Hale, William

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Hale, William

(b. Colchester, England, 21 October 1797; d. London, England, 30 March 1870)


The son of a Colchester baker, William Hale appears to have been largely self-educated, but he probably received tutoring from his maternal grandfather, the scientific writer and schoolmaster William Cole. Hale’s first scientific studies concerned hydrodynamics. In 1827 he patented a method of propelling vessels by the principle of the Archimedean screw: water was sucked in and expelled, driving the vessel forward by a crude form of jet propulsion. He read a paper on this principle to the Royal Society of London in 1832 and, constructing a clockwork model, successfully demonstrated the principle before the king and queen. At about the same time, he received the first-class gold medal from the Royal Society of Arts in Paris. Over thirty years later, in Treatise on the Mechanical Means by Which Vessels Are Propelled by Steampower (1868), Hale discussed, in greater detail, this hydrodynamic study of jet propulsion.

Hale’s knowledge and application of Newton’s third law of motion, as well as his research on the dynamics of propellers in fluids, may have led him to invent the rotating rocket, first patented in 1844. The Hale “rotary” or “stickless” rocket dispensed with the long guide stick of the Congreve variety by causing the exhaust gases to rotate the projectile on its own axis and thereby attain longitudinal stability through inertia and centrifugal force. Hale consequently wrote Treatise on the Comparative Merits of a Rifle, Gun and Rotary Rocket (London, 1863), one of the first works treating the exterior ballistics of spinning and nonspinning rockets. He also disproved the hypothesis that rockets move because the exhaust gases “push” against the air and correctly demonstrated rocket motion in terms of Newton’s third law axiom. In addition, Hale developed the hydraulic method of loading rockets and investigated underwater rocket propulsion.

About 1828 Hale married Elizabeth Rouse, by whom he had two sons and three daughters; she died in 1846. He married Mary Wilson of Bath in 1867.

In 1970 the International Astronomical Union honored Hale’s achievements by naming the Hale crater on the moon for him and George Ellery Hale.


I. Orginal Works. The Royal Society of London has an unpublished paper, “An Account of a New Mode of Propelling Vessels” (1832). Hale’s other work include A Treatise on the Comparative Merits of a Rifle, Gun and Rotary Rocket (London, 1863); Hale’s War Rockets.—Statement for the Referee, to Be Appointed by the Right Hon. Early de Gray and Ripon (London, 1865), which is a statement of grievances against the government for noncompensation for the use of his rockets and contains a partial biography; and Treatise on the Mechanical Means by Which Vessels Are Propelled by Steampower (London, 1868).

II. Secondary Literature. On Hale and his work, see O. F. G. Hogg, The Royal Arsenal, II (London, 1965), 751, 767, 770, 824–827, 1377–1379. The Great Britain War Office, Treatise on Ammunition Series, deals with Hale’s rockets in each treatise from 1870–1905; the 1870 ed. is typical, covering Hale’s rockets in detail (pp. 179–186). See also A Collection of Annual Reports... Vol. II—1845–1860, U.S. Army, Ordnance Dept. (Washington, D.C., 1880), pp. 152–156, 190, 496.

Frank H. Winter