The British man who developed and deployed solid fuel military rockets, the “rockets red glare” referenced in our American national anthem, was born today in 1772. Now WE know em


Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet was born May 20, 1772 in Kent, England.

He grew up to be educated in law at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating with a BA in 1793 and a Masters degree in 1796.

In 1803 he was a volunteer in the London and Westminster light horse, and was a London businessman who published a polemical newspaper, the Royal Standard and Political Register, which was tory, pro-government and anti-Cobbett.

Following a damaging libel action against him in 1804 for publishing a newspaper, Congreve withdrew from publishing and applied himself to inventing.

Rocketry was being developed in several countries and in late 1804, Congreve began experimenting with rockets at Woolwich.

Congreve Rockets

The initial inspiration for his rockets is uncertain. They may have been developed from Indian rocket artillery made from iron tubes.

It has been suggested that Congreve adapted iron-cased gunpowder rockets for use by the British military from prototypes created by the Irish nationalist Robert Emmet for use during Emmet’s Rebellion in 1803.

Congreve first demonstrated his solid fuel rocket at the Royal Arsenal in 1805.

Tip of a Congreve rocket, on display at Paris naval museum

Tip of a Congreve rocket, on display at Paris naval museum

He considered his work sufficiently advanced to engage in two Royal Navy attacks on the French fleet at Boulogne, France, one that year and one the next.

Parliament authorized Congreve to form two rocket companies for the British army in 1809.

Congreve subsequently personally commanded one of these at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813.

Congreve rockets, as they were called, were used for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the during the War of 1812.

The famous “rockets’ red glare” referred to in the American national anthem described their firing at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812.

Congreve rockets from his original work

Congreve rockets from his original work

Congreve rockets remained in the arsenal of the United Kingdom until the 1850s. Congreve was awarded the honorary rank of Lieutenant colonel in 1811 and was often referred to as “Colonel Congreve.”

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in March, 1811.

Congreve even organized the impressive firework displays in London for the peace of 1814 and for the coronation of George IV in 1821.

Besides his rockets, Congreve was a prolific (if indifferently successful) inventor for the remainder of his life.

Congreve invented a gun-recoil mounting, a time-fuze, a rocket parachute attachment, a hydropneumatic canal lock and sluice, a perpetual motion machine, a process of colour printing which was widely used in Germany, a new form of steam engine, and a method of consuming smoke (which was applied at the Royal Laboratory).

He also took out patents for a clock in which time was measured by a ball rolling along a zig-zag track on an inclined plane; for protecting buildings against fire; inlaying and combining metals; unforgeable bank note paper; a method of killing whales by means of rockets; improvements in the manufacture of gunpowder; stereotype plates; fireworks; and gas meters.

In his later years, Congreve became a businessman and chairman of the Equitable Loan Bank, director of the Arigna Iron and Coal Company, the Palladium Insurance Company and the Peruvian Mining Company.

After a major fraud case against him in 1826, he fled to France, where he was taken seriously ill.

Sir William Congreve died in Toulouse, France May 16, 1828 and was buried there.

Now We know em



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