Book Excerpt: Tipu Sultan's Sword Rocket
It's book excerpt day! here's an entry from "The First Seven Centuries of Rocketry:"
Rockets of Tipu Sultan
In five centuries, Europeans did not take the rocket far beyond its modest origins. Indians, on the other hand, had made far greater improvements in the war rocket by the late 18th century. The origin of the rocket in India is cloudy, but historians are certain that there were rockets in India by 1500—an eyewitness wrote of festive rockets fired at a wedding in 1515. While most historians believe that India imported the rocket from China, they can’t rule out the possibility that Indians invented the rocket first.
The Scottish adventurer Quintin Crauford gives us the first description of Indian war rockets, in his 1790 book, Sketches Chiefly Relating to the History, Religion, Learning and Manners of the Hindoos. He describes war rockets in parts of India outside Muslim and European influence. These comprised a 1.5-inch by 8-inch (38 mm x 200 mm) tube strapped to a four-foot (1.2 m) bamboo guidestick, “scarcely as thick as a walking cane.” A conical iron spike protruded from the front end of the bamboo, an illustration from Crauford’s book appears below.
The most influential rockets from India, however, came from Muslim-controlled Mysore. In the 1700’s, the Indian Subcontinent was fragmented into smaller territories ruled by an assortment of leaders. Haidar Ali (sometimes spelled Hyder Ali) was the ruler of Mysore, one of India’s larger independent states, and his armies included 1200 rocketeers equipped with iron-cased rockets. Until his time, rocket motors were paper or bamboo tubes packed with gunpowder. By packing powder into iron casings, Haidar created rockets that could sustain higher combustion pressures than their flimsier contemporaries. It helped that 18th century India produced the finest iron in the world.
Haidar, and his son and successor, Tipu Sultan (sometimes spelled Tippoo Sultaun, and sometimes called “the Tiger Sultan”), used these advanced rockets to fend off British efforts to colonize the entirety of India in the late 1700’s.
Two examples of Tipu Sultan’s rockets still exist at the United Kingdom’s Woolwich Arsenal. The simplest is a rough iron tube 1.5 inches (38 mm) in diameter and 7.8 inches (198 mm) long. Quarter-inch wide leather strips hold it to a bamboo guide stick about 3/4 inch (20 mm) in diameter and 75 inches (1.9 m) long. A period watercolor of one of these rockets appears below.
The most intimidating Indian rocket is the sword rocket, detailed in the drawing here. Instead of a bamboo guide stick, Tipu’s craftsmen bound a sword blade to the iron rocket tube. It is said that the added tail weight of the steel blade rendered rockets of this type unstable at burnout. The 40-inch (1 meter) blade would spin about in flight, spiral-slicing any enemy in its path.
Haidar and Tipu put their rockets to use in the Second Anglo-Mysore War on September 10, 1780, at the battle of Pollilur. Reports differ on the range of the Indian rockets; some say 1000 yards (900 meters) and others say 1 1/2 miles (2 1/2 km). In any case, the Indians scored a victory when the rockets ignited a British ammunition dump.
Under Tipu Sultan, Mysore’s rocket troops grew to 5000 men. These rocketeers scored another victory during the Fourth (and final) Anglo-Mysore War, on April 5 1799, defending Tipu's stronghold at Srirangapatna (called Seringapatam in British accounts) when a barrage of iron-cased rockets set the troops of Col. Wellesley running away in a panic (the colonel went on to gain fame from his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, under the name Lord Wellington).
In the end, however, Tipu’s rockets could not stave off the British invaders. Just a month later, on May 4, a British assault captured the island of Srirangapatna in the face of a shower of rockets. Within an hour of taking the island, British troops shot Tipu, ending the war. India would remain under British control until the time of Mahatma Gandhi.
These terrifying and deadly rockets could not save Mysore from British domination, but they would change the course of the rocket’s history. The English army brought back samples of these rockets, and stories of what an iron-cased rocket could do. Inspired by Indian rocketry, the English would make the rocket more important than ever.
The top rocket in the photo below is the sword rocket depicted in the scale drawing:
And now for the spammy bit:
If you'd like a copy of the 42-page booklet, "The First Seven Centuries of Rocketry" you can send me $25 (postpaid in the US) at:
2830 Pittsfield Blvd.
Ann Arbor, MI 48104
If you'd like more info on this and other booklets, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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