How the Mysore Rockets Inspired the American National Anthem
“And the rockets’ red glare,
the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night
that our flag was still there”
From the American National Anthem
Submitted by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, Scientist, NASA Projects
It comes as a surprise to many people that the American National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner, was inspired by the rockets invented by a Muslim king, Tipu Sultan of Mysore, India.
South Asia includes the vast region bounded by the Indian ocean to the South, the Himalayas to the North, the Iranian desert to the west and the jungles of Myanmar to the east. Today, it embraces the nation stations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
Islam entered this region in the seventh century through trading routes in Kerala. It spread through the dedicated efforts of Awliya from Mazar e Shareef, Multan, Lahore, Delhi, Ajmer, Sylhet and the Deccan. In its wake, it has left its imprint on every aspect of life, language, art, architecture, handicrafts, philosophy, religion, clothes and cuisine. Indeed, the richness of this culture is second to none in the world. Which other culture can boast of the Taj Mahal of Agra, the Red Fort of Deli, the Badshahi Mosque of Lahore, the Ghorid Minaret of Jam in Afghanistan, the Chini Masjid of Saidpur in Bangladesh, the Red mosque of Sri Lanka, the Gol Gumbaz of the Deccan, the eloquence of Allama Iqbal or the universal appeal of Mirza Ghalib, the master poet of the Urdu language?
There are clouds hovering over the legacy of this rich Islamic culture. Extreme political movements look at the exquisite mosaic of south Asian culture through a binary lens of Hindu versus Muslim. Monuments are destroyed, languages are obliterated and history is corrupted and rewritten to suit a Hindutva political agenda. It would be a sad day indeed if the extreme right forces succeed in hiding or destroying the legacy of the rich South Asian Islamic culture. Humankind will be the poorer for it.
This brief piece is about Tipu Sultan of Mysore. It was the year 1814. The Anglo-American war which started in 1812 was in full swing. The British forces, after burning down Washington and conducting a raid on Alexandria, proceeded up the Chesapeake Bay to capture Fort McHenry in Baltimore. Caught in the cross fire were two American lawyers, Francis Scott Key and John Stuart Skinner who had gone over to negotiate a truce and prisoner exchange with the British. Key and Skinner were allowed to board the British flagship HMS Tonant and present their proposals to Major General Robert Ross and Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane while the two were discussing their plans for an attack on Baltimore.
Since they had overheard the detailed war plans, Key and Skinner were held back by the British and were witness to the bombardment of Baltimore on September 13, 1814. Orange and red flashes of rocket fire illuminated the skies over Fort McHenry. The stillness over Chesapeake Bay was shattered by the deafening sounds of explosives. The bombardment went on all night and it was not clear as to which side would prevail in this clash of arms. At day break, as the first rays of the sun hit the fort and the fog lifted over the Bay, the American flag was still aloft Fort McHenry, fluttering in the morning breeze. This was the moving sight that inspired Francis Scott Key to compose the Star Spangled Banner.
The Rockets of Tipu Sultan
The rockets used in the war of 1812 were a takeoff on the rockets captured by the British from Tipu Sultan of Mysore after the fourth Anglo-Mysore war of 1799. The Mysore rockets used a casing of iron unlike the plaster casings that were in common use in European rockets. The metal casing enabled the sustenance of higher pressures in the bore and increased the propulsive power of the rocket. The solid propellant was compacted gunpowder. The Mysore rockets had a range of 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles) which was more than twice the range of the most advanced rockets used by European armies. Attached to the end of the iron barrel was a long bamboo pole with affixed doubled edged swords as the payload. When launched in clusters, the sword- equipped rockets played havoc with concentrations of enemy troops.
