Mysore & the World’s First Rockets
We have all read about the many wars fought by the British, from Plassey, to the Third Anglo- Carnatic, Fourth Anglo - Mysore, Third Anglo-Maratha and Second Anglo-Sikh wars to gain control over the Indian Subcontinent. It is generally accepted that the reason the British won was because they had better technology and deeper pockets. But that is not factually true. Did you know that it is a well-documented fact that the Mysore army of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, was the first in the world to use high-end, deadly iron-cased rockets in war? The British were so awed and inspired by these ‘Mysorean' rockets, that they took the technology with them back to Europe, reverse engineered them and used them against the Americans in the Anglo-American War of 1812. The rockets that were inspired by those made in Mysore, even find a mention in the American National Anthem the ‘Star Spangled Banner’!
The idea of using rockets in war was centuries old. The Chinese were the earliest to use rockets in warfare, against Mongol invaders in 1232 CE. There are also early references to their use by Arabs, some European powers and even the Mughals. However, these earlier rockets were really rudimentary. Made of bamboo, cardboard or wood, they were not very different from the Diwali rockets (fireworks) that are used in India today. Their purpose was also basic. These rockets were mostly used to light the dark night during combat or to frighten enemy horses.
– The Chinese were the earliest to use rockets in warfare, against Mongol invaders in 1232 CE
Noted British historian Roy Porter in his book ‘The Cambridge History of Science: Volume 4, Eighteenth-Century Science’ asserts that it was the Mysore army which first developed the most advanced military rockets of its time and deployed it in war. While in the popular imagination they were called ‘Tipu’s rockets', they were in fact developed and deployed by Tipu Sultan’s father, Hyder Ali.
– The Mysore army even had a regular rocket Corp
Hyder Ali innovated on the earlier gunpowder rockets and transformed them into deadly weapons. The distinctiveness of the Mysorean rocket design lay in its use of iron, rather than the wood tubing used earlier. The cylindrical casing of iron allowed for greater compression, enabling higher thrust and longer range for the missile - as much as 2.4 km, which was the best in the world at that time. For added impact, the rockets were fastened to swords or bamboo poles which provided stability and helped generate a greater bang, causing more destruction with flying shrapnel, at the other end. Furthermore, multiple rocket ramps were set up on wheeled carts so as to allow the rocket artillery brigades to launch about 5-10 rockets simultaneously.
So important were the rockets to the Mysore army that they even had a regular rocket Corps. Beginning with about 1,200 men in Hyder Ali's time, these Mysore ‘Rocketeers’ were 5000 strong by Tipu Sultan’s time.
The most striking account of the use of these rockets comes from a witness of the Battle of Pollilur, fought on 10 September 1780 during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. Hyder Ali launched his supercharged rockets at the William Baillie led army of the East India Company. What followed was chaos and confusion among the British infantry. Besides killing and wounding a large number of men, the rockets also set fire to the British ammunition dumps, resulting in one of the worst ever defeats of the British Army in India. The British soldiers who had never seen anything like this, termed these rockets ‘flying plagues’. Mysore’s victory over the British at Pollilur was commemorated in a mural at Tipu’s summer palace, the Darya Daulat Bagh in Srirangapatna.
To develop these rockets further and ensure they were constantly bettered, Tipu Sultan even set up military research facilities - akin to today’s R&D centres, called Taramandalpeths at Srirangapatna, Bangalore, Chitradurga and Bidanur. Here, experiments were conducted to improve the existing rocket technology and men were taught basic calculations to help them fine-tune launch settings that would allow rockets of different sizes and weights to hit targets at varying distances and elevations. The fascinating fact of these advanced rockets is that these were not made by scientists or engineers but by local craftsmen.
Remembering the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War which reportedly began with a shower of as many as 2,000 rockets fired almost simultaneously, a British officer remarked,
“The rockets and musketry from 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them.”
However, even these rockets were not able to stop Tipu’s downfall against the combined might of the British, Maratha and Nizam’s armies in this battle. The British were able to capture Srirangapatna on 4 May 1799. After Tipu’s fall, 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets were seized from the Mysore armoury.
This was also the year, when the British finally got down to study the Mysore rocket. The same year, in 1799 many sample rockets were sent to the Royal Woolwich Arsenal at Woolwich, where William Congreve (an English inventor and comptroller of the Royal Woolwich Arsenal) started analyzing them and did some fine reverse engineering. He studied the ability of the rockets, their recoil, stability, launching, etc. He made a few additions to the Mysorean rockets and the new ones were used by the British in the Napoleonic Wars - in the decisive Battle of Waterloo, as well as the Anglo-American War of 1812. The rockets even find mention in the American National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner as
‘the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air’.
The glorious tradition of military rockets in India ended with the defeat and death of Tipu Sultan in 1799. Further restrictions on the development of technology by local Indian rulers and the lack of patronage or even a need for the rockets, caused their gradual extinction. They fell into disuse in Europe as well by the middle of 19th century CE as greater advances were made in technology for guns and artillery.
The military rockets were revived by Robert Goddard in the US in the 1920s and reappeared in India only in the 1960s, with the beginning of a space program.
Irrespective of the fall of Mysore or the fate of its King - in the annals of world military history, due credit is still given to the Mysore rocket, invented and used for the very first time, by the kingdom’s army.
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