The India Story Chest: Tipu Sultan and his Rocket Corps

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Try this at home! Make a paper rocket!

Video Credit: Our very own Origami expert, Sharmilee Shroff!

Wheee! Whizz! Bang! The sound of Diwali rockets soaring through the air bring squeals of delight from children all across the country. But real rockets have a historical connection with India too.

The origins of rockets go back to the 13th century. The Chinese used them against the Mongols, the Mughals used them in several wars, and the Western powers began dabbling with them in the 15th century. But these missiles were more likely to fizzle than pop as they were made of weak material like cardboard. Most armies found them ineffective and ditched them for the booming power of cannons and larger artillery weapons.

Then came along Hyder Ali, the 18th-century ruler of Mysore, who developed longer, stronger rocket designs. His son, Tipu Sultan, outdid his father by refining the prototype and created cylindrical iron tubes that had higher compression for the filled gunpowder and could travel greater distances. Clever Tipu attached swords or bamboo poles to his rockets for better accuracy. The rockets of Mysore were the first ever iron-cased rockets used for war. The father-son duo used these weapons with great success, especially against the British East India Company in the Anglo-Mysore wars. During the Battle of Pollilur in 1780, British soldiers were so terrified of these missiles that they called them ‘flying plagues’.

The Mysore army used to have a ‘Rocket Corps’ – men who were specially trained in using these weapons, which included making precise calculations using the diameter of the iron-cylinder and the distance to the target to perfect launching techniques (now you know when math comes in handy)!  Tipu Sultan, a stickler for systems, even wrote a military manual called Fathul Mujahidin, where 200 rocket specialists were each assigned to a brigade or cushoon, and at its height, the corps numbered 5000 men! Tipu Sultan also set up four equivalents of modern Research & Development labs called taramandalpets across his kingdom for additional study in this field. For him, it was all rocket science!

Using his technology as a base, many countries developed similar rockets. The British were astounded by the firepower that they had seen and were keen to replicate and improve it. After the fall of Srirangapatna, where Tipu Sultan was killed, the British recovered a large stash of rockets (over 700) and packed them off to Britain for further investigations. The first breakthrough was made by William Congreve, and the Congreve rockets were used in the Napoleonic war in the early 19th century. Versions of these were later put to the test in the Battle of Baltimore in the USA in 1814 and even find a mention in the American National Anthem with the words “ and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air”.

The late Indian President A.P.J. Kalam, an ardent scientist, was keen on preserving Tipu Sultan’s rocket labs and convert them into a museum. Two of the original rockets captured by the British were on display at the Royal Artillery Museum in London.

Check them out if you make it there!


Written by: Pereena Lamba. Pereena is a freelance writer, editor and creative consultant . She is also co-author of Totally Mumbai.

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