"And the Rockets' Red Glare..."

"And the Rockets' Red Glare . . ."

Americans unknowingly owe an enduring debt of gratitude to an Englishman for our national anthem. The rockets that so inspired Francis Scott Key as he watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry were the invention of Sir William Congreve, who was, at the time, the royal fire master to the king. During the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer, was negotiating with the British authorities for the release of certain incarcerated friends. The release was agreed on, but on the night of September 13, 1814, Key was detained aboard an English ship where he couldn't help witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry.

The rockets Key observed bursting on the fort were the first ever seen in America. They were made of narrow wooden tubes filled with gunpowder and tipped with iron warheads. The rockets were guided by simple polelike rudders and launched from rows of tilted frames in a series of giant assaults. These early rockets had a range of about two miles and were designed to explode on impact, throwing out a deadly shower of shrapnel from which there was little defense.

As the rockets streaked across the sky with tails hissing and blazing, they must have been a terrifying sight, especially since the assault was so unexpected. However, these missiles did not win the war for England. Instead Congreve's rockets are well remembered today only because their brilliant "red glare" gave America, the enemy, "The Star—Spangled Banner"!

From the book: 
Our Fascinating Earth