History of Rocketry Chapter 2

By Cliff Lethbridge

The French Excel At Fireworks And The Limited Use Of War Rockets

Throughout most of the 18th century, especially during the reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the French led the world in the production of rockets. Most of these were used as fireworks, but some were used as incendiary and explosive war rockets.

At the time, military rockets were not regarded as a necessity due to advancements in conventional artillery like cannons and small arms. But, as the 19th century dawned, rockets would again be highlighted in battle.

Indian Troops Use War Rockets Against The British

In 1788, Indian Hyder Ally formed a rocketeer contingent made up of 1,200 men. His son, Tippoo Sultaun, would soon have the opportunity to use rockets quite effectively against the British. At the Battle of Seringapatam in 1792, Indian soldiers launched a huge barrage of rockets against British troops, followed by an assault of 36,000 men.

Although the Indian rockets were primitive by modern standards, their sheer numbers, noise and brilliance were said to have been quite effective at disorienting British soldiers. During the night, the rockets were often seen as blue lights bursting in the air.

Since Indian forces were able to launch these bursting rockets from in front of and behind British lines, they were a tremendous tool for throwing the British off guard. The bursting rockets were usually followed by a deadly shower of rockets aimed directly at the soldiers.

Some of these rockets passed from the front of the British columns to the rear, inflicting injury and death as they passed. Sharp bamboo was typically affixed to the rockets, which were designed to bounce along the ground to produce maximum damage.

Remarkably, two of the rockets fired by Indian troops in 1792 are on display at the Royal Artillery Museum in London. One of these rockets is made up of an iron case 10 inches long by 2.3 inches wide. It is bound to a metal sword that is 40 inches long.

The second rocket has an iron case 7.8 inches long by 1.5 inches wide bound by leather strips to a bamboo stick that is 6 feet, 3 inches long. Each rocket is thought to have a maximum range of 1,000 yards, and eyewitness accounts in 1792 indicated that just one rocket killed three men and injured four others.

Although Indian forces used rockets against the British again during the Battle of Seringapatam in 1799, the British would quickly seize the opportunity to study these weapons, refine them and introduce their own wartime rockets.

British Congreve Rockets Are Introduced

By 1804, Colonel (later Sir) William Congreve had begun studying and refining captured Indian rockets at the Royal Laboratory, Woolwich Arsenal in Kent. His first product was an elongated, larger version of the Indian rocket specifically designed to be launched from ships for the purpose of setting fires on an enemy shoreline.

A variety of rockets, which quickly became known as Congreve rockets after their designer, were introduced weighing 18, 24, 32, 42, 100 or 300 pounds. The rocket most widely used in battle weighed 32 pounds, with a gunpowder charge housed in a casing 3 feet, 6 inches long by 4 inches wide.

Each 32-pound rocket was typically mounted on a stick measuring 15 feet long by 1.5 inches wide. Thus, they became known as stick rockets. Stick rockets could be produced inexpensively and in large numbers. Many stick rockets employed a conical, metal warhead that embedded itself in its target before oozing a slow-burning incendiary mixture.

In addition to incendiary rockets, Congreve also introduced rockets that carried shot which was ejected like shrapnel by an embedded gunpowder charge. The smallest of these rockets weighed just 3 to 12 pounds, and could be easily deployed by infantry units.

Congreve also introduced flare rockets that carried parachutes. These were used to illuminate battlefields at night, or alternately used as signal rockets. Congreve experimented at sending battlefield messages by rocket, but his rockets proved too inaccurate for this purpose.

In 1806, more than 2,000 Congreve rockets were fired against the city of Boulonge. These rockets reportedly so stunned the French that not one shot was returned. In 1807, Copenhagen was severely damaged by fires caused by the launching of 25,000 Congreve rockets. The rockets were fired against the island of Aix in the same year.

Congreve Rockets Are Adapted As Rescue Rockets

1807 also saw one of the first peaceful uses of a Congreve-type rocket as Englishman Henry Trengrouse introduced the practice of fastening a light cord to a small rocket, then launching the rocket over a ship in distress.

Sailors then hauled in the cord, fastened a more sturdy rope to it and could either pull themselves or be pulled to safety. Under certain rescue conditions, a similar practice is still in use today.

Meanwhile, the British continued to employ Congreve rockets in battle, firing them against Callao in 1809, Cadiz in 1810 and Leipzig in 1813. During the War of 1812, perhaps the longest lasting legacy of the Congreve rocket was born.

