4) Fire Cart (or the ‘multiple rocket launcher’ from early 15th century AD) –
In our entry for the fire lance, we fleetingly mentioned how Chinese engineers made use of makeshift gunpowder weapon systems crafted from old components of mechanical catapults. The continuation of this design evolution was fueled by the propulsion advantage of shaped gunpowder charges carried by the fire arrows (that eschewed the need for mechanical bows). This finally led to the creation of actual rockets that could be ignited via fuses, and then launched autonomously. In fact, many handheld ‘Huo Jian’ rocket launchers were already developed by the early Ming period. Going by this logical progression of the technology, Chinese military engineers also wanted to create denser projectile fields that would have been far more effective when dealing with massed body of enemy soldiers. Such tactical measures were only possible by grouping the rockets together from a large number of launchers placed in carts; and hence these designs finally gave way to the Fire Cart or the Huo Che (or Hwacha in Korean).
In terms of history, the special Huo Che armed military units saw action in the Jingnan war that took place from 1401-1403 AD. The gunpowder weapon system in itself was manned by four people, and was composed of a wheeled cart that was generally equipped with two types of rocket launchers – with four of one type on the top, and two of the second type along the sides. The engineers devised the contraption in such a manner that would allow the launchers to fire at once or in a sequential manner (for a more sustained fire rate). To that end, the Huo Che was surely a potent military machine that could fire up to a whopping 320 rockets from its six tubes! In other words, the gunpowder mechanism can be perceived as a 15th century precursor to the contemporary multiple rocket launcher.
5) Congreve Rocket (or the ‘solid fuel rocket’ from early 19th century AD) –
Impressed by the Indian-made Mysorean rockets (used as weapons against the British), the Congreve Rocket was an artillery rocket developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804. Contrived at the the Royal Laboratory Woolwich, the first of these gunpowder rockets were actually designed by reverse-engineering their Indian counterparts that were salvaged after the Anglo-Mysore battles. However, Congreve also improved the weapon technology by concocting a new propellant mixture and crafting the shell from sturdy sheet iron (instead of cardboard layers). The sophistication of this design was evident from the incorporation of a hollow iron head that could be loaded with various projectiles, including shrapnel (directed against soldiers), explosives (directed against fortified positions), and even incendiary objects (for usage against ships and buildings).
Furthermore, as a result of the specialized propellant mixture and its monitored quantity, the solid fuel rockets sometimes exceeded the range of 1,000 yards – which was more than the range achieved by cannons of that age. And quite interestingly, the historical use (and effects) of the Congreve Rockets seemingly made their significant impact on the American culture. In that regard, the 19th century British war vessel HMS Erebus was designed as rocket-firing ship that out-ranged most fort cannons. Consequently, it took part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore (in the War of 1812), and fired more than a thousand rockets over a period of 25 hours, in 3rd September, 1814. In spite of the massive scale of the attack, the fort had not surrendered, with the American flag still fluttering during the next day’s dawn. This inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the ‘Star Spangled Banner‘; and the fifth line of the first verse of this anthem/poem reads – “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”. This alludes to the 32-lb Congreve rockets that were fired during the momentous military action.