William Hale (1797 – 1870) was born in Colchester, Essex, England. His grandfather, William Cole, was an educator and writer and was probably Hale’s first teacher. Other than this tutelage, Hale was self-educated. In 1827, he obtained his first patent for “improvements in propelling vessels.” Hale later won the first class Gold Medal of the Royal Society of the Arts in Paris for a paper on ship propulsion that concerned internal-screw vessels (a crude form of jet propulsion).
In 1839, Hale began to pursue “ordnance matters.” By 1844 he received a patent on what he called the rotary, or stickless, rocket. Hale stabilized fired rockets by forcing them to rotate with the means of canted exhaust holes. He also refined the hydraulic rocket press and designed a new percussion shell. Hale’s improvements lengthened the lifespan of the old military powder rockets by 40 to 50 years. This extended lifespan opened a new door to nonmilitary applications. Hale’s rotary rockets were the forerunners of the larger rockets that propelled man into space.
By the 1840s, research in France and the United States showed that rockets would be more accurate if they were spun, as a bullet is spun after being fired from a gun barrel. William Hale was the first rocket designer to seize upon this principle and constructed a combination of tail fins and small nozzles to permit the escape of exhaust gasses. Hale’s rockets were the first spin-stabilized rockets, and their superior accuracy led to their quick adoption by the British and American armies.
The first use of Hale’s rockets on the battlefield occurred during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). During the siege of Vera Cruz, from March 24 to 29, 1847, hundreds of the rockets were launched against the city’s fortifications by an American rocket brigade of 150 men. Their primary weapons were 2.25-inch wide, 6-pound versions of the Hale rocket. Vera Cruz surrendered on March 29 after continuous artillery and rocket bombardment.
During the Battle of Cerro Gordo on April 18, 1847, the American rocket battery fired about 30 Hale rockets at Santa Anna’s army, helping to rout the Mexican forces. During the climactic campaign of the war in August and September 1847, Hale rockets were fired against Mexican forces at the Battle Churubusco and during the storming of Chapultepec Castle outside of Mexico City.
Though effective, the rocket brigade was disbanded in 1848 as the war drew to a close. During the American Civil War, Hale rockets were used by the Confederacy in Virginia and in Texas, though with minimal results. Hale war rockets were used by the British during the Crimean War (1852-1854) but were not officially adopted by the British Army until 1867. As late as 1866 the Austro-Hungarian army had an elite Rocket Corps that employed Hale rockets but for the rest of the Nineteenth century, Hale rockets were widely used primarily in colonial engagements in Africa and Asia against poorly armed native forces. Due to advances in conventional artillery in range, power, accuracy, and safety after the 1860’s Hale rockets were outdated by 1900, though not officially obsolete until 1919.