Congreve Rockets Create The “Rockets’ Red Glare”

On September 13 and 14, 1814 a 25-hour barrage of Congreve rockets was fired from the British ship Erebus against Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The Erebus carried about 20 Congreve rocket batteries consisting of a box housing multiple metal firing tubes.

Each of the rockets fired against Fort McHenry weighed about 30 pounds, and carried an incendiary charge. Although a number of American ships were destroyed by Congreve rockets during the War of 1812, just four deaths and minimal damage was reported at Fort McHenry during the siege.

However, the battle was witnessed by a young lawyer named Francis Scott Key, who mentioned the Congreve “rockets’ red glare” in his song “The Star Spangled Banner”. The song later became the U.S. National Anthem, paying tribute to the tenacity of the American forces under siege.

Congreve rockets were not only fired from ships during the War of 1812, but on land as well. Congreve rockets launched by British ground troops reportedly terrified American soldiers. These rockets typically weighed 3 to 12 pounds each, and carried case-shot carbine balls that flew out like shrapnel when a charge of gunpowder exploded.

The rockets surprised a rifle battalion led by U.S. Attorney General William Pinkney at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814. After his victory at this battle, British commander Lt. George R. Gleig wrote of the American soldiers, “Never did men with arms in their hands make better use of their legs.”

With a range of up to 3,000 yards, the land-launched Congreve rockets could be quite effective. They were sometimes launched from oar-driven boats toward American soldiers on the shoreline, or toward ships.

Congreve rockets were fired during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Not long afterward, rockets similar to those designed by Congreve were introduced in other nations.

Several Nations Create Rocket Brigades

Under the direction of military engineers Alexander Zasyadko and Konstantin I. Konstantinov, military rockets were test fired at St. Petersburg, Russia beginning in 1817. The rockets were later placed in service by a special army brigade.

In 1818, the British created and maintained an official British Army Rocket Brigade. The Austrian Army followed suit the same year, creating their own rocket brigade using rockets manufactured at a factory located in Wienerisch-Neustadt.

The Russians established their first rocket manufacturing plant at St. Petersburg in 1826, which later became responsible for supplying troops using rockets during the Russo-Turkish War and in the Caucasus.

Design Of A Rocket Aircraft Is Ridiculed

While the use of military rockets continued to proliferate, there was at least one more attempt at the peaceful use of rocket technology in 1841. In that year, Charles Golightly was granted a British patent for a flying machine employing a steam rocket. The idea was received with great satire, and no prototype was ever constructed.

The British Introduce Hale Rockets

By the middle of the 19th century, improved British rockets eclipsed long-lived Congreve rockets. Separate studies conducted in France and the United States suggested that rockets would be more accurate if they were spun, like the way a bullet is spun after it leaves a gun barrel.

An Englishman named William Hale was the first rocket designer to take advantage of this principle. He adopted a combination of tail fins and secondary nozzles through which exhaust could pass. Hale rockets became the first spin-stabilized rockets, and quickly became standard equipment for both the British and United States armies.

Although Hale rockets were more accurate than Congreve rockets, they could not travel as far, and typically had a maximum range of 2,000 yards. A version with a 2.25-inch diameter weighed 6 pounds, while a version with a 3.25-inch diameter weighed 16 pounds. The British deployed their first Hale rockets in Europe and Asia.

British Hale Rockets Become First U.S. War Rockets

The United States made their first use of Hale rockets during the Mexican War of 1846-1848. Since the United States and Great Britain were allies by this time, Hale rockets were made readily available to U.S. troops.

Although Hale rockets originated in Great Britain, they played an important role in the history of rocketry in the United States. Hale rockets were the first rockets used by United States armed forces in battle.

On November 19, 1846 Major General Winfield Scott was selected to lead an expeditionary force to Veracruz, Mexico and on to Mexico City. His force included a brigade of rocketeers, the first in the history of the United States armed forces.

Volunteers for this rocket brigade were solicited via posters beginning on December 4, 1846. Posters requested, “active, brave young men to serve with rocket and mountain howitzer batteries, now preparing by the Ordnance Department for immediate departure.”

Training of this brigade was conducted at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The battery, including the rocketeers, was placed under the command of First Lt. George H. Talcott. The rocket brigade itself was placed under the command of Brevet Second Lt. Jesse Lee Reno.

