Today, let's talk about English rockets in the War
of 1812. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
"The rockets' red glare, the
bombs bursting in air" -- words set to an old
English drinking song. They tell about an attack of
32-pound English Congreve rockets on our Fort
McHenry in 1814. They were a new weapon of war,
with a range of about three miles.
Military rockets have had two brief periods of
importance in the West: since WW-II, and 50 years
of Congreve rockets.
The Chinese invented war rockets 1000 or so years
ago. Rockets soon spread to Europe and India, but
their only tactical importance was in India.
India's landscape of small hills and stony river
beds made it hard to move artillery around. India
also had the best Asian supplies of saltpeter for
The 16th-century Mogul emperor Akbar used military
rockets. By the 18th century, rocket troops were an
important part of most Indian armies. They used 6
to 12-pound rockets with a range of a mile or so.
Those troops savaged invading English cavalry.
William Congreve was a bright kid who grew up in
the late 1700s amid English ordnance at Woolwich
Arsenal and Indian rockets in the Royal Artillery
Museum. His father, a veteran of the American
Revolution, had founded, and now ran, the Arsenal.
Young William was wonderfully inventive. When he
was 13, he proposed to travel to the moon in one of
the new French balloons. By the age of 28 he
published a whole folio of inventions. And it
included far more practical stuff than ballooning
to the moon.
But those Indian rockets are what captivated
Congreve. In 1804 he realized that rockets exert no
reactive force -- none of the "kick" of a cannon.
That especially suited them to use at sea. He
developed his own version of those Indian war
After failed tests against French shore
installations, Congreve managed to burn most of the
city of Copenhagen -- a hapless bystander in the
Napoleonic Wars. From then on, English rockets
played an important part in war against the French.
But, in the War of 1812, England turned the full
fury of Congreve's rockets on us -- from Bangor,
Maine, all the way to New Orleans. It was
Congreve's rockets that burned Washington in 1814.
Our most powerful image from that event is Dolley
Madison reentering the burning White House to save
its art treasures.
The English also tried to take Baltimore, but they
failed when their rockets couldn't take out Fort
McHenry, guarding the city. War rockets lasted
another 40 years. They were finally replaced with
heavy artillery as ships became ironclad. So they
died out until the V-2 rockets and bazookas of a
century later. And, today, we celebrate America
with an unsingable English tune about those English
rockets. I do find that hard to understand.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds