History Of Rockets Essay

The History of Rockets and Military Rocketry

Swansea Rocket Brigade, Swansea, N.S.W.

Newcastle Morning Herald possibly 15/2/1956
State Library of N.S.W. Hood Collection
part I : Sydney streets, buildings, people, activities and events, c.1925-1955
Citation #NCY55/535, Frame #Home and Away - 28556

Table of Contents

Rockets and Military Rocketry
Tipu Sultan (c.1750-1799)
Sir William Congreve (1772-1828)
William Hale (1797-1870)

Further Reading

The Rocket in the 20th Century

Offensive uses of rockets during World War I were primarily used by that of the French, who used small solid-fueled rockets called La Prieur rockets after their inventor, Naval Lt. Y.P.G. La Prieur. Designed to be fired from French or British bi-planes against German observation balloons, they were not the only rockets in use during World War I. The British would add the A.T. and U.S. Kettering Bug rockets, both considered to be the first guided missiles (Lethbridge).

British guided missile studies began in 1914 under the direction of Professor A.M. Low. The project was named A.T. for "Aerial Target" so that enemy spies would believe the vehicles were simply drones flown to test the effectiveness of anti-aircraft guns. Later, in 1917, the Kettering Bug was developed. The Kettering Bug was a pilotless bi-plane bomber made of wood and weighing only 600 pounds, yet it carried a 300-pound payload.

The Kettering Bug was also the precursor the Larynx, which was developed much later. Introduced in 1927 by British Engineers at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, it was in essence, a remote controlled mono-plane that carried a 250-pound payload up to 100 miles away from its point of origin to its destination at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour.

World War II, however, would the demonstration of the first, true, long-range destructive rocket, the A-4, or its more familiar name, the V-2 rocket. It was the V-2 that "would go on to lay the cornerstone of modern rocketry" (Lethbridge). After World War II, the same German scientists behind the V-2 came to the United States and brought with them their model. The V-2, over the course of 13 years, evolved into the modern-day rocket which, on October 4, 1957 carried Sputnik, the first artificial satellite ever to orbit Earth, into space.

Thus commencing the rocket's adaptation from it's original intent to kill, to a new and bold use, that of discovery and exploration.

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Anderson, Robert, The Making of Rockets

In 1696, Robert Anderson, an Englishman, published a two-part treatise on how to make rocket moulds, prepare the propellants, and perform the calculations


History of the Rocket - 1804 to 1815

Spacelines's History of Rocketry

Part I: Ancient Times up to World War II

Part 2: Post-WWII

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A Brief History of Rocketry

Encyclopedia Astronautica : Chronological Reference

Rocketry through the Ages : A Timeline of Rocket History

Schermuly and his Rockets

"The Rockets Red Glare"

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The Rockets Red Glare


Francis Scott Key coined the phrase the "rocket's red glare after the British fired Congreve rockets against the United States in the War of 1812. Congreve had used a 16-foot guidestick to help stabilize his rocket. William Hale, another British inventor, invented the stickless rocket in 1846. The U.S. army used the Hale rocket more than 100 years ago in the war with Mexico. Rockets were also used to a limited extent in the Civil War. (Reproduced from a painting by Charles Hubbell and presented here courtesy of TRW Inc. and Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio

The Rockets Red Glare
by Allen W. McDonnell

The Start Spangled Banner, National anthem of the United States of America dates back to the War of 1812. During that war Frances Scott Key went aboard a British Frigate to negotiate the release of an important prisoner of war.

Having arrived with another negotiator under a flag of Truce Mr. Key succeeded in getting the prisoner released, but fearing that the three men knew their plan of attack for the next day the British kept all three under arrest aboard the ship until after the Battle of Ft. McHenry. Sailing close to the fort the British used the super weapon of the 1800's, the Congreve rocket with Shrapnel bomb attached.

The British were fortunate that these two men, Lt. Henry Shrapnel and inventor William Congreve were born in England and loyal to the crown. Lt. Shrapnel invented his artillery shell in 1784. It was adopted by the British in 1803. A shrapnel shell is designed to explode while still in the air over the enemy's head's raining down sharp pieces of metal on them. These shells were especially effective in a day and age when antiseptics were unknown and even minor wounds often lead to infection and death.

