Mysorean rocket — precursor to modern rocketry

Both 18th century rulers Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan of Mysore, south India used missiles/rockets against the British army (EIC). Heat-resistant iron-cased, the humble Mysorian rockets introduced by them gave confidence to Europeans to develop the rocket technology further.

Mysorean rockets and EIC’ sarmy, Wikipedia

the annals of history of human civilization and wars between kingdoms, security of countries became an important issue and the rulers had to use various military warfare and tools as deterrent to invasions by other countries. Since the first century several innovations had been made in the areas of military equipment and defense. Basic rocket-missile technology had been known since the 13th century. The Chinese, Europeans and India’s Mogul rulers used them in their battles against the invaders in the 14th and 15th centuries. Made of light materials like cardboard with poorly designed combustion chamber, these rockets neither traveled long distance, nor did they inflict considerable damage on the enemy to instill fear. Ineffective as they were, they did not give the desired results, so the army gave up on missiles and instead favored the use of canons and artillery in the battlefields,despite the problems of taking them to the battle fields when they on the offensive mode. Transportation of the big canons from one place to another in those days was quite cumbersome,but inivitable.

Mysorean rockets,

Above image: Use of rockets in an assault by Mysorean troops on Travancore Line fortification (29 December 1789)……wikipedia

One of the most effective offensive military innovations in rocketry in the 18th century introduced by Hyder Ali, the de facto ruler of Mysore, South India and his son Tipu Sultan in the Carnatic wars against the British East India company’s army was called ‘’Mysorean Rockets’’. They are said to be the ’ scourge of the mighty British company’s army. These missiles, fitted with swords, spears and sharp objects, upon controlled firing, would travel long distance several hundred meters above in air before coming down with sharp edges facing the enemy line. The specialty about these rockets was they were iron cased. Heat resisting light-weight iron-tubes were ingeniously used to hold the propellants which gave them better forward thrust and long range in the air more than one km.

The European rockets then were not that powerful and not iron cased, and their range was far less than that of their oriental counterparts. So the European missiles were no match for the ones used by the Indian rulers. While these Mysorian soft iron rockets were crude, the bursting strength of the container of black powder was much higher than the earlier paper construction. One of the added feature is the generation of higher internal pressure in the chamber essential for forward thrust in the air and range.
The Mysore rockets of this period were much more advanced than what the British had seen and used at that point of time. They were successfully deployed by the Mysore rulers for military use against the enemies. Both Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the 18th century rulers of Mysore and arch enemies of the English company, used them effectively and persistently against the formidable British army during the successive Angelo-Mysore wars 1780s and 1790s.
Their frequent conflicts and confrontation with the English company exposed the British to this sort of crude technology, which was then used as a foundation to advance European rocketry with the development of the Congreve rocket in battles at Srirangapatam in 1792 and 1799. These rockets were used with considerable results against the British which made them run helter skelter for shelter. The rockets landed on them with a big bang.

Hyder Ali got this rocket technology from his father who was a Naik/constable with the Arcot of Nawab. He commanded 50 rocket men for the Nawab at Budicote. There was a separate regular rocket corps in the Mysore Army, beginning with about 1,200 men in Hyder Ali’s time. At the Battle of Pollilur (1780), during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, the British forces led by Colonel William Baillie faced humiliating defeat because Hyder Ali’s rockets hit the ammunition depots and detonated them, causing explosion and destruction of their depots. This fire power of the Sultan sent Duke Wellington and Arthur Wellesley to the edge of the cliff leaving them at their wit’s end.

Mysore rockets designed by Tipu Sultan, India

Above image: Tipu Sultan organised his Rocket artillery brigades known as Cushoons, Tipu Sultan expanded the number of servicemen in the various Cushoons from 1500 to almost 5000. The Mysorean rockets utilized by Tipu Sultan, were later updated by the British and successively employed during the Napoleonic ………………..

Tipu Sultan wrote a military manual called Fathul Mujahidin in which it was mentioned that 200 rocket men were assigned to each Mysorean “cushoon” (brigade). Mysore had 16 to 24 cushoons of infantry. The rocket men were specially trained to launch their rockets at an angle calculated from the diameter of the cylinder and the distance to the target. In addition, wheeled rocket launchers capable of launching five to ten rockets almost simultaneously were used in the war. Rockets could be of various sizes, but usually consisted of a tube of soft hammered iron about 8 inches (20 cm) long and 1.5 to 3 in (3.8 to 7.6 cm) in diameter, closed at one end and strapped to a shaft of bamboo about 4 ft (1m) long. The heat-resistant iron tube acted as a combustion chamber and contained well-packed black powder propellant. A rocket carrying about one pound of powder could travel almost 1,000 yards.

