreve

rocket pioneer

Sir William Congreve

William Congreve was born on May 20, 1772, the eldest son of Lt. Gen. Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet, Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at the Royal Arsenal, and his first wife, Rebecca Elmstone. Raised in Kent, England, he was educated at Newcomes school in Hackney, Wolverhampton Grammar School and Singlewell School in Kent, and at Trinity College of Cambridge University, from which he received his B.A. in 1793 and his M.A. in 1795. Exactly how Congreve spent the first few years after college is unknown, but by 1803 he was a volunteer in the London and Westminster Light Horse and the publisher of the Royal Standard and Political Register, a Tory newspaper. An 1804 libel action against the paper led him to leave the publishing business, after which he applied himself to inventing.

The Congreve Rocket

Congreve was inspired to develop an effective war rocket after learning of a 1792 battle in which a British army was defeated in India by a rocket brigade. Although the Indian rockets were primitive by modern standards, their sheer numbers, noise and brilliance were effective at disorienting the British soldiers. By 1804, Congreve had begun studying and refining captured Indian rockets at the Royal Laboratory. His first product, based on fireworks that in his day were used primarily for amusement, was an elongated, larger version of an Indian rocket that he designed to be launched from ships. Most of his rockets carried a warhead filled with an incendiary mixture that produced smoke that was so dense and foul that firefighters could not approach the resulting fires. In 1805, Congreve gave a successful demonstration of his rockets to the British Prime Minister and other government officials, who agreed to fund further work. On October 8, 1806, Congreve Rockets were used for the first time in combat. Fired in salvos from specially-built boats, they were very effective in burning down much of the town of the French town of Boulogne. More than 2,000 Congreve Rockets were fired without the French returning a single shot. In 1807, the Danish capital of Copenhagen was severely damaged by fires ignited by the more than 25,000 Congreve Rockets the British launched against it. Congreve Rockets were also used in the naval Battle of the Basque Roads in 1808 and in the Walcheren Island expedition in 1809. Congreve was present at all of these battles. Impressed with the results of his rockets, in 1809, Parliament ordered Congreve to form two rocket companies.

basics of a Congreve Rocket
basics of a Congreve Rocket

typical warhead of a Congreve Rocket
typical warhead of a Congreve Rocket

In 1810 or 1811 Congreve became Equerry (personal attendant) to the Prince Regent, with whom he was a great favorite, and in 1811 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Also in 1811, Congreve finally achieved military rank, when he was made a Liutenant Colonel in the Hanoverian Artillery. In 1812, he became Member of Parliament for Gatton.

In 1813, at the request of the Admiralty, Congreve designed a new gun for frigates. In October of that same year, he personally commanded a rocket battery at the Battle of Leipzig, one of Napolean Bonaparte's worst defeats. Congreve rockets also played a role in Napolean's final loss, at Waterloo, in June of 1815. The most famous legacy of the Congreve Rockets came during the War of 1812, when, on September 13-14, 1814, barrages of Congreve Rockets were fired from the British ship Erebus against the Americans defenders of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland. Each of the rockets fired against Fort McHenry weighed about 32 pounds, and carried an incendiary charge. Although only four men were killed by the rockets and the fort itself suffered minimal damage, the sight of "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air" inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner. Congreve Rockets proved more effective in other War of 1812 battles, especially against American soldiers unprotected by fortifications.

With a range of up to 9,000 feet, Congreve Rockets were an important weapon in Britain's arsenal for many years. Congreve continued to improve on his rockets' range and accuracy, and many European countries soon formed rocket corps, usually attached to artillery units. Congreve Rockets became obsolete due to improved artillery and ordnance by the mid-nineteenth century, but they continued to be used as flares and in ship rescue.

Other Work

In 1814, on the death of his father, Congreve succeeded to the baronetcy, and also to the office of Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory. In 1818 he was returned as Member of Parliament for Plymouth, a seat he held until his death.

In addition to his work on war rockets, Congreve applied his talents and ingenuity to a wide variety of other projects. In 1813, he obtained a patent for a hydropneumatic canal lock and sluice. In that same year, he also patented a new method for manufacturing gunpowder that consisted, first, of a machine for producing as perfect a mixture as possible of the ingredients, and secondly, an improved mode of passing the mill-cake under the press, as well as a new granulating machine. In 1819, he obtained a patent for an improved mode of inlaying or combining different metals, and another for improvements in the manufacture of bank-note paper that made counterfeiting much more difficult. In 1821, he developed a process of color printing. Other inventions included a gun-recoil mounting, a time-fuse, a parachute attachment for his rockets, a perpetual motuin machine, a new type of steam engine, a means for protecting buildings against fire, a method of killing whales by means of rockets, stereotype plates, and gas meters. In 1823 he published, by order of the government, a report on "The Gas-light Establishments of the Metropolis." There are also unconfirmed accounts of his invention of a chair or sofa which enabled him to move himself about his apartment without any assistance (he lost the use of his legs late is life).

In addition to his active inventive life, Congreve was also an active businessman, serving at various times as chairman of the Equitable Loan Bank, director of the Arigna Iron and Coal Company, the Palladium Insurance Company and the Peruvian Mining Company.

Congreve was also a fairly active writer of scientific treatises, the most important of which are: A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System (1807), Elementary Treatise on the Mounting of Naval Ordnance (1812), A Description of the Hydropneumatical Lock (1815), A New Principle of Steam-Engine (1819), Resumption of Cash Payments (1819), and Systems of Currency (1819).

After losing a major fraud case against him in 1826, Congreve fled to France. Taken seriously ill not long after that move, he died in Toulouse on May 16, 1828, and was buried in the local Protestant cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Isabella (whom he had married in 1824), two sons, and one daughter.

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This page was last updated on 05/15/2017.