It wasn't until WW I a century after the War of 1812 that military forces routinely equipped their soldiers with helmets to protect them from shrapnel raining down upon them. The shell adopted by the British in 1803 was designed to be fired from a cannon but as luck would have it another inventive Englishman, William Congreve heard about the shell and adopted it for his project. At about the time the shrapnel shell was adopted by the British artillery Corp the British army in India was fighting a war against the natives.

During that conflict the Indian army used simple Rockets to bombard the British and set their army to panicking. William Congreve was intrigued by the reports of these Indian Rocket attacks and set out to equip his own countrymen with weapons to match them in battle. The Congreve rocket was the result. A Congreve rocket looks to the modern eye like a common bottle rocket used for 4th of July fireworks grown up.

These Congreve rockets were built on 6 foot long poles and were fired from a light weight tripod, allowing them to be carried quickly to the front area of a battle field and fired at the enemy, or to be carried on a ship. Given that the common soldier of the 1600's was equipped with a black powder musket with a range of 75 to 100 yards a rocket that could fly 600 yards and explode over the enemy's heads was a deadly threat. Congreve rockets used Black gunpowder as both the fuel to fly and the explosive to send Shrapnel downwards.

During the seige of Ft. McHenry the rockets flying from the decks of the British ships lit up the sky with their red exhaust and exploded about 100 feet over the heads of the American's holding the Fort. The bright explosions of these shrapnel bombs would throw a bright yellow glow across the fort when the exploded lighting up the Fort and showing the British that they were hitting the target.

This is why Frances Scott Key wrote his famous poem which became the National Anthem of the United States thusly;

Oh say, can you see, By the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed At the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
Over the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?

And the Rockets Red Glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night, That our Flag was still there.
Oh say does that Star Spangled Banner yet wave,
Over the land of the free, and the home of the brave?

The 50 foot long flag with 15 stars and 15 stripes that inspired Frances Scott Key has been preserved in Washington D.C. and to this day draws thousands of tourists every year. The 15 stars and stripes flag is the only US flag that had more than 13 stripes for the 13 colonies that signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

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Tipu Sultan (c.1750-1799)

Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (now Karnataka) in southwestern India (from the death of his father, Hyder Ali, 1782.) He died of wounds when his capital, Seringapatam, was captured by the British. His rocket brigade led Sir William Congreve (1772-1828) to develop the weapon for use in the Napoleonic Wars.

Tipu's (Tipu Sultan-Ed.) contribution to Rocket Technology

Rocket technology engulfed me for two decades since my visit to Srirangapatna in 1960. The question continued to haunt me - "How Tipu Sultan would have led to the world's first war rocket?" "What environment was responsible for the birth, of such a technological innovation in our country".

In August 1974 I received a paper presented by Frank H.Winter of National Air and Space Museum Washington USA, titled "The Rocket in India from ancient times to the 19th century". This highly researched paper presented the 'Agni Astra' from Vedik hymns to Tipu's war rocket with eighteen classic references. Winter's conclusion is startling for the Indian Scientific Community. He says, "Thus, it is fair to suggest that the venerable rocket from the subcontinent of India may well have had its technological impact upon the West. If so, in retrospect, it was an important, if subtle, a technological transfer of recent history."

Many such researchers have to spring up in our Universities as well. Soon, I learnt that two of the war rockets captured by British at Srirangapatana have been displayed in the Museum of Artillery at Woolwich in London. One of my missions during my visit to Europe in 1980 was to study this rocket. Dr.VR.Gowarkar and I visited the museum. It was a great thrill especially for Rocket technologists like us, to see an Indian innovation in a foreign soil well preserved and with facts not distorted.

Under the heading "India's War Rocket", the following details are recorded in the Woolwhich museum London. The motor casing of this rocket is made of steel with multi nozzle holes with the sword blade as the warhead. The propellant used was packed gunpowder. Weight of the rocket is about 2kg. With about 1kg of propellant. 50mm in dia about 250mm length, the range performance is reported 900mts to 1.5 km. Our designers analyzed and confirmed their performance. What a simple and elegant design effectively used in war!

The text above is an sourced from the homage paid to Tipu Sultan by, Dr. Abdul Kalam during the Hazrath Tipu Sultan Shaheed Memorial Lecture organised by the Al-Ameen Educational Society Bangalore on 30th Nov 1991.

Dr Kalam is currently the Scientific Advisor to the ministry of Defence in India.

