Bonfire Night, Fireworks, and the History of Rockets

Bonfire Night, Fireworks, and the History of Rockets

04/11/2019Written by Dan Kendall

A short history of rockets and fireworks.

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Remember, remember the fifth of November. Bonfire Night. Guy Fawkes, toffee apples, and fireworks displays. But whilst everyone else is looking up at colourful explosions in the sky, I can’t be the only person thinking about the history of rockets, can I? Can I?!

Ok, maybe I can, but what is a firework if not a rocket? Therefore, Bonfire Night seems like as good a time as any to take a little trip through the early history of rockets.

Early Days

Early Days
Artist's impression of Hero of Alexandria's aeolipile

It’s impossible to say for certain exactly when the first rocket was invented. There are reports as early as the first century AD that the Chinese had a form of gunpowder, which they put inside bamboo tubes and threw into fires. The aim was to create little explosions during religious ceremonies, but some of the tubes might have shot out of the fire like rockets instead – as hot gas escaped through a hole in the tube. Certainly, in China, the invention of gunpowder sparked interest and led to further experimentation.

Even earlier stories include Archytas of Tarentum, who around 400 BCE invented a mechanical pigeon – powered by steam, which made the wooden bird move whilst suspended. Meanwhile, Hero of Alexandria is attributed with inventing the aeolipile in the first century AD, a device made up of a ball-shaped container with two bent nozzles attached. As water was heated, steam escaped through the nozzles causing the container to spin on its axis – essentially using the principle that powers rockets, just as Archytas’ wooden pigeon did.

The simple principle that powers rockets is the idea that a jet of gas escaping through an open-end will propel the rocket in the opposite direction, all thanks to Newton’s Third Law. Newton’s Third Law? That’s the one that says, ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ Gas goes down = rocket goes up!

Military Rockets

Military Rockets
Depiction of a Chinese 'fire arrow' - Credit: NASA

By 1232, rocket technology was being used on the battlefield. At the siege of Kaifeng, it is reported that primitive rockets were used against the invading Mongols. Although they were not very accurate – and there is much debate as to exactly the form these rockets took – they were one of the only weapons that Mongol warriors found terrifying.

However, the Mongols were great at adapting and learning from their enemies. So, by the time they ventured into medieval Europe, they brought with them their own rocket technology. The military potential remained the big motive for experimentation, but the Italians also found a way of adding metals to the ingredients used to produce brightly coloured explosions. In doing so, they are credited with the invention of what we consider modern-day fireworks.

Wan Hu and the Moon

Wan Hu and the Moon
Wan Hu in his rocket chair - Credit: NASA

Another (and let’s face it, not actually true) story concerns the sixteenth century Chinese official Wan Hu. As the story goes, Wan Hu attached 47 rockets to his chair in an attempt to launch himself into space and on towards the Moon.

With Wan Hu sat in his wicker chair, servants rushed forward and lit each of the rockets. What followed was a huge explosion, and, after the smoke had cleared, Wan Hu and his chair were nowhere to be seen.

Nor was he ever seen again in fact, but many years later a crater on the Moon was named in his honour. So, even though the legend is highly unlikely to have actually happened, Wan Hu did get to the Moon in the end!

Congreve Rockets

Congreve Rockets
Congreve rockets being fired from ships, as depicted by Congreve himself
Congreve Rockets
Congreve rockets on display at the National Space Centre, by kind permission of the Royal Artillery Historical Trust - Credit: National Space Centre

Fast forward to the nineteenth century and the British developed their own military rockets. Sir William Congreve began developing rockets at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich in London, basing his work on Indian rockets used during the Second Anglo–Mysore War.

Congreve rockets were made up of an iron case containing black powder – similar to gunpowder. The black powder was ignited with a fuse and this provided the propulsion for the rocket. A second fuse ran around the outside of the iron casing to ignite a warhead at the top.

Congreve rockets, like the ones you can see at the National Space Centre, were used to varying degrees of success. In 1814, at Fort McHenry in Baltimore, Maryland, they were fired from ships on the US coastal fort. The attack is recounted in Francis Scott Key’s poem, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’:

“…and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”

Key’s poem went on to become the national anthem of the USA, immortalising the Congreve Rocket in American history.

Space Rockets

Space Rockets
Robert Goddard stood next to the world's first liquid-fuelled rocket in 1926 - Credit: NASA

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Russian schoolteacher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had started to consider how rockets might provide the possibility of spaceflight. Tsiolkovsky is considered as one of the founding fathers of modern rocketry and spaceflight, alongside the likes of Hermann Oberth, Robert Esnault-Pelterie, and Robert Goddard.

These visionaries saw how rockets could be used to fire humans and other objects into space. Their work and experiments provided the foundations of modern-day spaceflight.

Goddard understood that liquid-fuel could provide more thrust than traditional solid-fuel rockets (e.g. gunpowder), allowing rockets to travel further and faster. He launched the world’s first liquid-fuelled rocket in 1926, and, as the twentieth century progressed, Nazi Germany, America, and the Soviet Union all moved rocket technology forward even further, ushering in the Space Age. And the rest, as they say, is history – and a story for another day.

So, as you look up at the fireworks, remember, remember that rocket technology dates back much further than most people might think … probably not as catchy as, ‘remember, remember the fifth of November’, but you never know it might catch on!

About the author: Dan Kendall is the Curator at the National Space Centre.