Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet

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Sir William Congreve

Lieutenant General Sir William Congreve, 1st Baronet (4 July 1742 – 30 April 1814[1]) was a British military officer who improved artillery strength through gunpowder experiments.

Personal life[edit]

William Congreve was born in Stafford on 4 July 1742. He and his first wife, Rebecca Elmston, had four children together, two sons and two daughters.[1] His eldest son, William Congreve, invented the Congreve Rocket.[2] His second wife, Julia-Elizabeth, died aged 78 in 1831.[3]

Congreve was made a Baronet on 7 December 1812.[4] He died on 30 April 1814. He was succeeded in his posts by his son.[2]

Military career[edit]

By 1778 Congreve had obtained the rank of Captain and was appointed Superintendent of Military Machines. He worked out of Woolwich where he had the resources to train artillerymen.[5] Sir William advocated government-run gunpowder mills, arguing that the privately owned concerns "have had such a prodigious profit allowed them" and yet the merchants left the job in the hands of "artful but ignorant Foremen, who probably made a very considerable profit by their Masters' inattention".[6] As during the Seven Years' War England had become increasingly concerned about the low standard of their gunpowder, the government was convinced to purchase an additional set of powder mills instead of farming out production to powder merchants.[6] The Faversham Mill was purchased in 1759, followed by Waltham Abbey in 1787 and Ballincollig in 1804.[7]

Sir William became the deputy comptroller of the Woolwich Royal Laboratory in 1783, with control over the Faversham and Waltham Abbey mills.[6] In 1789, then-Major Congreve was appointed as comptroller. Author Brenda Buchanan asserts, that during his time in these positions, he oversaw three major changes in the manufacturing of gunpowder, being "the substitution of edge runner mills for stamping mills ..., the production of charcoal by low-temperature distillation in closed iron cylinders, and the employment of screw presses for compacting powder into cakes."[8] In this role he also implemented the manufacture of two different kinds of powder, one for muskets and one for canons. Congreve believed that the different powders led to an increase in ballistic force.[8] However Steele and Doorland have suggested that the perceived increase in strength may have come from better quality construction materials.[5]

Congreve oversaw the establishment of two new facilities at Portsmouth and Plymouth which were dedicated to revitalizing damp or lumpy powder, as the procedure for fixing such issues was quicker than the process for making new powder. This resulted in an improved method of extracting saltpetre and consequently higher quality gunpowder.[9]


  1. ^ a b Debrett (1824). Baronetage of England, 5th Edition, Volume II. London. 
  2. ^ a b Urban, Sylvanus (July–December 1828). "The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle". 144 (21). 
  3. ^ Urban, Sylvanus (July–December 1831). "The Gentleman's Magazine, and Historical Chronicle". 101 (24). 
  4. ^ Burke, John (1839). A Genealogical and Heraldic Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage of the British Empire, 6th Edition. London: Henry Colburn. 
  5. ^ a b Steele, Brett; Doorland, Tamera, eds. (2005). The Heirs Of Archimedes: Science And The Art Of War Through The Age Of Enlightenment. Cambridge: MIT Press. p. 397. ISBN 026219516X. 
  6. ^ a b c Klein, Ursula; Spary, E. C., eds. (2010). Materials and Expertise in Early Modern Europe: Between Market and Laboratory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226439686. 
  7. ^ Crocker, Glenys (1999). The Gunpowder Industry. Buckinghamshire, UK: Osprey Publishing. 
  8. ^ a b Buchanan, Brenda (2006). Gunpowder, Explosives And the State: A Technological History. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 
  9. ^ Morriss, Roger (2010). The Foundations of British Maritime Ascendancy: Resources, Logistics and the State, 1755-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 440.