Royal Navy. 


Brief History of the Torpedo.

JX 113661 Chief Petty Officer T.G.M. Campbell - 1940's


History of the Torpedo - The Early Years.

Believe it or not, the word "torpedo" was first used by David Bushnell, an American in the Eighteenth century. The word "Torpedo" is from a family of fish - the Torpedinidae, (Electric Ray), as the Readers Digest Dictionary states "...having a rounded body and a pair of electric organs capable of producing a fairly strong electric charge." In fact - to it's prey - it's a stunning shock!David Bushnell's invention.

It is suggested that Bushnell first used the term "Torpedo" to an invention of his - a mine attached to the hull of a ship and detonated possibly by a clockwork fuse. (This was achieved however by using a boat, designed by Bushnell, that was manually pedal-powered and went under the water - the first submarine? see picture on the right) All types of water bound explosive devices, i.e., floating mines, floating barrels of burning pitch (carried to the target by the water current), and spar torpedoes (approximately 60lb charge was fixed on the end of a 25 foot pole, was exploded below the waterline).

From Pointed-nosed to 
Blunt-nosed Torpedoes.

As the torpedo weapon finally developed though the years, there were a number of companies and countries making them. Originally, the first torpedoes were built with pointed noses, to 'cut' through the water easier, but Dr. Froude (a hydrodgnamicist and working with Whitehead) believed a blunt nose torpedo could carry a heavier warhead without loss of speed. A test was set up using one of each model, and results were the blunt nosed torpedo gained a full one knot advantage.

The German firm L. Schwartzkopf (later to be known as Berliner Maschinenbau A.G.), were producing about 400 weapons annually, shipping them to Spain, Italy, China and Great Britain. Then in 1904, the Battle of Tsushima was finally ended by gunfire as there was no torpedo built (at the time) which could reach ranges of 600 yards. The main benefit of the torpedo was the stealth and shock - the Torpedinidae family!

"The Torpedo Test Station" was set up at Rhode Island, (USA), in 1870, working on spar torpedoes, later, improved mainly by Mr. J.L. Lay, an US Naval Officer, produced the 18 inch Lay Weapon.  Other types of torpedoes being built at this time around the world include:

16 inch Ericsson - 300lb warhead with a range of approximately 100 yards.

22 inch Patrick - 200lb warhead with a range of approximately 2,000 yards

14 & 18 inch Fiume (Whitehead) - 200/220lb warhead with a range of
                                 approximately 400/1,000 yards.

29 inch Nordenfelt - 300lb warhead with a range of 4,000 yards.

14 & 18 inch Howell - 100/180lb warhead with a range of 400/1,200 yards.

21 inch Brennan - 200lb warhead with a range of 3,000 yards.


These listed above are only a VERY FEW of the torpedoes being designed, and through the years - right up to modern day weapons, one can see how they evolved. Some are still in use to-day like the 21 inch Whitehead Torpedo which was used during the Falklands conflict to devastating effect.

The Lay torpedo (pictured right), was powered by a gas engine driven by compressed carbon dioxide, and steered byLay torpedo. impulses transmitted down a wire, operating electromagnetic relays on the rudder. Unreliable majority of the time, two Lay torpedoes were sold to the Peruvian Government in the war with Chile. A Lay' was fired from the Huascar (Peruvian Ironclad ship) at a Chilean ship - half-way there the Lay' turned about and came back to the mother ship at 15 knots - despite frantic efforts of the operator. The ship was saved by an officer swimming out to the torpedo and deflecting it! The captain took the two weapons to the local graveyard to be buried, only for the Chilean rebels to rescue them!


The Ericsson torpedo was the first to be powered by electric in 1873. Propulsion was by having power down a cable, unreeled from the torpedo. The torpedo had a large float and obtained a speed of 10 knots. The final model built in 1889 had a 400lb warhead and a range of over two miles!

Ericsson also produced a rocket-powered torpedo (after the Whitehead model made it's appearance), with a speed of 40 to 60 knots and a range of 100 yards.


The Patrick torpedoes used carbon dioxide gas expanded through a gas engine - usually a three cylinder Brotherhood type (similar to the one used extensively by Whitehead). It was suspended by two unsinkable floats. made from either wood or thin copper sheet cylinders with water-proof gun cotton.


The Fiume Whitehead torpedoes have had many, many designs. (See the picture below for a selection.)  In 1895, the first significant improvements to the torpedo design came when Whitehead introduced the gyroscope for azimuth control using the type invented by the Austrian Ludwig Obry. This device consisted of a 1.75lb wheel about 3 inch in diameter was held in gimbals with it's axis along that of the torpedo. The wheelA few torpedoes from the Fiume factory. was spun to a maximum speed of 2,400 r.p.m. by using a pretensioned spring, and was achieved before the torpedo was fired through the tube. This meant that the torpedo went in the line it was fired and any other pulses etc, hitting the water had no effect on the torpedo. Theoretically, a torpedo like this one could, when on the correct line of fire, hit a target at a range of 7,000 yards, except that torpedoes of this time only managed 1,000 yards.

The gyro's one main problem is that it would topple over after a short run, due to the gyroscope gimbals were required to directly operate a rudder servo control as well. Whitehead was, it appears well ahead of the field in torpedo design, in fact he introduced a second servo which greatly reduced the forces acting on the gimbals - the way was opened up now for long range torpedoes.


Nordenfelt torpedo.

The Nordenfelt torpedo had a large number of batteries, the earlier models had 108 cells producing it's power. The steering mechanism was by electrical impulses transmitted down a cable wire from the torpedo , which totalled a mile in length. This torpedo also had floats, two to stop it from sinking.


A Howell Flywhell torpedo.The Howell torpedo built in the USA, became the major torpedo for the American Navy for 20 years - and so preferred than the Whitehead torpedo. (See picture left.)  It was ship launched from a tube, a flywheel was set spinning (12,000 r.p.m.) before firing, transmitting power to turn propellers, giving a speed of 30 knots over an 800 yard range. There were really three main advantages that the Howell' had over the Whitehead', (see picture on right), apart Internal workings of a Howell torpedo. from the simplicity - it left no track, (in the water), it did not vary it's trim and it kept a straight course. This was achieved by using the gyroscopic actions of the flywheel, as the flywheel axis was transverse, any deviations from a straight line caused the torpedo to keel over. This movement was detected by a transverse mounted pendulum which was directly connected to rudders which in turn forced a correction in course - so producing a righting torque.

Note: This was the first torpedo to use gyroscopes and when Whitehead started to use them in 1895, Howell started a legal battle over patient rights.


The Brennan torpedo was designed by an Australian watchmaker and was powered by pulling two 18A Brennan designed torpedo. gauge piano wires out of the weapon. (See picture on the right.)    A steam winch (shore mounted) pulled the wires out of the drums inside the torpedo - the action drove the contrating propellers. Steering was by varying the tensions on the wire/s causing the torpedo to hell over - compensated by a pendulum in the steering controls.

This weapon was used for coastal defences by the Royal Engineers over a 20 year period, from around 1900.  Hugh Brotherhood winches were installed in concrete blockhouses, with the torpedoes been run on rails down to the water.  (One of these derelict station remains have been discovered on the Thames estuary.)




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