Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Congreve, William (1772-1828)

CONGREVE, Sir WILLIAM (1772–1828), the inventor of the Congreve rocket, was the eldest son of Sir William Congreve, lieutenant-general, colonel commandant of the royal artillery, comptroller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, and superintendent of military machines, who was created a baronet on 7 Dec. 1812. He was born on 20 May 1772, and, after passing through the Royal Academy at Woolwich, entered the royal artillery ss a second lieutenant in 1791. He was at once attached to the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich, of which his father was comptroller, and after many experiments there he succeeded in inventing the celebrated Congreve rocket in 1805. The war office and board of ordnance, influenced doubtless by his father's strong recommendations, determined to make use of this invention for military purposes, and highly applauded its inventor. The first trial of its efficacy was made at sea, in Lord Cochrane's attempt to burn the French fleet in the Basque roads in 1809. Its success was not so great as had been expected, but its value was perceived, and the ingenious inventor was largely recompensed and allowed to raise and organise two rocket companies in connection with the corps of royal artillery, Hs was chosen a fellow of the Royal Society, and elected M.P. for Gatton in 1812, and in the December of the same year his father was created a baronet. In the following year he was ordered with one of his rocket companies to the continent, and served at the battle of Leipzig. His rockets there did not do much actual damage to the enemy, but their noise and bright glare had a great effect in frightening the French and throwing them into confusion, and the czar of Russia showed his appreciation of the inventor by making him a knight of the order of St. Anne. They had the same negative effect in the passage of the Bidassoa, where, Napier remarks, they did little real damage, but caused terror by their novelty. In April 1814 he succeeded his father as second baronet, and also as comptroller of the Royal Laboratory and superintendent of military machines, a post which he held until his death. He was a great personal favourite with George IV, who on his accession to the throne made him one of his equerries, and also held a high position in scientific circles. He wrote many economical and scientific works, and sat as M.P. for Plymouth from 1820 until his death at Toulouse on 16 May 1828. The following is a list of Congreve's published works: 1. ‘A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System,’ 1807. 2. ‘Description of the Hydro-pneumatic Lock, invented by Colonel Congreve,’ 1814. 3. ‘Of the Impracticability of Resumption of Cash Payments,' 1819. 4. ‘Principles on which it appears that a more Perfect System of Currency may be formed either in the Precious or Non-Precious Metals,’ 1819. 5. ‘A Short Account of a Patent lately taken out by Sir William Congreve for a New Principle of Steam Engine,’ 1819. 6. ‘A Treatise on the General Principles, Powers, and Facility of Application of the Congreve Rocket System, as compared with Artillery,’ 1827.

[Gent. Mag. July 1828; Duncan's History of the Royal Artillery; for the services of the rocket company at Leipzig; Congreve's pamphlets.]

H. M. S.