The History of Indian Rocketry, 30th Nov 1991
By Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, Director Defence Research & Development Laboratory Hydaerabad, India

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The story of Indian Rockets From Shrirangapattana to Shriharikota


The British consider the Duke of Wellington, Colonel Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), who defeated Napoleon at the famous battle of Waterloo (1815), one of their greatest national heroes. However, not many people know that this hero of Waterloo had to run away from the battlefield when attacked by the rockets and musket-fire of Tipu Sultan's army.

It happened at the time of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war (April 1799). General Harris led the British forces on the siege of Shrirangapattana, the capital of Tipu. The British forces had reached quite close to the fort of Shrirangapattana, but there was a formidable obstruction. To the south-west of the fort, near the village of Sultanpet, there was a large tope, where Tipu had stationed his rocketmen. Obviously, they had to be cleared out before the siege could be pressed closer to Shrirangapattana island. The commander chosen for this operation was Col. Wellesley.

Col. Wellesley was not an ordinary Englishman. He was the younger brother of Lord Wellesley, the then Governor-General of India (1798-1805). Col.Wellesley, advancing towards the tope after dark on the 5th April, was attacked by a tremendous fire of musketry and rockets. The men gave way and retreated in disorder. In the midst of chaos that followed, Col. Wellesley lost his way, hid himself somewhere in the night and could report to Harris late only on the next day.

The 'Sultanpet incident' had a profound and traumatic effect on Arthur Wellesley. His biographer Guedalla tells us that, even late in his life, after Waterloo, the unpleasing night lived vividly in Arthur's memory.

After some days Gen. Harris planned another attack on Shringapattana. Help also came from Mumbai in the form of Gen. Stuart's forces. On the afternoon of 4th May when the final attack on the fort was led by Baird, he was again met by "furious musket and rocket fire". But this did not help much; the fort was taken. Tipu still refused to beg for peace on humiliating terms. He met a hero's end on 4th May while defending his capital. The taking over of Shrirangapattana was described by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, in the following words:

Nothing therefore can have exceeded what was done on the night of the 4th. Scarcely a house in the town was left unplundered, and I understand that in camp jewels of the greatest value, bars of gold, etc., etc., have been offered for sale in the bazars of the army by our soldiers, sepoys, and followers....
Along with the enormous loot another precious gift from India arrived in England. It was the Mysorean rocket, two specimens of which can still be seen in the Royal Artillery Museum, Woolwich Arsenal, London.

European rockets of the time had combustion chambers made of wood or some kind of paste board. The metal cylinder (casing) used for the Indian rocket was hammered soft iron; it represented an advance over earlier technology. At that time iron made in India was of a high quality, even though Indian furnaces were small and inefficient compared with those of Europe. Indian iron was sent to Sheffield, because it was 'excellently adapted to for the purpose of fine cutlery'.

The use of iron cylinder for the Mysore rockets increased bursting pressures, which allowed the propellant (gunpowder) to be packed to greater densities. This gave the Mysore rocket greater thrust and range. The metal cylinder was tied to a long bamboo pole or sword to provide stability to the rocket missile.

From different accounts we come to know that the Mysore rocket weighed from 2.2 to 5.5 kgs. The metal casing was 4 cms in diameter and 10 cms long. The range is often quoted as about 1.5 kms. In exceptional cases it was upto 2.5 kms.

There was a regular Rocket Corps of about 1200 men in Hyder Ali's army. Hyder's son Tipu raised it to about 5000 men. Furthermore, three or more rockets could be fired rapidly using a wheeled cart as a launch-pad. Though not very accurate, their flash and noise had much moral effect on men and beast when mass-fired.

Rockets were in use in Karnataka long before the Anglo-Mysore wars. Hyder Ali's father was already commanding 50 rocketmen for the Nawab of Arcot. In the Second Anglo-Mysore war, at the Battle of Pollilur (10 September 1780), Hyder and Tipu achieved a grand victory, the contributory cause being that one of the British ammunition tambrils was set on fire by Mysorean rockets. The scene is depicted in a famous mural at the Darya Daulat Bagh in Shrirangapattana.

An innovator in many ways, Tipu was greatly interested in rocket development. He showed great interest in such European inventions as barometers and thermometers and several other novel devices. Tipu had sent some of his rockets to the Sultan of Constantinople as presents.

