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William Congreve was born into a distinguished army family. His father, also William, was an artillery officer who was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Military Repository in 1778 and five years later became the Comptroller of the Royal Laboratory, both positions gave him a great deal of influence in the design and production of new weapons. With this background, it was not surprising that William Congreve the Younger gained such an interest and understanding of engineering. He was extremely talented and invented a new form of clock that worked on gravity, a new design for a steam engine and established the best security against banknote forgery which had detailed relief engraving in different colours, a system that lasted 150 years. He patented at least 18 inventions.
The Chinese are credited with being the first to use rockets powered by gunpowder and Marco Polo brought examples back from his travels. In Europe, during the 17th and 18th centuries, rockets were mainly used for signalling and it was the British Army's defeat at Guntor by Hyder Ali of Mysore in 1780 that really surprised the military establishment. William Congreve began his investigations and by 1805, produced a 6-pounder rocket with a range of 2000 yards. During the Battle of Copenhagen, in November 1807, about 2500 rockets were fired from launches and largely destroyed the city.
Such was the success of the rockets that detachments of rocket troops were formed at Woolwich in January 1813 and came from the gunners of the Royal Horse Artillery. One of these detachments was sent to Spain to join Wellington's army and another joined the allied army against Napoleon in Germany where it was attached to Swedish forces.
At the Battle of Leipzig on 18 October 1813, the detachment under Captain Bogue put to flight a brigade of French infantry who were terrified of the new weapon. Bogue was killed in the battle but his second in command Lt. Fox Strangeways was personally decorated by Tsar Alexander of Russia who with the other allied sovereigns, had witnessed the rocketeers outstanding success.
After the battle the Tsar also congratulated William Congreve and awarded him the Order of St. Anne and presented him with the diamond jewellery now being sold.