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Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet


Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet

Sir William Congreve, 2nd Bt, by James Lonsdale (died 1839)

Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet KCH FRS (20 May 1772 – 16 May 1828) was an English inventor and rocket artillery pioneer distinguished for his development and deployment of Congreve rockets, and a Tory Member of Parliament (MP).


  • Biography 1
  • Congreve Rockets 2
  • Other inventions 3
  • Publications 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


He was son of Lt. General Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet, the Comptroller of the Royal Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal and raised in Kent, England. He was educated at Newcome's school in Hackney, Wolverhampton Grammar School and Singlewell School in Kent. He then studied law at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1793 and MA in 1796.[1] In 1814 he succeeded his father as second Baronet Congreve.

In 1803 he was a volunteer in the London and Westminster Light Horse, and was a London businessman who published a polemical newspaper, the Royal Standard and Political Register, which was Tory, pro-government and anti-Cobbett. Following a damaging libel action against it in 1804, Congreve withdrew from publishing and applied himself to inventing. Many years previously, several unsuccessful experiments had been made at the Royal Laboratory in Woolwich by Lieut General Thomas Desaguliers. In 1804, at his own expense, began experimenting with rockets at Woolwich.[2]

Congreve was awarded the honorary rank of Battle of Leipzig in 1813[2] and 1816 he was made Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order (KCH).[4] In 1821 he was awarded the Order of the Sword by the King of Sweden.[4]

He enjoyed the friendship of the

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Benjamin Bloomfield
Sir Charles Pole
Member of Parliament for Plymouth
with Sir Charles Pole (1818)
with Sir Thomas Byam Martin (1818–1828)

Succeeded by
Sir George Cockburn
Sir Thomas Byam Martin
  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Sir William Congreve
  • Royal Artillery of the Napoleonic Wars

External links

  • James Earle "Commodore Squib: The Life, Times and Secretive Wars of England's First Rocket Man, Sir William Congreve, 1772–1828" (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 270p., illus. ISBN 1-4438-1770-8
  • Frank H. Winter The First Golden Age of Rocketry (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 322p., illus. ISBN 0-87474-987-5
  1. ^ Venn recorded these educational details for a William Congreve, but without identifying him with his "illustrious contemporary namesake", the inventor. "Congreve, William (CNGV788W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 12. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 941.  Article by Roger T. Stearn.
  3. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 23 December 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 12. p. 942. 
  5. ^ "Tipu's missile launch pad in shambles". The Hindu (Karnataka, India). 23 June 2005. Retrieved 16 December 2011. 
  6. ^ Frederick C. Durant III, Stephen Oliver Fought, John F. Guilmartin, Jr. "Rocket and missile system". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 19 December 2011. 
  7. ^ Baker D (1978) The Rocket, New Cavendish Books, London
  8. ^ Von Braun W, Ordway III F. I. History of rocketry and space travel, Nelson
  9. ^ Ley E (1958). Rockets, missiles, and space travel, Chapman & Hall, London
  10. ^ Patrick M. Geoghegan(2003) Robert Emmet: a life, p.107, McGill-Queens University Press, Canada
  11. ^ The First Golden Age of Rocketry, p21
  12. ^ He registered 18 patents, of which 2 were for rockets
  13. ^  "Congreve, William (1772–1828)".  


See also

In 1804 Congreve published A concise account of the origin and progress of the rocket system. Publication of A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System by William Congreve was in 1807.[13] In 1814 Congreve published The details of the rocket system. In 1827 The Congreve Rocket System was published in London. His other publications were: An Elementary Treatise on the Mounting of Naval Ordnance (1812); A Description of the Hydropneumatical Lock (1815); A New Principle of Steam-Engine (1819); Resumption of Cash Payments (1819) and Systems of Currency (1819).


Congreve's unsuccessful perpetual motion scheme involved an endless band which should raise more water by its capillary action on one side than on the other. He used capillary action of fluids that would disobey the law of never rising above their own level, so to produce a continual ascent and overflow. The device had an inclined plane over pulleys. At the top and bottom, there travelled an endless band of sponge, a bed, and, over this, again an endless band of heavy weights jointed together. The whole stood over the surface of still water. The capillary action raised the water, whereas the same thing could not happen in the part, since the weights would squeeze the water out. Hence, it was heavier than the other; but as "we know that if it were the same weight, there would be equilibrium, if the heavy chain be also uniform". Therefore the extra weight of it would cause the chain to move round in the direction of the arrow, and this would go on, supposedly, continually.

