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The Rockets That Inspired Francis Scott Key

We know they had a “red glare,” but what kind of rocket did the British fire in 1814?

By Frank Winter; Air and Space Magazine:


All Americans know these words: “And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” The line has a special meaning to me, as the former curator of rocketry at the National Air and Space Museum, because the rockets that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what would become the national anthem represent one of the foundations of modern rocketry. Two hundred years ago this month, Key witnessed the British fleet launching the rockets over Baltimore Harbor during the battle for Fort McHenry, an historic victory that interrupted a string of U.S. defeats during the War of 1812. Today, on the National Air and Space Museum website, you can see a replica of the type of rocket the British used in the battle for Baltimore and throughout the war. The model was given to the Museum in 1976, a birthday present from the Science Museum of London.

The rockets were the brainchild of the highly inventive William Congreve, who happened to be the son of a British lieutenant general of the Royal Artillery. The younger Congreve devised them, beginning in 1804, as a means of destroying Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet, then threatening to invade England. Before Congreve began his experiments, the basic rocket was no more than a conveyance for fireworks. A rocket was sometimes used to send signals. Even though the technology was a thousand years old—it had probably originated in China—it had hardly changed from its beginnings. Propelled by gunpowder, rockets had a range of barely a few hundred feet and were wildly unpredictable in flight.

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