The rocket brigade consisted of 150 men and their equipment, which included a number of 2.25-inch, 6-pound versions of the Hale rocket. The rocket brigade departed Fort Monroe on February 1, 1847 on the bark Saint Cloud. The rocket brigade joined Scott’s expeditionary forces on the island of Lobos, 200 miles north of Veracruz, in late February.

The force sailed on to Anton Lizardo, then to Sacrificios, located just three miles southeast of Veracruz. The main landing at Veracruz took place on March 9, 1847 when 67 surf boats, each carrying 75 to 80 men including the rocket brigade, sailed ashore.

Troops quickly advanced to Veracruz, which was placed under siege. The first Hale rockets were launched on March 24, 1847 against Veracruz fortifications. The city surrendered on March 29, 1847.

On April 8, 1847 the rocket brigade moved inland, having been transferred to the command of General David Twiggs. The force quickly advanced along a route discovered by Captain Robert E. Lee. A rocket battery was established at La Atalaya after its occupation. About 30 rockets were fired against El Telegrafo Hill on April 18, 1847.

In August, 1847 rockets were being fired against Mexican forces in and around Mexico City, most notably at Cherubusco. On September 12 and 13, 1847 a rocket barrage was effectively used to soften Mexican positions during the storming of Chapultepec.

The rocket brigade was disbanded in 1848 as the Mexican War drew to a close. United States forces made good use of Hale rockets, and may have also defended themselves against Mexican rockets. A number of Congreve rockets were included in the captured arsenals of Santa Anna, although there are no specific accounts of the rockets being fired in battle.

The Swiss Introduce War Rockets

Rockets similar to Hale rockets were developed by the Swiss, who deployed a 6-pound rocket that had a maximum range of just under 2,000 yards. The rockets were fairly accurate when tested to a distance of 1,100 yards. Set to fly at this distance, the Swiss rockets could hit a target in three out of five attempts.

Use Of War Rockets Diminishes

The use of war rockets diminished as the latter half of the 19th century dawned, primarily due to significant advances in conventional artillery. Perhaps prophetically, the British adapted a large number of military rockets as fireworks to light up the Thames River during the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle celebration of 1849.

An isolated account of the use of war rockets during this period occurred in Russia, where some Russian ships were reportedly armed with war rockets for battles in the Crimean War beginning in 1853.

The First Multi-Stage Rocket Is Introduced

The year 1855 saw the introduction of the first two-stage rocket, and it was developed for peaceful purposes.. The ship rescue line concept pioneered by Henry Trengrouse was improved to increase the range of the rockets and allow for the transport of heavier cord.

What became known as the Boxer rocket was developed by British Lt. Colonel E.M. Boxer at the Royal Laboratory. The rocket weighed just six pounds, but incorporated two gunpowder charges separated by a small charge of quick-burning powder.

As the first gunpowder charge “stage” burned itself out in an upward direction, it ignited the quick-burning powder charge and fell away. The quick-burning powder charge then ignited the second gunpowder charge “stage” which continued on toward its target.

Boxer rockets were able to carry a durable half-inch hemp line a distance of about 1,000 feet. The rockets were used in rescue line applications until shortly after World War I.

Rockets Are Used In Whaling

In the latter half of the 19th century, rockets were also used in an interesting, if now considered inhumane, manner. Whaling rockets, also known as whaling harpoons, had a barbed pointed head carrying an explosive charge designed to detonate after entering the whale.

A line was spliced to the rocket to aid in recovering the whale. Whaling rockets are perhaps most worthy of interest because they were launched from small hand-held tubes resembling the modern bazooka.

The U.S. Civil War Sees Limited Use Of Rockets

By the start of the Civil War in 1860, military rockets had all but disappeared. Rockets declined in importance due to the deadly accuracy of conventional artillery, most notably weapons with rifled barrels and breech loading.

However, both sides in the Civil War remembered how well rockets served armed forces during the Mexican War two decades earlier. But, it was quickly discovered that Hale, and even Congreve, rockets that had been stored for long periods of time were rendered useless because their gunpowder charges failed to remain properly bonded to their casings.

This forced both sides to develop new rockets if rockets were to be used at all. The resulting rockets were considered primitive, even by the standards of the day, due to their inaccuracy and unreliability. But, a variety of rockets were used during the Civil War by both sides.