Besides his rockets, Congreve was a prolific (if indifferently successful) bank note paper; a method of killing whales by means of rockets; improvements in the manufacture of gunpowder; stereotype plates; fireworks; and gas meters. Congreve was named as comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich from 1814 until his death. (Congreve's father Sir William Congreve had also held the same post.)

Other inventions

Congreve rockets from Congreve's original work

Congreve rockets were successfully used for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars, with the most celebrated employment of the weapon being at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. In the War of 1812; the "rockets' red glare" in the American national anthem describes their firing at Fort McHenry during this conflict. In January 1814 the Royal Artillery absorbed the various companies armed with rockets into two Rocket Troops within the Royal Horse Artillery. They remained in the arsenal of the United Kingdom until the 1850s. He organized the impressive firework displays in London for the peace of 1814 and for the coronation of George IV in 1821.

Congreve first demonstrated solid fuel rockets at the Royal Arsenal in 1805. He considered his work sufficiently advanced to engage in two Royal Navy attacks on the French fleet at Boulogne, France, one that year and one the next. In 1807 Congreve and sixteen Ordnance Department civilian employees were present at the Bombardment of Copenhagen, during which 300 rockets contributed to the conflagration of the city.[11]

It has been suggested that Congreve may have adapted iron-cased gunpowder rockets for use by the British military from prototypes created by the Irish nationalist Robert Emmet during Emmet's Rebellion in 1803.[10] But this seems far less likely given the fact that the British had been exposed to Indian rockets since 1780 at the latest, and that a vast quantity of unused rockets and their construction equipment fell into British hands at the end of the Anglo-Mysore Wars in 1799, 4 years before Emmet's rockets.

The Indian rocket experiences, mentioned in Munro's book of 1789,[7] eventually led to the Royal Arsenal beginning a military rocket R&D program in 1801. Several rocket cases were collected from Mysore and sent to Britain for analysis. The development was chiefly the work of William Congreve, who set up a research and development programme at the Woolwich Arsenal's laboratory. After development work was complete the rockets were manufactured in quantity further north, near Waltham Abbey, Essex. He was told that "the British at Seringapatam had suffered more from the rockets than from the shells or any other weapon used by the enemy".[8] "In at least one instance", an eye-witness told Congreve, "a single rocket had killed three men and badly wounded others".[9]

In battles at Seringapatam in 1792 and 1799 these rockets were used with considerable effect against the British.[6]

Mysorean rockets were the first iron - cased rockets that were successfully deployed for military use. Hyder Ali, the 18th century ruler of Mysore and his son and successor Tipu Sultan used them effectively against the British East India Company during the Anglo-Mysore Wars, beginning in 1780 with the Battle of Pollilur (1780).[5]

Tip of a Congreve rocket, on display at Paris naval museum

Congreve Rockets

He died in Toulouse, France in May 1828, aged 55, and was buried there in the Protestant and Jewish cemetery of Terre Cabade.

In later years he became a businessman and was chairman of the Equitable Loan Bank, director of the Arigna Iron and Coal Company, the Palladium Insurance Company and the Peruvian Mining Company. After a major fraud case began against him in 1826 in connection with the Arigna company, he fled to France, where he was taken seriously ill. He was prosecuted in his absence, the Lord Chancellor ultimately ruling, just before Congreve's death, that the transaction was 'clearly fraudlent' and designed to profit Congreve and others.[4]

After living with a mistress and fathering two illegitimate sons, he married in December 1824, at Wessel, Prussia, Isabella Carvalho (or Charlotte), a young woman of Portuguese descent and widow of Henry Nisbett McEvoy. They had two sons and a daughter.[4]

Earlier in 1812 he offered to contest for Parliament the borough of Liverpool but withdrew before polling for lack of support. He entered Parliament later that year when he was nominated as MP for the rotten borough of Gatton in 1812, but withdrew at the next elections in 1814 in favour of the son of the borough's proprietor Sir Mark Wood.[2] In 1818 he was returned as Member for Plymouth, a seat he held until his death.[4]


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