The Guntur Iron-cased rockets introduced by Hyder Ali in 1780 had devastating impact on the British army men during the Mysore wars.
These were used in the wars against Napolean and the US in 1812. Thereafter, rocket technology saw a lull in development until it was revived by one Robert Goddard from the US who designed the first liquid fuel rockets in 1936 and in the 1950 and 1960s by Werner Von Braun.

Taking advantage of talented workforce, foundries and the availability of superior quality of hammered iron in Mysore and in the suburbs, Tipu also established four taramandalpets ( ‘star-cluster bazaars’) at Srirangapatna, Bangalore, Chitradurga and Bidanur (present-day Nagara in central Karnataka) to conduct research on rocket technology. Here, the craftsmen did elaborate research on iron-casing and casting, range of rockets, angle of launch, accuracy, etc. They were taught calculation with respect to long range, amount of gunpowder needed, weight of rocket, bursting time, etc. They also did research on wheeled cart fitted with rocket ramps to launch multiple rockets at a time say 12 by the artillery brigades (Cushoons). The entire road alongside Jumma Masjid near City Market, Bangalore city was the hub of Tipu’s rocket project. ‘’ Mysore was the first state in the world to have moved to the next stage of rocket development from wooden firework rockets to metal war rockets successfully.

Tipu Sultan, multiple rocket launcher.
Tipu Sultan’s rockets, Mysore

Knowing the strength of the British army led by Lt.Col Knox Tipu Sultan in February 1792 during the Third Anglo-Mysore War near Srirangapatna, employed two rocket unit, one with 120 men and the other with 131 men. While on the move near the Cauvery river, from the north Tipu increased the strength of the rocket corps to roughly 5000 men. The effect was quite devastating. During the 4th Angelo-Mysore war, on several occasions, Tipu used the Mysorean rockets successfully against the English army led by none other than Colonel Arthur Wellesley ( Later became the First Duke of Wellington).

An interesting information that we get about Tipu’s innovative rockets is they were also put to some other use, besides military warfare. For ceremonial purposes, Mysore rockets were also used. It was something like honoring a visiting dignitary by way of giving gun salute. When the Jacobin Club of Mysore sent a delegation to Tipu Sultan, 500 rockets were launched as part of the gun salute.

Colonel Arthur Wellesley, at the Battle of Sultanpet Tope, almost faced defeat. Twelve days before the major battle, marking the start of a major assault, a large number of rockets were fired simultaneously backed by 6,000 Indian infantry and a corps of Frenchmen. The rockets functioned differently, some had a good range of about 1,000 yards, some would burst in the air like shells, while others (known as ground rockets) would rise again upon hitting the ground and move along in a serpentine motion until their force was spent. The instant bamboo stick or sword blade attached to the rocket passed through a man’s body on impact. It could kill or severely wound 10 to 15 men till the combustion chamber becomes empty. A young English officer named Baley lamented: “So pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from the destructive missiles”. Even before the death of Tipu in May 1799 (he was shot by a British soldier), the hail of Tipu’s rockets haunted the British , causing explosions, physical injuries, lacerations, etc.

Upon the death of Tipu Sultan on 4 May 1799, on orders from Wellesley, the British seized the Srirangapatna fort, the main seat of power of Tipu. To their astonishment, the British army found 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets at Tipu’s fort. Many of these were carefully packed and sent to the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich (where two specimens are still preserved), inspiring it to start a a military rocket research and development program in 1801. It was here, the British rocket man
William Congreve started researching them and came up with the Congreve rocket — it had collapsible frames for launching with better range and impact power. In 1815, these Congreve rockets boosted the morale of the British army led by Wellesley who defeated the French army at Waterloo.

Late Dr. Abdul Kalam, a missile expert of international repute, former Director of India’a Space Agency and former President of India, was fascinated by Tipu Sultan’s Mysorean rockets and wanted to have a museum opened in this field soon. Only on 22 November, 2019, a museum on Tipu’s rockets was opened in Shivamogga city. The rockets on display were recovered from an old well at Nagara village in Hosanagar taluk, Karnataka. Glad that the dream of Dr. Abdul Kalam, a highly spirited and patriotic man, has been fulfilled. On display in the new museum is a large cache of 1,700 such rockets that were recovered from an old well at Nagara village in Hosanagar taluk last year.. No doubt, the humble Mysorian rockets introduced by rulers Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan gave confidence to Europeans to develop the rocket technology further. The pioneering works of the British using the Indian rockets in the Angelo-Mysorian wars as models gave inspiration to the later rocket scientists.


originally published at modification made June 12, 2020)

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