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Tipu 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 War.

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.



Professor Roddam Narasimha FRS.
Director, National Institute of Advanced Studies
--- NATURE / VOL 400 / 8 JULY, 1999 /