Rockets were known in India much before the Anglo-Mysore wars. Their early references are mostly from south India. The Mysore rulers might have got information about gunpowder and rockets from Malabar, where the Chinese used to come for trading. For fire-crackers words like 'china-bedi' and 'china-padakkam' are still in use in the Malayalam language.* Gunpowder was discovered in China in the ninth century A.D., when the first reference to the mixing of charcoal, saltpetre and sulphur is found. About the early eleventh century the Chinese developed a kind of incendiary arrow, in fact the rocket. We have descriptions of their use against the Mongols at the siege of Kai-Feng-Fue in 1232 A.D. It was through the Mongols or the Arabs that the know-how of gunpowder and rockets reached Europe in the thirteenth century.

India also acquired the know-how of gunpowder about the same time, either through Chinese alchemists or through Chinese traders coming to Indian ports. Anyway, it is certain that by about 1400 A.D. the Chinese fireworks techniques were well-known in India. There is a treatise on fireworks in Persian written about 1450 A.D. by Zain-ul-Abidin, the Muslim ruler of Kashmir. In the fifteenth century A.D. various kinds of fireworks were displayed at Vijayanagar during festivals. Ain-e-Akbari gives a list of 77 weapons in the arsenal of Akbar, bana (rocket) being mentioned at the end. In fact, the word bana or agnibana in the sense of a rocket finds a place in several Sanskrit works of the mediaeval period. In China the tube of a rocket was made of bamboo. The use of iron tube for rocket is probably an Indian innovation.

The British were greatly impressed by the Mysorean rockets using iron tubes. Several of them were sent to England, and from 1801, William Congreve (1772-1828), son of the Comptroller of the Royal Woolwich Arsenal, London, after thoroughly examining the Indian specimens, set on a vigorous research and development programme at the Arsenal's laboratory. Congreve prepared a new propellant mixture, and developed a rocket motor with a strong iron tube with conical nose, weighing about 14.5 kg. He also published three books on rocketry.

It is important to note that Congreve, on the basis of Newton' third law, recognised one of the chief advantages of the rocket -- the absence of recoil force, making it suitable for sea-borne assault. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century the British used Congreve's rockets in several sea-wars, e.g., in a trial attack on Boulogne in 1806, in the siege of Copenhagen in 1807, etc. The rockets that Congreve ultimately developed weighed 20 kg with a range up to 2.7 km.

Thus, from the above description it is amply clear that better rockets came to be developed in England only after experiencing and examining the Indian rockets. It was a time when in England the first wave of the Industrial Revolution and technical innovations had begun. Till the end of 18th century several products of Indian technology were much superior to that of the British, but there was no proper environment for their scientific development in our country. However, we should not forget that the plunder of Shrirangapattana and Tipu's rockets had also made a small but significant contribution to the Industrial Revolution that took place in England.- Gunakar Muley

Milestones in Rocket Development (in this essay to early 19thC - Ed.)

1044The Chinese work Wu-ching tsung-yao gives the earliest gunpowder formula in any civilization
1232Rockets were used by the Chinese against the Mongols at the seige of Kai-Feng-fue
c.1250Gunpowder became known in Europe

Today, rockets routinely take astronauts into space, launch satellites and do tests in the upper atmosphere. But it's really only been in the past 70 years or so that these machines have been used for applications leading to space exploration.

The principles of rocketry were tested out more than 2,000 years ago, and it was a long road through military and other applications before people were launched on these machines. A bit about the history of rocketry is below.

Early rocketry

There are tales of rocket technology being used thousands of years ago. For example, around 400 B.C., Archytas, a Greek philosopher and mathematician, showed off a wooden pigeon that was suspended on wires. The pigeon was pushed around by escaping steam, according to NASA.

Roughly 300 years after the pigeon experiment, Hero of Alexandria is said to have used an aeolipile, NASA added. The sphere-shaped device sat on top of a boiling pool of water. Gas from the steaming water went inside of the sphere, and escaped through two L-shaped tubes on opposite sides. The thrust created made the sphere rotate.

The Chinese are recorded as using the first real rockets around the first century A.D.. They were used for colorful displays during religious festivals, sort of like today's fireworks. It appears that the first rocket propulsion systems were used between the years 1200 and 1300 in Asia, using a propellant that included a mix of saltpeter, sulfur and charcoal, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. 

For the next few hundred years, rockets were mainly used for military purposes, including a version called the Congreve rocket in the early 1800s. As guns became more effective, the use of rockets was reduced until World War II, when the Germans used their V-2 rockets routinely to bombard Britain from the safety of their own country.

Fathers of rocketry

In the modern era, those who work in spaceflight today often acknowledge three “fathers of rocketry” who helped push the first rockets into space. Of those three people, however, only one of them survived long enough to see rockets being used for space exploration.

