Will Robinson

He Shoots To Conquer

Commodore Squib: The Life, Times and Secretive Wars of England’s First Rocket Man, Sir William Congreve, 1772–1828

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Few historical figures exemplify George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that ‘in the arts of peace man is a bungler’ better than Sir William Congreve, Chief Equerry to George IV and inventor of the modern gunpowder rocket.

Born in 1772, Congreve was by turns a failed newspaper editor, lawyer’s clerk and amateur stockbroker, thought to have masterminded one of the biggest financial frauds of the early nineteenth century. Yet he also found time to devote the best part of his life to the art of invention, churning out innumerable half-thought-out schemes ranging from a perpetual-motion engine consisting of chains and sponges to a giant clock with an 11,748-foot pendulum. Were it not for his famous rockets, his name would be no more than a footnote in the history of wacky science. As it is, he has a crater named after him on the Moon and a passing reference in the American national anthem. 

Congreve’s career was effectively determined by his father, also called William, who had been a long-serving Comptroller of the Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. This hard-working technician can be accredited with developing the best gunpowderavailable anywhere in the world at the end of the eighteenth century, far surpassing that used by the French, who had made the error of guillotining their best chemists during the Revolution. The younger William quickly saw that his father’s even-burning powder had more uses than simply increasing the reliability of the conventional artillery used on the high seas. These guns had the problem of being inordinately heavy (up to three tons), with a recoil that could put a hole in the deck and ultimately cause ships to founder. Congreve’s ingenious solution was a rocket that would take off with a flying whizz rather than a deafening bang, travelling up to 3,000 yards with negligible kickback, before setting its intended target ablaze.

Though Congreve had the backing of the far-sighted Prince of Wales, the military men were predictably sceptical of his invention, seeing it as an affront to their chivalric esprit de corps. One admiral even went so far as to say that he depended on all ‘the gallant officers and men under my command to see to their destruction’. But Napoleon’s victories at Ulm and Austerlitz quickly put paid to these noble sentiments. By 1807 Congreve rockets were rainingdown on the ostensibly neutral city of Copenhagen, razing the best part of the town and killing hundreds of civilian men, women and children in the process. The era of modern warfare had reluctantly been accepted by all.

The ‘success’ of these rockets endowed their inventor with a small fortune (he sold his designs no less than three times over), but the political perks mattered far more. He was adamant that he would not end up like one of his numerous rivals, who found themselves ‘compelled to waste their strength in the composition of treatises for periodical works and popular compilations’, as one of them complained. Congreve was obviously not that kind of scientist. Instead he used his growing influence to get hold of a rotten borough and a (Russian) knighthood, and to obtain a chair on the important committee to which all inventions of national importance were presented. His many detractors claimed that he exploited this position to steal their ideas – and, judging from the evidence, one is inclined to think that they were telling the truth.

The Congreve rocket was eventually replaced with a more sophisticated design, but was in all essentials still in use right up until the end of the First World War. James Earle’s pioneering book puts this remarkable invention in its proper historical context with a penetrating and amusing analysis of its far from glorious progenitor. For all his vanity, greed and ineptitude, Commodore Squib (as he was affectionately known to the sailors of the British Navy) played an important part in defeating Napoleon and deserves a high place in the history of technological slaughter.

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