The late Dr. Abdul Kalam, the architect of India’s rocket programs, called Tipu Sultan the father of modern rocketry. Tipu was a technology enthusiast and paid special attention to innovation in armament design. There were thousands of rockets in his armory. Platoons of rocket men were attached to each of his regiments. With the military edge provided by the rockets, the Sultan won a decisive victory over British forces in the Battle of Pollylur in 1780. It was the only major battle that the British lost on Indian soil during their long drawn out conquest of the Indian subcontinent, starting with the Battle of Plassey in Bengal (1757) and ending with the second Anglo-Sikh war in the Punjab (1848-49).
When Tipu Sultan was martyred during the fourth Anglo-Mysore war of 1799, the British sent some of the captured Mysore rockets to the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal in England. A development team led by Colonel Congreve made a systematic study of the rockets using Newton’s laws of motion. Congreve back-engineered Tipu Sultan’s rockets, made design improvements to make them more stable in flight. The modified Mysore rockets, renamed the Congreve rockets, were field tested in 2005 and used by the British against Napoleon at the Battle of Boulogne in France in 1806. And it was the Congreve rockets that were used by the British to bombard Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the Anglo-American war of 1812.
Thus, it was that the technology invented by a sultan inspired the national anthem of a great nation, the United States of America, on the other side of the globe. The advances made by the rocket engineers of Tipu Sultan show that as late as the eighteenth century, technological developments in Asia were not far behind those in Europe. Indeed, in some categories they were noticeably ahead. It was only in the nineteenth century that Europe acquired a decisive technological edge over Asia.
A solid propellant rocket is a system. It requires a host of technologies and a large number of subsystems. Advanced technologies such as rockets require a support system of qualified experts, a functional structure, cutting edge technologies and a political will to adopt and deploy them. Tipu Sultan’s achievement was to create an advanced technological eco-system in the kingdom of Mysore which was a match for any in Europe or America and in some respects was more advanced. We highlight some of the more salient aspects of this technological eco-system here.
Let us begin with metallurgy and ore extraction: Iron ore was found in river beds and rocks in several places in South India. Indeed, the wootz steel of southern India was known in the old world for its toughness. The superplastic structure of south Indian swords gave them unmatched resilience, strength and toughness.
The ore was smelted in furnaces with specialized processes to produce fine grain iron cylinders. The furnaces were located in Madhugiri, Chennarayadurg, Hagalavadi and Devarayanadurga. The fine grain was essential for machining in bore mills which were set up in the Mysore-Bangalore corridor for the manufacture of rocket cylinders. Machining was done in karkhanas located in Bangalore, Taramandalpet and Turkanahalli near Srirangapatam (near Mysore, India).
The iron cylinders, closed at one end and open with an orifice at the other were tied to long bamboo poles which provided stability to the rockets in their flight. Bamboo was found in plenty in Southern India. It is a strong, tubular, composite fibrous material with a high tensile, compression and flexure strength, ideal for engineering applications where strength combined with toughness are requirements.
The solid propellant used for the rockets was gunpowder which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, Sulphur and charcoal. Gunpowder is an exothermic, high energy material, meaning, it gives off energy when it burns. The effectiveness of this high energy material as a propellent depends upon its chemical composition, size and shape of the particles, pack density, moisture control through additives and the proportion of its constituents. The preparation of high energy materials is done only in military arsenals. Civilians should not attempt to handle them. In modern day applications, small quantities of high energy materials are used in automobile air bags, emergency door openers in commercial aircraft and in pilot ejection systems in fighter aircraft. Solid propellant rockets are also used by modern militaries as well as for the launch of satellites into space.
The Mysore engineers achieved a high degree of standardization in the materials, processes, manufacture, assembly, testing and deployment of rockets. They were far ahead of their counterparts in Europe, America and other parts of Asia at that time.
Research and Development
Tipu Sultan established research and development centers for rockets in Srirangapatam, Channapatana, Chitradurga and Shimoga. Rockets of various sizes were produced in these arsenals. Some were designed for linear motion. Others were made for serpentine motion once they hit the ground. The largest rockets could traverse a range of 1.5 miles and carried a payload of sharp swords. In this sense, the rockets were the first missiles used by any military in the world.
