(The Quint is republishing the following article on Tipu Sultan’s contribution to rocket technology from its archives on 4 May 2022 to mark his death anniversary. It was originally published in 2017.)
Mysore rockets, developed and deployed by Tipu Sultan’s army during the Anglo-Mysore wars, was one of the first weaponised metal rockets. The British, who suffered heavy losses because of these rockets, were quick to learn and adopt them into their arsenal.
Not only did these rockets play a big role in the Anglo-Mysore wars, they also influenced the defeat of Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo. Rockets developed by the British based on Tipu’s designs even find a mention in American national anthem – Star Spangled Banner.
The Original Rocket Design
Following the invention of gunpowder, the Chinese and Europeans had tested rockets using bamboo tubes. As they lacked the range and stability required for long-range weapons, they were soon replaced by cannons. However, in late 1700s Tipu experimented by replacing bamboo tubes with iron tubes.
Because bamboo was a weaker material, the amount of gun powder loaded in the tubes was limited. With the iron tubes, Mysore army could load more gun powder in the rockets, providing it with more speed and additional range. Tipu’s rockets boasted of ranges of up to 2 km, because of the introduction of high quality iron.
The rockets had a scientific design as well. The metal tubes filled with gunpowder were closed on one end, and on the other end a nozzle was provided to propel the rocket using the gases it emitted.
Tipu’s designs also incorporated swords in the rockets, which served a dual purpose. The swords acted as a guidance mechanism, providing the rocket with stability during the flight, and towards the end of the flight, the swords became a weapon. The rockets used to tumble after losing thrust as it came down towards its target, killing or severely injuring the soldiers who came under it.
The Rocket Units of Mysore
More than the number of casualties, the rockets were instrumental in creating panic among the enemies, and Tipu used this with good effect. He had created a designated force to operate the rockets, which was as much as 5,000-men strong.
These troops fired handheld rockets and also used carts to launch multiple rockets at the same time. Like the modern-day artillery units, these rocket troops were trained in calculating the range and trajectory of the rocket, based on the size.
At several locations in his territory, Tipu set up workshops to perfect these rockets. The local craftsmen played a huge role in the development of these rockets, using the trial and error method.
Use in Battles
Tipu Sultan’s forces used rockets with great effect in the four Anglo-Mysore wars. One of the first mentions of the effective use of metal rockets was during the battle of Pollilur during the first Anglo-Mysore war in 1780. The advancing British East India company forces were repelled by Mysore army using several rounds of rocket fire. Several officers of the British army were taken prisoners following this defeat.
The records of the third Anglo-Mysore war also had mentions of rockets units being deployed by Tipu Sultan. During the war, Lt Col Knox, a British officer, and his troops came under heavy rocket fire while they were advancing towards the Cauvery River Banks, near Srirangapatana, on 6 February 1792.
Battle of Sultanpet Tope
In the battle of Sultanpet Tope, during the fourth Anglo-Mysore war, Arthur Wellesley, who later became Duke of Wellington and hero of the battle of Waterloo, was ordered to conduct a night raid on the fort in April 1799. The troops moving under the cover of darkness came under heavy rocket fire. Soldiers of the unit and Wellesley, who had not faced rockets before, were shocked and left in disarray. Wellesley, in particular, was humiliated after losing control of his troops.
Influence on History
Rottam Narasimha, aerospace scientist and professor, engineering mechanics unit of Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, who studied Tipu’s rockets and their history, said that the humiliation suffered in Sultanpet changed Wellesley as a military commander. “According to his biographer, he never showed fear again on the battlefield. Wellesley then went to become the commander who defeated Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo. Thus, Mysore rockets influenced the great battle of Waterloo,” he said.
"Even though rockets were used in other parts of the world, Tipu was able to take rocket technology to the next level. India produced one of the best quality iron in the world during that time and Tipu had highly skilled craftsmen at his disposal. Using these two, he made bigger rockets with longer ranges," said Narasimha.
The rockets seized from Tipu’s armoury resulted in the development of Congreve rocket, which were were used in Anglo-American Wars. They even find a mention in the US National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner: “…the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air."
Even as Tipu Sultan’s legacy often becomes a subject of contention, according to aerospace scientist Narasimha, the contribution of Tipu towards rocket technology will remain unquestioned. He will remain the original rocket man of India.
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