Sultan and the art of Rocketery:
Rockets helped the Mysore army to achieve a famous victory
over the British in 1780. The army was led by Hyder Ali,
a bold officer who had become the effective ruler of the
state, and his son Tipu. The battle is celebrated in a mural
at the summer palace in Tipu's capital, Srirangapatna. "The
fortunes of the English in India had fallen to their lowest
water-mark," said the British historian Sir Alfred Lyall,
writing in 1914 about his battle in the second Anglo-Mysore
A celebrated victim of such a rocket attack was Colonel
Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington and hero of Waterloo).
In the fourth Anglo-Mysore War of 1799, Wellesley suffered
a nasty encounter in a mango grove just outside Srirangapatna.
He lost his way, several of his men were killed and the
rest retreated in disorder. This incident had an indelible
effect on Wellington, for even late in life he would revert
to it with his own "explanations", presumably to counter
what his detractors hinted was a blot on his career.
The Rocket Corps in the Mysore army was 5,000 strong in
Tipu's time. His rocketmen were skilled in adjusting the
elevation of the rocket depending on its size and the distance
to the target, and they launched rockets rapidly using a
wheeled cart with ramps. Tipu was a 'technology buff', and
promoted the manufacture of rockets and other novel devices
in areas of his towns often called Tara Mandalpet (which
translates loosely as Galaxy Bazaar, probably named after
the spectacular firework known as a star cluster). The rockets'
range was typically 2.4 kilometres, an outstanding performance
for the time, attributable chiefly to the iron employed
for the casing. Indian iron and steel had long been about
the best in the world, and permitted increased bursting
pressures and hence higher propellant packing density. (European
rockets still used some kind of pasteboard.)
The British were so impressed by these rockets that they
soon began a vigourous technology programme led by Colonel
William Congreve. Several Indian rocket cases were sent
to Britain for analysis. In 1801-02, Congreve confirmed
with tests that the biggest sky-rockets then available in
London had a range less than half that of the Mysore rockets.
At the Royal Laboratory a Woolwich Arsenal, he tested various
combinations for propellant, and developed a series of rockets
with a stout iron case, and iron hoops on one side making
it easier to fix the stabilizing stick.
In 1804, he published A Concise Account of the Origin and
Progress of the Rocket System. Reasoning on the basis of
the Newton's third law of motion, he recognised that the
rocket did not suffer from the recoil that made cannons
so difficult to use on ships. In 1806, a rocket attacked
on Boulogne, where Napoleon had assembled forces to take
war to British soil, set the town on fire, and ended French
plans for a cross-Channel expedition. This success was followed
by the use of rockets in various other wars in Europe, and
in the United States in the War of 1812, when rockets were
responsible for the fall of the city of Washington.
One major reason for interest in this episode is that it
occurred during a time of global transition in geopolitics,
economics and technology. Clearly, even in the late eighteenth
century there were several Indian products technologically
superior to Western equivalents, and this was recognised
by both sides. But the British effort that followed had
the sophistication of research and development today. Scientific
principles were applied, designs made, products developed
and tested, and all of this was carefully documented - a
process alien to Indians of that time. The Indian rockets
were well-made but not standardized, being the creation
of traditional artisans.