Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet
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Sir William Congreve, 2nd Baronet KCH FRS (20 May 1772 – 16 May 1828) was an English inventor and rocket artillery pioneer distinguished for his development and deployment of Congreve rockets, and a Tory Member of Parliament (MP).
He was son of Lt. General Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet, the Comptroller of the Royal Laboratories at the Royal Arsenal and raised in Kent, England. He was educated at Newcome's school in Hackney, Wolverhampton Grammar School and Singlewell School in Kent. He then studied law at Trinity College, Cambridge, graduating BA in 1793 and MA in 1796. In 1814 he succeeded his father as second Baronet Congreve.
In 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. Following a damaging libel action against it in 1804, Congreve withdrew from publishing and applied himself to inventing. Rocketry was being developed in several countries and Congreve in 1804, at his own expense, began experimenting with rockets at Woolwich.
Congreve was awarded the honorary rank of Lieutenant colonel in the Hanoverian army's artillery in 1811, and was often referred to as "Colonel Congreve", later made Major general in the same army. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in March that year. He was also awarded the Order of St George of Russia following the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 and 1816 he was made Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order (KCH). In 1821 he was awarded the Order of the Sword by the King of Sweden.
He enjoyed the friendship of the Prince Regent, in whose household he served as an equerry from 1811, carrying on the service when the Prince, who supported his rocket projects, became King George IV in 1820.
Earlier in 1812 he offered to contest for Parliament the borough of Liverpool but withdrew before polling for lack of support. He entered Parliament later that year when he was nominated as MP for the rotten borough of Gatton in 1812, but withdrew at the next elections in 1814 in favour of the son of the borough's proprietor Sir Mark Wood. In 1818 he was returned as Member for Plymouth, a seat he held until his death.
After living with a mistress and fathering two illegitimate sons, he married in December 1824, at Wessel, Prussia, Isabella Carvalho (or Charlotte), a young woman of Portuguese descent and widow of Henry Nisbett McEvoy. They had two sons and a daughter.
In later years he became a businessman and was chairman of the Equitable Loan Bank, director of the Arigna Iron and Coal Company, the Palladium Insurance Company and the Peruvian Mining Company. After a major fraud case began against him in 1826 in connection with the Arigna company, he fled to France, where he was taken seriously ill. He was prosecuted in his absence, the Lord Chancellor ultimately ruling, just before Congreve's death, that the transaction was 'clearly fraudlent' and designed to profit Congreve and others.
He died in Toulouse, France in May 1828, aged 55, and was buried there in the Protestant and Jewish cemetery of Terre Cabade.
The initial inspiration for Congreve rockets is uncertain. They may have been developed from Indian rocket artillery (Cushoon) made from iron tubes. Mysorean rockets were used against the British East India Company by the armies of Tipu Sultan and his father, Hyder Ali, rulers of the kingdom of Mysore in India, during the Battle of Pollilur in 1781. An alternative suggestion is that Congreve adapted iron-cased gunpowder rockets for use by the British military from prototypes created by the Irish nationalist Robert Emmet for use during Emmet's Rebellion in 1803.
Congreve first demonstrated solid fuel rockets at the Royal Arsenal in 1805. He considered his work sufficiently advanced to engage in two Royal Navy attacks on the French fleet at Boulogne, France, one that year and one the next. Parliament authorized Congreve to form two rocket companies for the army in 1809. Congreve subsequently commanded one of these at the Battle of Leipzig in 1813.
Congreve rockets were used for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the War of 1812—the "rockets' red glare" in the American national anthem describes their firing at Fort McHenry during the latter conflict. They remained in the arsenal of the United Kingdom until the 1850s. He organized the impressive firework displays in London for the peace of 1814 and for the coronation of George IV in 1821.
Besides his rockets, Congreve was a prolific (if indifferently successful) inventor for the remainder of his life. Congreve invented a gun-recoil mounting, a time-fuze, a rocket parachute attachment, a hydropneumatic canal lock and sluice (1813), a perpetual motion machine, 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 along a zig-zag track 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; and gas meters. Congreve was named as comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich from 1814 until his death. (Congreve's father Sir William Congreve had also held the same post.)
Congreve's unsuccessful perpetual motion scheme involved an endless band which should raise more water by its capillary action on one side than on the other. He used capillary action of fluids that would disobey the law of never rising above their own level, so to produce a continual ascent and overflow. The device had an inclined plane over pulleys. At the top and bottom, there travelled an endless band of sponge, a bed, and, over this, again an endless band of heavy weights jointed together. The whole stood over the surface of still water. The capillary action raised the water, whereas the same thing could not happen in the part, since the weights would squeeze the water out. Hence, it was heavier than the other; but as "we know that if it were the same weight, there would be equilibrium, if the heavy chain be also uniform". Therefore the extra weight of it would cause the chain to move round in the direction of the arrow, and this would go on, supposedly, continually.
In 1804 Congreve published A concise account of the origin and progress of the rocket system. Publication of A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System by William Congreve was in 1807. In 1814 Congreve published The details of the rocket system. In 1827 The Congreve Rocket System was published in London. His other publications were: 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) and Systems of Currency (1819).
- Venn recorded these educational details for a William Congreve, but without identifying him with his "illustrious contemporary namesake", the inventor. "Congreve, William (CNGV788W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 12. Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 941. ISBN 0-19-861362-8.Article by Roger T. Stearn.
- "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 23 December 2010.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Volume 12. p. 942.
- Patrick M. Geoghegan(2003) Robert Emmet: a life, p.107, McGill-Queens University Press, Canada
- "Congreve, William (1772–1828)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- 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
- Frank H. Winter The First Golden Age of Rocketry (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990), 322p., illus. ISBN 0-87474-987-5
- Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Sir William Congreve
- Royal Artillery of the Napoleonic Wars
|Parliament of the United Kingdom|
Sir Charles Pole
|Member of Parliament for Plymouth
with Sir Charles Pole (1818)
with Sir Thomas Byam Martin (1818–1828)
Sir George Cockburn
Sir Thomas Byam Martin