By Frank H. Winterf


No overall history of the development of the solid propellent rocket should fail to mention two names: Sir William Congreve [ 1 ] and William Hale. Yet while Congreve is well known and justifiably lauded, the other is obscure and has been neglected.

It was William Hale who invented the first successful spin-stabilized or rotary rocket in 1844, thereby eliminating the cumbersome guidesticks of the older Congreve rockets. Hale also developed the method of loading rockets by hydrostatic pressure. These achievements, though long forgotten, were the demarcation between the first crude, hand-made stick stabilized rockets of the Congreve era and the first machine-made, all metal stickless rockets of the height of the Industrial Revolution. For apart from dispensing with the old fashioned wooden guidesticks and improving accuracy and stability of rockets through spinning, Hale adapted new discoveries and inventions in metallurgy and/machining to rockets and created his own revolution in the state of the art.

The Hale rocket, like the Congreve rocket before it, also eventually became absolete - primarily because of the great advance of other weapons - he nonetheless must be credited with passing on important technological legacies for our own age. In retrospect, perhaps his greatest contribution may be said to have been his lengthening the life of the old military rocket by 40 or 50 years and therefore keeping alive its associated technology and possibilities for further application.

In his own day Hale was highly regarded by military and engineering circles in every advanced nation and was known personally or by name to such sovereigns and statesmen as Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Emperor Franz Josef of Austro-Hungary, Emperor Napoleon III of France, President Abraham Lincoln of America and Lajos Kossuth, the exiled leader of the short-lived Hungarian Republic (April-August 1849). It was during Hale's brief but stormy relationship with the latter that he received his greatest exposure from history's spotlight. This encounter marked the mid-point in Hale's remarkable career. His origin and earlier phases of this career were more humble.

Early Years

Though he has often mistakenly been called an American, William Hale was born in Colchester, Essex County, England, on 21 October 1797. In fact, it is mentioned in one local history and has always been a family tradition (though not a proven one) that he was descended from the great 17th century Lord Chief Justice of England, Sir Matthew Hale. William's father was a baker and his maternal grandfather, William Cole, a gifted educator who was also a writer on such diverse subjects as his own theories on comets to algebra and church music. Probaly Cole was Hale's greatest influence, if not his teacher.

Hale, in any event, showed an early penchant for mechanics His first patent, taken out in 1827, was for Improvements in Propelling Vessels and was claimed to have been the first design of an internal-screw ship in England. In two ways this patent may be said to have contributed to the later invention of Hale's spin-stabilized rockets. The first was in

* A longer version of this paper was presented at the 13th International Congress of the History of Science, Moscow, August 1971.

f National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. U.S.A.

the utilization of the 2,000 year old principle of the Archimedkn screw as a crude form of jet propulsion. Water was suckeu mco the vessel and discharged in order to drive it forward on Newton's Third Law of Motion. The inventor thus showed an early insight in jet propulsion and in the same classic principle which explains the motion of rockets. The second connection between Hale's first patent and his rockets was his study of the dynamics of a revolving screw through a fluid.

By 1832 a paper on Hale's vessel was read before the Royal Society in London by one of the Society's members, Richard Penn. A clockwork powered model was also built and tested before King William IV and Queen Adelaide on Virginia Waters in September of that year. Hale also won the first class Gold Medal from the Royal Society of Arts in Paris. He afterwards submitted this promising invention to the Admiralty but by his own admission, lost interest and from about 1839 he began 10 pursue 'ordnance matters', and eventually, rockets.

In the interim, several more patents followed, all in some way which could similarly have prepared Hale to arrive at his rotating rocket and hydraulic rocket press. These included an improved windmill, a rotary engine and a method of producing gas in 'aerated liquors'. The latter specification was taken out in partnership with George Purt, a soda-water manufacturer of Saint Mary-at-Hill, London.

About 1835, presumably to be close to Royal Navy officialdom in order to promote his boats, Hale had moved to Greenwich. It was thus, when he took up interest in ordnance, that he pulled up his roots again and moved to premises near the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. Here he became associated with Edward Dell, a local wine merchant who had apparently formerly worked in the Arsenal's Royal Carriage Department and who had acquired enough general­ized knowledge to consider himself an ordnance expert. He soon talked Hale into what proved to be a deceptive partner­ship in an improved gunpowder case. Though joint patents were taken out in England and France, Dell privately made a contract with someone in the Arsenal to purchase 'Dell's Patent Powder Case' with Hale losing 500 in the deal.

