The M of RWG&SD Exhibit 2: The Congreve Rocket

The M of RWG&SD Exhibit 2: The Congreve Rocket
Exhibit 2
  • Dates: 1804 to ~1850
  • Description: An improved design of military rocket
  • Significant Figure: Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet

To aid the casual visitor to my internet roadside attraction get a sense of the range of exhibits here, I wanted to delve back further in time. It’s not just over-complicated computer input devices in here! Also, not all of the devices in the museum will be absolutely f–ing useless. The Congreve rockets were a big success, which was good news for the British Empire but terrible news for a hefty proportion of the rest of the world.

Due to fire regulations, the Museum of Right-Wing Gadgets has to limit the number of weapons included as exhibits but the Congreve rocket I feel captures the essence of what I’m looking for in an exhibit. It’s not just that weapons are used by oppressive regimes, there are multiple dimensions here with both how the rockets were used, how they were invented and who invented them.

It is the late 18th century, and Britain was not just busy inventing modern imperialism in other people’s countries but doing so with a novel form of public/private partnership via the British East Indian Company. That money-fuelled push into India was meeting well-organised resistance by Tipu Sultan, the so-called Tiger of Mysore. While his resistance to the ambitions of the British in India would ultimately fail, his armies had several military successes over British forces. In part, this was due to a piece of superior military technology: rockets.

Mysorean rockets used iron and bamboo to create weapons that were more portable than standard artillery but which had decent range and a deadly impact.

“Rocket men were trained to assess the parabolic curve of the rocket’s flight and vary the angle of dispatch, depending on the diameter of the cylinder and the distance from the target. For multiple launching, Tipu created his own ‘rocket organ’, capable of launching 5-10 rockets at once – as used at the siege of Honore (1784) . 600 ‘engines of iron for throwing rockets’ were found at Seringapatam in 1799, together with 700 serviceable and 9,000 empty rockets. Some of these had iron points or steel blades bound to the bamboo, to inflict greater damage, and some of Haidar’s rockets had pierced cylinders, so that the wind could catch the burning flame, and the passing rocket would then act like an incendiary.”

This leads us to one of the greatest sources of technological invention: theft.

Back in the UK, the British army began developing its own iron rockets, influenced by the effectiveness of the Mysorean design. Sir William Congreve was a businessman and owner of a right-wing newspaper that he used to campaign against electoral reform. He was also the son of the Lt. General Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet, the Comptroller of the Royal Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal and in 1814 he inherited both the Baronetcy and the position at the Arsenal. By this point, he was already well into his rocket research.

After multiple trials, experiments and redesigns, the Congreve rockets quickly became a standard part of the equipment of the British forces. Gunpowder fuelled iron rockets of multiple sizes could be more easily transported and deployed just in time for the Napoleonic wars. By 1812 Congreve rockets would be used by the British against the ex-British colonies in North America and would later enjoy a cameo appearance in the US national anthem (apparently rockets aren’t terribly effective against flags).

Congreve rockets would go on to be used in multiple wars including British imperial expansion in Burma, New Zealand and in India from where they had stolen the idea in the first place. To add to the litany, they were also used in the killing of non-human intelligent creatures whin in 1821, Congreve trialled the use of rockets against whales.

The Right-Wing connection: So why does this strange device deserve a place in the Museum of Right-Wing Gadgets? Sure, lots of military inventions were used to kill large numbers of people and steal their land and resources but there is an added dimension here of Congreve essentially borrowing the idea from the very people the weapon would be used against. However, “used for bad things” is neither a necessary nor sufficient criterion for inclusion in the museum.

Congreve would later become a Tory MP but it was his initial career that caught my eye.

“In 1798 Congreve senior, resting his claims on his military services and the improvements he had made in the manufacture of gunpowder, applied to Pitt for ‘provision in some department under government’ for William, who was ‘from unforeseen accidents yet totally unprovided for’. Nothing came of this and Congreve evidently went into business: early in 1804 Lord St Vincent commended him to Hiley Addington as ‘a respectable merchant in the City’ who had established a newspaper, the Royal Standard and Political Register, ‘for the sole purpose of vindicating government against the vile charges of Cobbett’. Later in the year George Cranfield Berkeley* was awarded damages of £1,000 in a libel action against the Standard and Congreve seems to have withdrawn from publishing.”

Congreve junior depended on his dad’s wealth and influence to make a start in life and part of his business schemes was a shady right-wing rag. The newspaper fell apart after it spread unfounded claims of cowardice about a war hero. Aside from dodgy claims, the main thrust of Congreve’s newspaper was to attack William Cobbett. Cobbett was a reformist who was campaigning against so-called Rotten Boroughs (parliamentary constituencies with tiny voting populations that could be effectively controlled), and other issues such as land enclosures. Cobbett also campaigned for Catholic emancipation i.e. improving the rights of Catholics in the UK and Ireland. Letting Catholic men (who owned property etc) have the same legal rights as Anglicans/protestants was seen by people like Congreve as a major threat to the social order — a position made additional egregious by the Act of Union with Ireland that extend the British parliamentary system to Ireland which had a majority Catholic population.

Congreve doesn’t quite match the polemical failson type character that will reappear in this series. His rockets did work and they weren’t his only invention but the parallels are notable with other characters in this series.

One more thing to add to Congreve’s qualifications. The museum has a strict policy against including perpetual motion machines because there would be no room for anything else. It’s not that perpetual motion machines don’t belong here, it’s just that we only have so much space. So, we will acknowledge Congreve’s doomed attempts to create a perpetual motion machine that used the novel idea of capillary action:

“The modus operandi was conceived to be as follows: On the vertical side, a sponge as it entered the water would be uncompressed by the string of weights and therefore free to absorb water by capillary attraction. As a sponge emerged from the water at the lower end of the hypotenuse, the line of weights would operate to compress it and thus keep it comparatively dry. Because of the difference in weight on the dry and wet sides, the whole system would move.”

Museum Scores

  • Gadgetyness: 5/10 the rockets are small enough to sort of be called a gadget but I feel like an iron-clad firework doesn’t quite have the full vibe needed to be called a gadget.
  • Ideologicalness: 10/10 a tool of British Imperialism invented by an aristocrat who actively campaigned against civil rights and which was also somehow cultural appropriation? 11/10 would be a fair rating.
  • Actualness: 10/10 the Congreve rockets were functional and would be used for several years. So unlike other exhibits, this did work as intended.

11 responses to “The M of RWG&SD Exhibit 2: The Congreve Rocket”

  1. The phrase ‘chequered career’ seems tailor made for this guy – according to Wikipedia, he held 18 patents, not all involving rockets, was elected a FRS, was general manager of a company that sold gas to various European cities and died in Toulouse aged 55 after being found guilty of fraud.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s close to qualifying but Shockley descent into race theory looks a lot like Emeritus brain worms [where a person with a notable achievement (or indeed a Nobel prize) heads of into cuckoo-land in later career]. Of course he may well have always been a racist.

      Actually the brain-worms theory maybe a reason to put him in on reflection – so we have an example of the effect.


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