Rockets in Mysore and Britain, 1750-1850 A.D.
Professor Roddam Narasimha's 1985 lecture on the curious history of rockets


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Rockets, or "fire-arrows" in sme form, have been known for
a long time: the Chinese are recorded as having used them in
1232 A. D., and the Europeans in the 14th and 15th centuries.
After having fallen into disuse with the invention and
improvement of cannon, rockets reemerged in the Mysore of Hyder and Tipu in the second half of the 18th century; this
spectacular revival provides a curious and fascinating episode
in Indo-British technological history.

The Mysore rockets of this period were much more advanced
than what the British had seen or known, chiefly because of the
use of iron tubes for holding the propellant; this enabled
higher bursting pressures in the combustion chamber and hence
higher thrust and longer range for the missile. The rockets
consisted of a tube (about 60 rom diameter and 200 rom long),
fastened to a sword or 3 m bamboo pole, and had a range of 1-2
km. In the famous battle of Pollilur (1780) in which the British
were defeated - a scene celebrated on the walls of Darya Daulat
Bagh in Srirangapatna - a strong contributory cause is thought
to have been the explosion of Colo Baillie’s ammunition
tumbrils, touched off by Mysore rockets. Rockets were used in
the 3rd and 4th Anglo-Mysore Wars as well; although they caused
much confusion and fear especially when used against massed
troops or cavalry, they were too inaccurate to tilt decisively
the fortunes of battle in favour of Tipu.


But the rockets made an extraordinary impression on the
British, and led,from 1801,to what would now be called a
vigorous research and development programme (at the Royal
Woolwich Arsenal). Sir William Congrève made systematic studies
of propellants,analysed performance applying Newton’s laws,
developed a series of rockets of different sizes and character
istics, made a comparative cost analysis and published three
books on the subject. Rockets were soon systematically used by
the British during the Napoleonic Wars and their confrontation
with the US during 1812-14. What is of interest to us is that,
although the technology of the Mysore rockets was superior in
1799, the character of the British effort begun just a few years
later was already vastly more sophisticated, bringing to bear on
the problem an attitude involving science, engineering and
application that was far in advance of anything understood in
India at the time. The news of the Mysore rockets arrived at an
England where the first wave of the Industrial Revolution had begun to
transform radically the attitudes and responses of that
nation.

With the further improvement of guns later in the 19th
century, rockets fell into disuse again (except as toys during
Deepavali or other fireworks displays!). They were to be revived
by Goddard in the US in the 1920s; and reappeared in India only
in the 1960s. with the beginning of a space programme.

( PDF file is from the archives of ICAST, NAL)

Rockets in Mysore and Britain, 1750-1850 A.D., NAL PD DU 8503
Tipu Sultan and the art of Rocketry - Nature / Vol 400 / 8 July 1999

R Narasimha 2003 "Science, Technology and Society: A Tale about Rocket
Development during 1750-1850"  In: The Dynamics of Technology: Creation
and Diffusion of Skills and Knowledge, Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi, 111-136.

Science, Technology and Society: A tale about rocket development
during 1759-1850.  NIAS Report R3-99, National Institute of Advanced
Studies, Bangalore, 1999

When Tipu gave the British a nasty rocket. Science Age, 4-8, October 1985

R Narasimha,   "Rocketing from the Galaxy Bazaar". Nature, Millennium Essay, 400:123, (1999)

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