Russian Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) published what is now known as the “rocket equation” in 1903, in a Russian aviation magazine, according to NASA. The equation concerns relationships between rocket speed and mass, as well as how fast the gas is leaving when it exits and how much propellant there is. He also published a theory of multistage rockets in 1929.

Robert Goddard (1882-1945) is an American who sent the first liquid-fueled rocket aloft in Auburn, Mass., on March 16, 1926. He had two U.S. patents for using a liquid-fueled rocket, and also for a two- or three-stage rocket using solid fuel, according to NASA. However, his research received scathing attention from the media (including the New York Times) and Goddard died before seeing his work vindicated. The New York Times published a correction to its work in 1969, one day after Apollo 11 embarked on the first moon-landing mission.

Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) was born in Romania and later moved to Germany. He became interested in rocketry at an early age, NASA wrote, and at age 14 thought about a "recoil rocket" that could move through space using nothing but its own exhaust. As an adult, his studies included multistage rockets and how to use a rocket to escape Earth's gravity. (His legacy is mixed as he also helped to develop the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany during World War II.)

Rockets in spaceflight

Following World War II, several German rocket scientists emigrated to both the Soviet Union and the United States, assisting those countries in the Space Race of the 1960s. The contest was one to demonstrate military superiority, in part becoming a battle of capitalism vs. communism using space as the frontier. 

Rockets were also used to take measurements of radiation in the upper atmosphere after nuclear tests. The nuclear explosions mostly ceased after 1963's Limited Test Ban Treaty.

While rockets looked great on paper, figuring out how to send things into space on them was difficult. Engineering was in its infancy and computer simulations were not available, meaning that numerous flight tests ended with the rockets dramatically exploding seconds or minutes after leading the pad.

With time and experience, however, progress was made. The first time a rocket was used to send something into space was the Sputnik mission, which sent a Soviet satellite aloft on Oct. 4, 1957. After some failed attempts, the United States used a Jupiter-C rocket to heft its Explorer 1 satellite into space on Feb. 1, 1958.

It took several more years before the countries felt confident enough to use rockets to send people into space, with animal tests taking place on both sides (using monkeys and dogs, for example). Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space, leaving Earth on April 12, 1961, aboard a Vostok-K rocket for a multi-orbit flight. About three weeks later, Alan Shepard followed for a suborbital flight on a Redstone rocket. Later in NASA's Mercury astronaut program, it switched to Atlas rockets to achieve orbit.

When both countries were ready for the moon, NASA used the Saturn V rocket, which at 363 feet tall included three stages — the last one designed to break Earth's gravity. The rocket was successfully used to launch six moon-landing missions between 1969 and 1972. The Soviet Union was also developed a moon rocket called N-1, but a prototype exploded and destroyed much of the surrounding area, effectively halting the program.

Rockets were gradually used to send spacecraft through the solar system, with early, hesitant attempts to go past the moon, Venus and Mars in the early 1960s expanding into exploration of dozens of moons and planets. Today, thanks to rocketry, we've been able to breach the solar system's barrier with the Voyager 1 spacecraft. And we have spacecraft imagery of every planet, dozens of moons, and many comets, asteroids and smaller objects.

Rockets in the past few decades

NASA's space shuttle program (1981-2011) used solid rockets for the first time to boost humans into space, which is notable because unlike liquid rockets, they cannot be turned off. The shuttle itself had three liquid-fuelled engines, with two solid rocket boosters strapped on the sides. In 1986, a solid rocket booster's O-ring failed and caused a catastrophic explosion, killing seven astronauts aboard the space shuttle Challenger. The solid rocket boosters were redesigned after the incident.

The space shuttle was once envisioned as the way to make space missions less expensive, and the Department of Defense used shuttle missions for several years to heft its satellites. After the Challenger explosion, however, DOD switched back to uncrewed rockets. There are now several providers around the world — in the United States, India, Europe and Russia, to name a few — that routinely send military and civilian payloads into space.

With the invention of smaller satellites such as CubeSats, it's now common for rockets to carry one big, main payload and several smaller ones at cheaper cost. And there are other advances for rockets on the horizon. DARPA, for example, is considering using rockets to launch satellites from a flying military craft. And SpaceX is testing a reusable first-stage rocket for its Falcon 9 booster, which could make the cost of space exploration cheaper in the long run.

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