The production of rockets, along with the casting of cannons and gun barrels made Mysore a manufacturing hub for military hardware. The engineers were trained in calculations of missile dynamics and their trajectories. For each category of rocket, they knew the output power and could determine its range from the angle of its launch and prevailing atmospheric resistance.
The basic unit for Tipu Sultan’s army was the kashoon. There were more than 27 kushoons in the army. Each cushion had a rocket corps attached to it. When Tipu Sultan was martyred in the fourth Anglo Mysore war in 1799, there were 5000 rocket men attached to his ground troops and each rocket man had several rockets assigned to him. The rockets were highly mobile, unlike the heavy artillery pieces, and could be easily carried through mountain passes and steep hills.
Military technology can be sustained only within the matrix of a sound economy. As you will hear from some of the scholars during this series, Tipu Sultan paid attention to agriculture, livestock and horse breeding. He imported the cultivation of silk from China and introduced new and sturdier brands of rice. He rationalized the tax collection system and encouraged exports. Mysore became a hub for garment manufacturing and sandalwood production. Mysore products were sold in Sindh, Muscat and Jeddah. The standard of living in Mysore was much higher than that in England, France or any other country in continental Europe.
In the early part of the eighteenth century, Bengal was the industrial hub of the subcontinent. Maratha raids on Bengal in the 1740s destroyed much of this industry. As many as 400,000 Bengalis perished in these Maratha raids and the economy was in ruins. A weakened Bengal fell to the East India Company at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, it was Tipu Sultan’s Mysore that was the manufacturing and industrial hub for South Asia far surpassing all other regions both in military and civilian technologies.
It was not British arms or technology that defeated him. It was British diplomacy and plots. In the third Anglo Mysore War of 1789-92 Tipu Sultan had effectively bottled up Lord Cornwallis just as George Washington had him cornered at the Battle of York in 1781. It was the simultaneous invasion by two Maratha armies of 50,000 cavalrymen, another 30,000 from the Nizam, plus combined British attacks from the North and the East that overcame the Mysore armies. He was martyred in 1799 in the fourth Anglo Mysore war while defending his capital against a combined onslaught of the British and the Nizam.
Tipu Sultan is remembered in military history as the inventor of solid propellant rockets and their use as missiles. His rockets, modified in London, were used in the Anglo American war of 1812 and inspired the composition of the American National Anthem. He was the only one who defeated the British empire in open combat on Indian soil at the Battle of Pollyur in 1780. Alone among the monarchs of Asia, he foresaw the threat of expanding European imperialism and spent a lifetime in combat against it. His own countrymen, the Marathas, the Nizam, the petty Nawabs, Rajahs and chieftains of Malabar, Travancore and Arcot pulled him down. He was a rational man and was at home with the Age of Enlightenment. After the French Revolution, he declared himself Citizen Tipu in a Mysorean Republic. He was a man of faith and reason, one who believed in science and technology and took his kingdom into the forefront of technological prowess. His kingdom was a meritocracy and he appointed the best available men to high positions based on merit rather than religion and caste. His chief minister was a Brahmin Poornayya. His finance minister was Krishna Rao, his minister for police was Ranga Iyengar and his delegates to the Delhi Mogul court Moolchand and Sujan Rai. He honored other religions and gave large donations to temples and restored the venerated temple of Srengiri after it was sacked by the Marathas. An impeccable foe of imperialism, he was firm with his enemies for which he is vilified by Tipu-bashers. The greatest tribute that a monarch can earn is the respect of his adversaries. Tipu was held in high esteem by his foes the British, his comrades the French and the American Revolutionaries who were engaged in a struggle for their independence in faraway lands. Tipu was indeed a Sultan of Sultans. How unfortunate for India that he is unfairly vilified by communal forces in India and is venerated in London, Paris and Washington.
A mural depicting Tipu Sultan’s rockets destroying British army formations at the Battle of Pollyur, 1780
Tipu Sultan’s Rockets and Rocket Launchers