Online Encyclopedia


Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V06, Page 940 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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SIR WILLIAM CONGREVE, Bart. (1772–1828), British artillerist and inventor, was born on the loth of May 1772, being the eldest son of Lieutenant-General Sir William Congreve (d. 1814), comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, who was made a baronet in 1812. He was educated at Singlewell school, Kent, and (1788–1793) at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking the degrees of B.A. in 1793 and M.A. in 1795. In the latter year he entered the Middle Temple, and up to 18o8 he lived in Garden Court, at first studying law, later editing a political newspaper, and in the end devoting himself to the development of the war rocket, for which he is chiefly remembered. Through his father he enjoyed many opportunities of experimenting with artillery material, and finally in 1805 he was able to demonstrate to the prince regent, Pitt and others the uses of the new weapon. In 18o5 he accompanied Sir Sidney Smith in a naval attack on the French flotilla at Boulogne, but the weather prevented the use of rockets. In another attack on Boulogne in 18o6, however, the Congreve rockets, which were fired in salvos from boats of special construction, were very effectual, and in 1807, 18o8 and 1809 they were employed with excellent results on land and afloat at the siege of Copenhagen, in Lord Gambier's fight in the Basque Roads and in the Walcheren expedition. Congreve himself was present in all these affairs. In 1810 or 1811 he became equerry to the prince regent, with whom he was a great favourite, and in 1811 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; in the same year he at last received military rank, being gazetted lieutenant-colonel in the Hanoverian artillery. In 1812 he became member of parliament for Gatton. In 1813, at the request of the admiralty, he designed a new gun for the armament of frigates, which was adopted and very favourably reported on. In the same year the newly formed "Rocket Troop" of the Royal Artillery was sent to serve with the Allies in Germany, and this troop rendered excellent service at the battle of Leipzig, where its commander Captain Bogue was killed. In recognition of their services Congreve was shortly afterwards decorated by the sovereigns of Russia and Sweden. Many years later the Congreve rocket was superseded by Hale's, which had no stick. In 1814, on the death of his father, Colonel Congreve succeeded to the baronetcy and also to the office of comptroller of the Royal Laboratory. He also became inspector of military machines, but his Hanoverian commission did not (it seems) entitle him to command troops of the Royal Artillery, and there was a certain amount of friction and jealousy between Congreve and the Royal Artillery officers. During the visit of the allied sovereigns to London in this year, Congreve arranged the fetes and especially the pyrotechnic displays which the prince regent gave in their honour. In 1817 he became senior equerry to the prince and a K.H., and in 1818 major-general d la suite of the Hanoverian army. In 182o Sir William Congreve was elected M.P. for Plymouth (for which constituency he sat until his death), and in the following year, at the coronation of George IV. (whose senior equerry he remained), he arranged a great pyrotechnic display in Hyde Park. In his later years Congreve took a prominent part in various industrial ventures, such as gas companies, which, however, were for the most part unsuccessful. He died at Toulouse on the 16th of May 1828. Congreve was an ingenious and versatile man of science. Besides the war rocket he invented a gun-recoil mounting, a time-fuze, a parachute attachment to the rocket, a hydro-pneumatic canal lock and sluice (1813), a perpetual motion machine (see PERPETUAL MOTION), a process of colour printing (1821) which was widely used in Germany, a new form of steam-engine, and a method of consuming smoke (which was applied at the Royal Laboratory); he also took out patents for a clock in which time was measured by a ball rolling on an inclined plane; for protecting buildings against fire; inlaying and combining metals; unforgeable bank-note paper; a method of killing whales by means of rockets; improvements in the manufacture of gunpowder; stereotype plates; fireworks; gas meters, &c. The first friction matches made in England (1827) were named after him by their inventor, John Walker. He published a number of works, including three treatises on The Congreve Rocket System (1807, 1817 and 1821; the last was translated into German, Weimar, 1829); An Elementary Treatise on the Mounting of Naval Ordnance (1812); A Description of the Hydropneumatical Lock (1815); A New Principle of Steam-Engine (1819); Resumption of Cash Payments (1819); Systems of Currency (1819), &c. See Colonel J. R. J. Jocelyn in Journal of the Royal Artillery, vol. 32, No. I1, and sources therein referred to. The account in the Dictionary of National Biography is very inaccurate.

Additional information and Comments

I have recently published a biography of William Congreve which should be a useful additional reference:- James Earle "Commodore Squib: The Life, Times and Secretive Wars of England's First Rocket Man, Sir William Congreve, 1772-1828" (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010), 270p., illus. ISBN 1-4438-1770-8 Jim Earle
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