On July 3, 1862 Confederate forces under the command of Jeb Stuart fired rockets at Union troops during the Battle of Harrison’s Landing. Colonel James T. Kirk of the 10th Pennsylvania Reserves later wrote that one of his men was wounded by a projectile carried on a rocket fired from “a sort of gun carriage”.

Rocket batteries of this type were most often used by Confederate forces in Texas during campaigns in 1863 and 1864. These rockets and their launchers were first manufactured in Galveston, and later in Houston.

The New York Rocket Battalion was the first Union force to be issued rockets. The group was organized by British officer Major Thomas W. Lion and was made up of 160 men. Rockets employed ranged in size from 12 to 20 inches long by 2 to 3 inches wide.

The rockets could be launched from light carriages carrying four wrought iron tubes, each of which was about 8 feet long. They could also be launched from 3.25-inch diameter guiding rods bound together in an open framework, or from individual 3-inch diameter sheet-iron tubes.

Each rocket was primarily designed to deliver flammable compounds, but could carry musket balls placed in a hollow shell and exploded by a timed fuse. Although the New York Battalion rockets could fly a remarkable maximum distance of 3 miles, they were extremely erratic and were never used in combat.

Union troops under the command of General Alexander Schimmelfennig did fire rockets against Confederate forces in South Carolina. He found the rockets most useful for driving enemy picket boats out of creeks and harbors.

Use Of War Rockets Continues To Decline

Interest in war rockets continued to decline sharply following the Civil War, again due to advances in the pinpoint accuracy and increased range of conventional artillery. Rockets did, however, continue to be used for years to come in signaling and rescue applications.

Primitive Rocket Aircraft Are Proposed

In 1881, Russian Nikolai Kibalchich is believed to have designed the first rocket propelled aircraft, and perhaps the first gimbaled engine.

Kibalchich had been imprisoned for designing the explosive device used to assassinate Czar Alexander II as he drove through St. Petersburg. While awaiting execution, he apparently drew up a design for a wooden platform that could carry a pilot.

Under the platform was a vertically mounted thrust chamber. Gunpowder was to be fed continuously into the chamber and ignited. The resulting thrust would be used to raise the platform and keep it airborne.

In his papers, which did not surface until 1918, Kibalchich suggested that the chamber could be tilted to propel the platform and steer it in any direction. Although his designs never left the drawing board, Kibalchich foresaw the gimbaled engine, a mainstay of modern rocketry.

In 1890, German Hermann Ganswindt proposed a similar method to that of Kibalchich for powering a manned rocket propelled aircraft. Although Ganswindt did not realize that exhaust pressure thrust downward would be sufficient to raise a vehicle, his idea was quite interesting.

Ganswindt suggested that steel cartridges containing dynamite should be exploded one after the other within a combustion chamber to raise the vehicle. Half of each cartridge would be ejected downward, while the other half would be thrust upward to create lift for the vehicle.

It is perhaps good that the work of Ganswindt never left the drawing board, because the dynamite thrust chamber he proposed would have doubtless killed anyone trying to use it.

The First Liquid-Fueled Rocket Is Proposed

A Peruvian chemical engineer named Pedro A. Paulet is believed to have conducted experiments in Paris using a rocket motor made of vanadium steel beginning in 1895. The work of Paulet may have been well ahead of its time, but in point of fact has never been authenticated.

Reports written years later indicated that Paulet designed a rocket motor that burned a combination of nitrogen peroxide and gasoline. If true, this would credit Paulet as the designer of the first liquid-fueled rocket.

The motor was described as weighing about 5 pounds, employing spark gap ignition of the fuels within a combustion chamber. It was said to have been capable of producing a 200-pound thrust at 300 sparks per minute. Paulet claimed that his rocket motor could burn continuously for as much as one hour without suffering any ill effects.

What may have been a groundbreaking advance in rocketry did not surface until October 27, 1927 when a letter from Paulet appeared in an issue of the Peruvian publication “El Comercio”. In the letter, Paulet sought to claim legal ownership of his earlier rocket motor design.

At the time, Paulet recognized that rocketry was beginning to boom in Europe, and he sought potential witnesses to help verify the work he had done years earlier. The letter was circulated across the world by a Russian named Alexander B. Scherschevsky in summary form.

As it turned out, the work of Paulet was never authenticated. Had his work been confirmed by witnesses, Pedro A. Paulet would today be considered the father of liquid propellant rocketry. But that honor would go to another.