Congreve, Sir William

SUBJECT AREA: Weapons and armour
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b. 20 May 1772 London, England
d. 16 May 1828 Toulouse, France
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English developer of military rockets.
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He was the eldest son of Lieutenant-General Sir William Congreve, Colonel Commandant of the Royal Artillery, Superintendent of Military Machines and Superintendent Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, and the daughter of a naval officer. Congreve passed through the Naval Academy at Woolwich and in 1791 was attached to the Royal Laboratory (formerly known as the Woolwich Arsenal), of which his father was then in command. In the 1790s, an Indian prince, Hyder Ali, had had some success against British troops with solid-fuelled rockets, and young Congreve set himself to develop the idea. By about 1806 he had made some 13,000 rockets, each with a range of about 2 km (1¼ miles). The War Office approved their use, and they were first tested in action at sea during the sieges of Boulogne and Copenhagen in 1806 and 1807 respectively. Congreve was commissioned to raise two companies of rocket artillery; in 1813 he commanded one of his rocket companies at the Battle of Leipzig, where although the rockets did little damage to the enemy, the noise and glare of the explosions had a considerable effect in frightening the French and caused great confusion; for this, the Tsar of Russia awarded Congreve a knighthood. The rockets were similarly effective in other battles, including the British attack on Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, in 1814; it is said that this was the inspiration for the lines "the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air" in Francis Scott Key's poem The Star Spangled Banner, which became the United States' national anthem.
Congreve's father died in 1814, and he succeeded him in the baronetcy and as Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory and Superintendent of Military Machines, holding this post until his death. For the last ten years of his life he was Member of Parliament for Plymouth, having previously represented Gatton when elected for that constituency in 1812.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
FRS 1812.
Further Reading
F.H.Winter, 1990, The First Golden Age of Rocketry: Congreve and Hale Rockets of the Nine-teenth Century, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
IMcN

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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