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William Congreve



Born and raised in Kent, William Congreve was educated in law at Trinity College, Cambridge.

After the use of gunpowder rockets by Indians against British troops during the later Mysore Wars against Tipu Sultan, Congreve was inspired to work on similar devices for use by the British military. By 1805 he considered his work sufficiently advanced to engage in two Royal Navy-run 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. Congreve was awarded the honorary rank of Lieutenant colonel in 1811 and was often referred to as "Colonel Congreve."

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 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 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 travels an endless band of sponge, a bed, and, over this, again an endless band of heavy weights jointed together. The whole stands over the surface of still water. The capillary action raises the water, whereas the same thing cannot happen in the part, since the weights squeeze the water out. Hence, it is heavier than the other; but 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 will cause the chain to move round in the direction of the arrow, and this will go on, supposedly, continually.

Congreve died in Toulouse, France in 1828.


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