430. The Rocket’s Red Glare

from Congreve’s original work.

“Oh, say can you see . . .”

No, this is not going to be about the NFL. It’s going to be about the rockets which figure into the anthem, into history, and into the steampunk novel The Cost of Empire, which I am now writing.

Rockets got their start in China, where they were used as fireworks and as military weapons. Just keep that in the back of your mind. We are going to start in the present and move backward in time, but not all the way to China.

When the average American sings the Star Spangled Banner — or mouths it, since it is a hard song to sing — it is unlikely that the image in his mind looks anything like the rockets which actually burst in air over Fort McHenry. My generation has V-2 rockets in our DNA, largely because early SF films used actual films of V-2 rockets as stand-ins before special effects were perfected. A later generation has Saturn-V rockets imprinted on their brain. To both, rockets are pointy ended cylinders with the flames coming out of the bottom.

Not so in 1814. The rockets that rained down on Fort McHenry looked more like fireworks rockets. They were called Congreves and a page of drawings of them is given at the top of the post. Some were explosive tipped. Some were parachute flares, which “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” All were guided, more or less, by a long stick that acted like a rudder, similar in function to the fins on a V-2.

They were nothing like accurate. That was the way of things before modern times. If you recall the battle of Agincourt in the movie version of Henry V, the English longbow men drew back together and fired hundreds of arrows simultaneously at a high trajectory, which rained down en masse on the French. The battle of Hastings was lost when King Harold Godwinson looked up at a bad moment and caught such an incoming arrow in the eye. Muskets in that era were also nothing like accurate, so lines of musket men firing together in the same direction managed to hit somebody, but probably not the targets they were aiming at.

William Congreve (not the playwrite and poet) gets credit and naming rights for the Congreve rocket, and he did make improvements, but his work was based on rockets captured in India.  Which brings me to why I’m writing this post. Here is a quote from The Cost of Empire. An Englishman who has gone native in India is speaking:

“About a hundred years ago this whole region was called Mysore and Hyder Ali was in charge. He fought the British and all the Indian princes around that kept shifting from the British side to his and back again. After he was killed, his son Tipu Sultan took over and formed an alliance with the French.

“It’s an old story. The same pattern happened all over India, as we British took over one region at a time. But this story has a kicker. Rockets.

“Rockets came from China. Everybody knows that, but they were widely used in India as well. Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan used them extensively; some of their rocket brigades had over a thousand men. Rockets were made that exploded, that set fires, and even that had sword blades attached so when they came down spinning, they made a bloody mess of British ground troops.

“When the Mysore wars were over, the winners sent hundreds of captured rockets back to England. Congreve studied them and replicated them. The Congreve rockets we used all throughout the Napoleonic wars were just English versions of what Hyder Ali had used against us.”

The old guy is telling this story because a group calling themselves the Sons of Hyder Ali have built an arsenal full of rockets. They have bad feelings toward the British and a plan concerning the flotilla of dirigibles our hero is serving on.

I would tell you more, but that would be a spoiler.


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