Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Glaring Rockets

Bernie from Boyne Falls asked about a phrase that appears in the Star-Spangled Banner: the rockets’ red glare. Basically, he expressed surprise that rockets existed in 1814, when Fort McHenry was attacked by the British naval vessel Erebus.

Indeed, they did exist in that era. The British stole the idea from India, which waged war with rockets against the British in the late 1700’s.  Colonel William Congreve brought samples back to Great Britain and made it his business to improve upon them. The Congreve rocket, as it came to be called, was designed to be launched from ships.

Francis Scott Key witnessed the rocket and mortar attack against Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14, 1814. They were launched from onboard batteries that consisted of a wooden box housing many metal firing tubes. The rockets weighed about 30 pounds, and they were designed to embed themselves in a target before an incendiary charge burst into flames. [The illustration above shows a different model.]

The word rocket came from a Latin word, rocheta, and it meant a projectile. It had a cousin in a word that meant a bobbin, a cylindrical wooden object around which thread would be wound. The military rocket had a similar shape.

The Oxford English Dictionary summarizes it this way: “A cylindrical projectile that can be propelled to a considerable height or distance by the combustion of its contents and the backward ejection of waste gases, usually giving a burst of light and used for signalling, in maritime rescue, for entertainment, and as a weapon.”

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

Nook edition

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