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British Industrial History

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William Congreve

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Sir William Congreve (1772–1828), second baronet, rocket designer

1772 born, perhaps at Homerton (where he was baptized), the eldest son of Captain-Lieutenant William Congreve, first baronet (1743–1814), Royal Artillery, and his first wife, Rebecca.

Little is known of Congreve's early career.

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.

1804 Congreve seems to have withdrawn from publishing and applied himself to inventing.

During the threat of French invasion, as a member of the Society for the Improvement of Naval Architecture, he proposed an oar-powered, iron-armoured floating battery but it was never constructed. He also proposed a large flotilla of mortar boats to destroy the Boulogne invasion flotilla and attack enemy ports.

1804 At his own expense, he began experimenting with rockets at Woolwich (his father was comptroller of the royal laboratory at Woolwich from 1789 to 1814). Through his father he gained official backing, and his rockets were manufactured at the Royal Arsenal.

1805 Demonstrated his rockets to William Pitt, the prime minister, at the Woolwich marshes. The rockets were rushed into production at Woolwich. They were first used in a naval attack on Boulogne in November 1805 but the attack failed

1806 Congreve replaced paper-cased by iron-cased rockets. The latter were used, directed by Congreve, in an attack on Boulogne in October 1806 and were considered by the British to be successful

1807 Congreve directed the successful rocket bombardment of Copenhagen. Rockets were also used elsewhere.

1811 Congreve was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

1812 When Drury Lane Theatre in London was rebuilt after a fire in 1809, he designed its anti-fire water system - see Taylor and Millington

1814 Congreve succeeded as baronet, afterwards taking over his father's official appointments. He was the only head of the royal laboratory in the nineteenth century who was not a Royal Artillery officer.

1816 Made a KCH.

Continued to promote the advantages of rockets over conventional artillery.

He had his own private rocket factory at West Ham; the East India Company was a customer.

Made various inventions, including an improved process of gunpowder manufacture, a hydro-pneumatic canal lock and sluice, a colour-printing process, a rolling-ball clock, and a "perpetual motion machine", taking out at least eighteen patents.

1820 Patented a process known as compound-plate printing, to overcome the problem of forgery of bank notes. It entailed the construction of elaborately engraved printing plates, which would print complicated designs in two colours. Bryan Donkin built a geometric lathe, or ‘rose engine’ to engrave the security printing plates.

1824 Patent for improved method of stamping [1]

1824 Patented a meter for registered the flow of gas through a pipe or cock where the pressure is uniform, by registering the length of time the tap was open.

He was prominent in various industrial ventures, such as gas companies, which were mostly unsuccessful.

He became paralysed in the lower part of his body.

1828 Died in Toulouse.

Hale rockets, derived from Congreve's, were used in colonial campaigns to the end of the century.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Mechanics Magazine 1824/04/03
  • Biography of Sir William Congreve, ODNB