A Brief History
On November 11, 1673, General Jan Sobieski of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth successfully used military rockets designed by Kazimierz Siemienowicz in the Second Battle of Khotyn in the Ukraine, helping to defeat Ottoman forces. Siemienowicz was the greatest artillery officer of his day, perhaps in history, and yet much about him is unknown.
Historians argue over whether Siemienowicz was of Lithuanian, Polish, or Belarusian ethnicity, as the borders and identities of countries and alliances in those days was murky and changing all the time. Ambiguity in the personal accounts of Siemienowicz does not clarify the issue, possibly as a matter of expediency on his part to maintain a façade of nobility.
In 1650 Siemienowicz went to Amsterdam in the Netherlands to write his opus, Artis Magnae Artilleries pars prima (Great Art of Artillery, the first part). This book instantly became the main reference book of artillery for armies throughout most of the world and remained the main artillery text for the next 200+ years. The book contained information about rocketry and the construction of cannon and projectiles, as well as their employment.
The part that is unknown to History is whatever became of Part 2? Although Siemienowicz clearly intended a second volume that would have described in detail many of the secrets of chemical compounding of propellants and explosives, as well as more detailed information about rockets and “fireballs” among other things, Siemienowicz died aroung 1651 without publishing the next part. Plus, the manuscript of that vital second part disappeared and has not been found, leading to speculation that producers of gunpowder and related compounds murdered Siemienowicz in order to protect their secrets. Siemienowicz had somewhat cast aspersions on these pseudo-chemists of the day, calling them “Alchymists” and making them out to be sort of ‘wanna-be’ scientists.
At least the first volume of Siemienowicz’s work remains for us to see that he was the first major successful designer of rockets for military use, both signaling and for causing casualties, including innovations such as multi-stage rockets and delta wings. Later rocketeers such as Congreve, Goddard, and Von Braun certainly owe Siemienowicz his due as a pioneer in the rocketry field.
A side note to the life and legend of this Slavic artillery guru is that he adamantly opposed the use of any sort of poison or poison gas launched by artillery or other means in spite of himself designing and using cannon projectiles containing the saliva of rabid dogs, an early use of biological warfare, about 200 years before science proved saliva was the transmitting agent for rabies.
In the year 2000, the 350th anniversary of Siemienowicz’s great work, Lithuania honored him with a 50 Litas coin in his name. The likeness of Siemienowicz also appeared on a 1995 Belarusian postage stamp. Sadly, no accurate portrait of biography of this military genius exists, so much of his life is speculation open to debate. Either way, artillerymen even today should be familiar with his work, even if the general public has largely forgotten him. Das vidanya, Kazimierz.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who is the greatest artillery officer in history? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
If you liked this article and would like to receive notification of new articles, please feel welcome to subscribe to History and Headlines by liking us on Facebook and becoming one of our patrons!
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Siemienowicz, Kazimierz. The great art of artillery of Casimir Simienowicz, … Translated from the French, by George Shelvocke, jun. gent. Illustrated with twenty three copper plates. by Siemienowicz, Kazimierz published by Gale ECCO, Print Editions (2010) [Paperback]. Gale ECCO, 2010.