The rocket was developed by the British Royal Arsenal following the experiences of the Second, Third and Fourth Mysore Wars. The wars fought between the British East India Company and the kingdom of Mysore in India, made use of rockets as a weapon. After the wars, several Mysore rockets were sent to England, and from 1801, William Congreve, set on a research and development program at the Arsenal's laboratory. The Royal Arsenal's first demonstration of solid fuel rockets was in 1805. The rockets were used effectively during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.
The rocket was made up of an iron case containing black powder for propulsion and a "cylindro-conoidal" warhead. The warheads were attached to wooden guide poles and were launched in pairs from half troughs on simple metal A-frames. They could be fired up to two miles, the range being set by the degree of elevation of the launching frame, although at any range they were fairly inaccurate and had a tendency for premature explosion. They were as much a psychological weapon as a physical one, and they were rarely or never used except alongside other types of artillery.
Congreve designed several different warhead sizes from 3 to 24 pounds. The 24 pound type with a fifteen foot guide pole was the most widely used variant. Different warheads were used, including explosive, shrapnel and incendiary.
It was the use of Congreve rockets by the British in the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the U.S. in 1814 that inspired the fifth line of the first verse of the United States National Anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner: "And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air".
A wide variety of Congreve rockets, ranging in size from 3 pounds to 300 pounds, are displayed at Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum in South-East London. The Science Museum has two 18th century Indian war rockets in its collection. The Musée national de la Marine in Paris also features one rocket.