13th Through 16th Centuries

Rockets as Weapons

Rockets were first used as actual weapons in the battle of Kai-fung-fu in 1232 A.D. The Chinese attempted to repel Mongol invaders with barrages of fire arrows and, possibly, gunpowder-launched grenades. The fire-arrows were a simple form of a solid-propellant rocket. A tube, capped at one end, contained gunpowder. The other end was left open and the tube was attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, the rapid burning of the powder produced fire, smoke, and gas that escaped through the open end and produced a thrust. The stick acted as a simple guidance system that kept the rocket headed in one general direction as it flew through the air. It is not clear how effective these arrows of flying fire were. But one source reported that one grenade could incinerate a 2,000 square foot area.

Following the battle of Kai-Keng, the Mongols produced rockets of their own. During the 13th to the 15th centuries, the Mongols used rockets in their attacks on Japan and Baghdad and may have been responsible for the spread of rockets to Europe. In England, a monk named Roger Bacon worked on improved forms of gunpowder that greatly increased the range of rockets. In France, Jean Froissart found that more accurate flights could be achieved by launching rockets through tubes. Froissart's idea was the forerunner of the modern bazooka. Joanes de Fontana of Italy designed a surface-running rocket-powered torpedo for setting enemy ships on fire.

By the 16th century rockets fell into a time of relative disuse as weapons of war, though they were still used extensively in fireworks displays. A German fireworks maker, Johann Schmidlap, invented the first "step rocket," a multi-staged vehicle for lifting fireworks to higher altitudes. A large rocket was ignited initially and carried one or more smaller rockets. When the large rocket burned out, the smaller rockets ignited and continued to a higher altitude before showering the sky with glowing cinders. Schmidlap's idea, known today as staging, is basic to all modern rocketry.

Nearly all uses of rockets up to this time were for warfare or fireworks; but there is an interesting old Chinese legend that reports the use of rockets as a means of transportation. With the help of many assistants, a Chinese official named Wan-Hu assembled a rocket-powered flying chair. The chair was mounted between two wooden stakes. Attached to the chair were two large kites, and fixed to the kites were forty-seven fire-arrow rockets.

Wan-Hu IllustrationOn the day of the flight, Wan-Hu sat in the chair and gave the command to light the rockets. Forty-seven assistants, each armed with torches, rushed forward to light the rockets. In a moment, there was a tremendous roar accompanied by billowing clouds of smoke. When the smoke cleared, Wan-Hu and his flying chair were gone. No one knows for sure what happened to Wan-Hu, but it is probable that the event really did take place. Fire-arrows are still as apt to explode as to fly!



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