Kent Scientists

William Congreve* (1772-1828) 

Worked in Woolwich at the Royal Laboratory.

Pioneer of rocket warfare

William Congreve

Sir William Congreve, 2nd Bt by James Lonsdale, oil on canvas, c1812 NPG 982f

© National Portrait Gallery, London

 In 1805 Britain was at war. Napoleon’s army was massed on the north French coast and threatened invasion. In September of that year the Prime Minister, William Pitt, journeyed down to Woolwich in North Kent with some of his ministers to witness the demonstration of a possible new weapon which might give Britain the edge in battle. The weapon was a rocket and it had been developed, at his own expense, by the 30-year old William Congreve, son of the man in charge of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich where munitions were made (later renamed the Royal Arsenal, from which the celebrated football club takes its name).  

William Congreve did not originate the idea of the military rocket – rockets had previously been used against the British in India – but he improved the design, developed a better solid fuel, and fervently canvassed support for their use in warfare. The demonstration at Woolwich had been judged a success. With the backing of the Prime Minister, and also the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV, Congreve was given the go-ahead for the production of his rockets in their thousands at his father’s Royal Laboratory.   

Congreve's diagram of the sizes of rockets made at Woolwich, from his book 'Details of the Rocket System' (Google books)

Congreve’s rockets would today be classed as unguided surface-to-surface missiles. Their principle was no different from the fireworks which had been in use in China for centuries. The Woolwich Laboratory eventually made them in a range of sizes of which a typical one for battlefield use was the 32-pounder. It consisted of a metre-long iron tube, 10 cm in diameter, packed with gunpowder propellant and attached to a wooden stick nearly 5 metres long which helped to keep it on a steady course. Its nose-cone carried either 5 kg of high explosive, or combustible material for starting fires. Launched at the optimum angle to the ground, this weapon had a range of up to 3000 yards.  

In October 1806 a fusillade of 200 of these Congreve Rockets was launched on the town of Boulogne from a flotilla of small boats out at sea, starting fires in the town and causing the complete ‘dismay and astonishment’ of the enemy, according to Congreve who was there at the time. Three years later he was out at sea again with as many as 1200 rockets mounted in the rigging of ships taking part in the naval battle against the French at Basque Roads in the Bay of Biscay. It is not clear whether the rockets made any significant contributed to the engagement.  

Congreve's rockets could be launched from iron tubes attached to a ladder. From his book 'Details of the Rocket System' (Google books)

In 1813 Congreve was responsible for setting up two Royal Artillery Rocket Troops, one of which he commanded at the Battle of Leipzig, where the main effect of the rockets was in frightening the French and sowing confusion. For this Congreve was knighted by the Tsar of Russia, some of whose troops were also involved in the battle. Another engagement in which rockets played a part was the British assault on Fort McHenry, near Baltimore in 1814 (giving rise to the inclusion of a mention of ‘the rocket’s red glare’ in the American national anthem). A few rockets were even launched during the Battle of Waterloo, though the Duke of Wellington was always sceptical about their worth.  

As conventional artillery improved in power and accuracy, military rockets fell further from favour, only to become important again when Hitler deployed his V2 records in World War II. On the 19th century battlefield their value had in any case mainly been psychological. The imminent arrival of a salvo of rockets, hissing malevolently and spewing fire, could be relied on to engender panic and terror. A contemporary described them as ‘fiery serpents in the sky’.  

In 1814 Congreve succeeded his father as a baronet and as Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory in Woolwich, with the rank of Major-General. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and became an MP, but eventually fled abroad when it became apparent he was deeply involved in financial fraud. He died in Toulouse in May 1828 and is buried there. Announcing the death, a French newspaper described him as ‘The English General of Artillery, who acquired so much renown by the deadly rockets which he invented’, adding, improbably, that he ... ‘has left a widow, several children and an immense fortune’. (The paper also records that towards the end of his life, having lost the use of his legs, Congreve ‘invented a mechanically arranged chair or sofa, which enabled him to move about his apartments without any assistance’.)  

*Not to be confused with the English dramatist of the same name who lived from 1670 to 1729.