As it turned out, Hale gained from this affair in another way. The gunpowder case was an improvement of an idea worked out many years before by the inventor of the Con­greve rocket, Sir William Congreve. Hale thus became fully aware of Congreve's achievements, particularly in rocketry, and immediately sought to make his own improvements.

Original pattern Hale 10 pounder rocket of 1844. 18.75 in. long by 3 in. diameter.

Science Museum, LondonWilliam Hale - A Forgotten British Rocket Pioneer/contd.


Rocket Testing

He first set about establishing suitable testing grounds, a problem that has plagued many similar early rocket pioneers. In his day it may have been worse. He complained, for example, of difficulty finding 'an extent of ground over which to fire, quite free from buildings and cattle'. It is not revealed in any of the extant records how many livestock he stampeded nor how many landlords he startled, but it is known that his private experiments forced him to move on no less than 10 occasions.

By 1843 he made sufficient progress, he later wrote, 'that the use of the Stick (sic.) of the rocket could be dispensed

with, I (then) addressed the Board of Ordnance.......That was

in September'. Other stickless rockets had been tried but none looked so promising as Hale's pattern. The Government therefore ordered further trials to be made, though at Hale's expense. This arrangement was to persist for many years before the British finally agreed to purchase the rockets. Hale complained bitterly that the Government always treated him unfairly, that they had in fact used his rockets in several campaigns, such as the Crimean War, but never fully com­pensated him. These complaints were perhaps vindicated as not until some 26 years later, in 1867, did the Government officially purchase Hale's invention for 8,000.

In the meantime, Hale and his sons (he married about 1828 in Colchester to Elizabeth Rouse and by her had two daughters and two sons), as well as some designated 'agents', negotiated sales with many other nations. The Americans purchased the secret - as well as his hydraulic rocket presses - and used Hale rockets during the Mexican War of 1846-1848 and during the Civil War, 1861-1865.

One frightful test was, in fact, conducted by Hale's American agent before President Lincoln and some leading cabinet members in November, 1862. The rocket exploded very near the President, almost changing the course of American history!

The Austrians adopted the rockets and used them exten­sively. The Prussians, Swiss, Danes, Canadians, Portuguese, Brazilians, Cubans and others likewise adopted them. The French and Russians witnessed tests from time to time, but

Sticks protruding from the rear apertures show that they are canted to produce rotation upon combustion.

Science Museum, London

did not find them satisfactory. Overall, however, Williamj Hale's rockets were a success. Undoubtedly the pinnacle t his fame was in 1853; though it was an infamous one.

The Hungarian Episode

It was then that Hale was accused of manufacturing w rockets for the revolutionary plots of the former Hungari leader who was then living in exile in England, Louis or Kossuth. The scandal reverberated throughout Europe almost ruined the inventor. It was apparently started by a disgruntled employee of Hale who had worked briefly at rocket factory at Rotherhithe, off the Thames.

This employee was a former major of the Hungarian Artillery named August Usever who had been hired by H; through Kossuth. The exact relationship between the in and Kossuth is still clouded in mystery, though some do ments recently found in the Ferenc Pulsky Archives in Budapest reveal that Hale did indeed negotiate sales of rockets to the Hungarians. In any event, it appears that Uj informed the British Government that Hale's factory was secretly making rockets for Kossuth's revolutionary pi The Government proceeded cautiously and assigned a detective wearing a different disguise every day to watch tlHle factory. Yet, it was only proven that Hale had illegally bee| Topri, keeping a certain quantity of gunpowder and weapons I within the city of London.

Consequently, on the morning of 13 April 1853, the I detective and the superintendent of the Thames Police via the Hale establishment and later arrested the inventor andl one of his sons. About 1,500 loaded war rockets and seven barrels of gunpowder were also siezed and sent by boat tol the Royal Arsenal which was close by. Kossuth admitted 1 knew Hale and that he thought highly of the invention, bJ emphatically denied any revolutionary plot or that Hale A trial was held for the Hales at the Bow Street Police 1 Court in London and was reportedly 'crowded to excess ol the occasion'. The case was also hotly debated in ParliaraeB


Hale war piece foi top, Hal

rocket on 11 cation: 1865 J (save i gas foi thread inclin< the sp Ha inven was tl expei tain I meth those

one M.P. calling it 'The Rotherhithe and Kossuth Mare's] Viscount Palmerston, the Home Secretary and soon to be! Prime Minister, called for 'moderation' and 'truth'. Moderf prevailed. Despite the sensationalism, Hale and his son we only charged with illegally keeping an excessive quantity i gunpowder under an act of George III. The Hales pleaded] guilty and after paying the fines were practically forced in bankruptcy.

The Crimean War intervened and Hale recovered his fortune by going to the Crimea and selling his remaining \ rockets to the British fleet stationed there. Though theBr used mostly Congreve stick rockets in the war, there were] a few Hales and they were fired at Balaklava and elsewhen

Perfected Rocket

Following the war, Hale continued, as always, to con­stantly perfect his rockets and to take out other patents. Some of these inventions significantly included improve­ments in rolling iron and steel and reflect the application i the latest advances in metallurgy and manufacturing to

Britisl War,



SPWilliam Hale - A Forgotten British Rocket Pioneer/contd.

Hale war rockets. Left, 24 pounder, without tail-piece; centre, tail­piece for same; right, bottom, Hale 10 pounder design of 1844. Right top, Hale 24 pounder of about 1862-1865, the finalized or 'classic design'. Artillery Museum, Woolwich, England. Top right, tail-piece of 24 pounder rocket. Science NJuseum, London.

rocketry. From his first rocket patent (No. 10,008) granted on 11 January 1844, Hale went through several major modifi­cations of his rockets inside and out and in the period 1862-1865 arrived at the 'classical' design. This all metal rocket (save for a hardwood core in the head) utilized the propellent gas for both propulsion and stability by a special tail-piece threaded to the base. It consisted of 3 curved and slightly inclined metal vanes, so that the exhaust gas itself caused the spinning of the rocket through its axis.

Kale's hydraulic press - which he developed but did not invent - compressed the powder in a far denser matrix than was thus far possible. This type of machine had been used experimentally in France as early as 1834 by Artillery Cap­tain L.C.H. Le Chevallier, though Hale exclusively used this method and was therefore responsible for introducing it into those countries that adopted his rockets. Prior to the hydraulic press, rocket propellent was compressed into rockets by a

British Naval Rocket Brigade firing Hale war rockets in the Abyssinian War, 1868. From 'The Illustrated London News', 11 July 1968, p.32.

muscle-operated pile driver known as the 'monkey press'. It was slow, inefficient - and dangerous. Higher specific impulses and reliability in rocket performance resulted from the hydraulic press, besides greater speed and safety in manufacture.

In 1867, as mentioned earlier, the British Government officially adopted Hale's rockets and they entirely superseded the Congreve type. During the same year they were also displayed by both the English and the Austrians at the International Exhibit in Paris. And in the following year they were employed in the Abyssinian War, the first of many colonial campaigns in which Hale rockets were successfully used.

Hale rockets were, in fact, officially retained in the war material catalogues as late as 1919, though it appears that their last service on the field of battle was about 1899. Possibly this was in Sierra Leone, West Africa, when Lieutenant V. Buckland's Royal Navy 'rocket detatchment' fired some in a colonial campaign there during February to May of that year. Specimens of Hale rockets can be seen today at the Rotunda, Woolwich. Some can also be seen at the U.S. Army Museum, West Point, New York, and some were formerly found in the Herresgeschichtliche Museum in Vienna.

Three years after his rockets had finally been accepted by the British Government, on 30 March 1870 William Hale died. His grave site, with a newly erected marker put up by his great grand daughter, can be viewed at the Old Brompton Cemetery, London. And what may have been his last home still stands at 9 Edith Terrace, Edith Grove, Chelsea. Unfortunately, no portrait of Hale has thus far been located and the writer is very desirous of locating one.

One hundred years after he died, the International Astronomical Union chose his name to be shared with the astronomer George Ellery Hale (but to whom he is not related) to designate the Hale crater on the Moon (90° E, 74° S). Thus, the name of William Hale and his contributions to the history of rocketry have been fittingly commemorated.


1. Winter, Frank, H., 'Sir William Congreve: A Bi-Centennial Memorial', Space/light, September 1972, pp. 333 - 334.

(The Editor would welcome any further historical material relating to Sir Wliiam Congreve and William Hale. There may, for example, be correspondence and other written material relating to pioneer rocket experiments which have not yet found their way into national archives.)