You may remember from history class that the American Admiral Farragut said during the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” What he was referring to were not the types of torpedoes we know today. He was referring to what we'd call mines, explosives set in a fixed position in the water and usually detonated by someone on shore. I also spoke of the torpedo that David Bushnell made for his submarine the Turtle which unsuccessfully tried to sink the British warship Eagle in New York harbor in 1776(!). It's offensive weapon was also what we'd call a mine. It was supposed to screw into the wooden hull of the enemy ship. Unfortunately for Bushnell the Eagle had copper sheathing on her hull and he couldn't get the mine/torpedo to screw into it.
In the American Civil War the submarine CSS Hunley scored the first qualified victory for a submarine when it used a spar torpedo, basically a bomb on the end of a long stick, to sink the USS Housatonic in Mobile Bay. I say it was a qualified victory because although the Hunley sank the Housatonic the spar torpedo's spar was a bit too short and the resulting explosion also sank the Hunley along with her entire nine man crew.
The torpedo as we know it was invented by one Robert Whitehead, a British naval engineer. At first it was called the “locomotive torpedo,” but after a while this device just ended up owning the word torpedo all together. The Whitehead locomotive torpedo was improved upon, but it was essentially the same design from the 19th century that was still being used in World War II.
When Whitehead's torpedo became widely known lesser navies found that they could economically stave off larger navies from their harbors by fitting the new torpedoes onto speedy boats. Some of the original “torpedo boats” launched their torpedoes by aiming the speedboat at the enemy vessel and then pushing the torpedo off the rear of the boat, which meant that the torpedo boat was now in front of the armed and running torpedo! A sharp turn and a bit of luck were needed to get out of its way. And why is a submarine called a “boat?” It's because the torpedo boats were very vulnerable. In order to be fast they had to be light, and so they were easily damaged or sunk, even by small arms fire. The way to protect them on their run towards the enemy vessel was to give them a low profile in the water. Eventually this strategy evolved into having them mostly under water, which made them submersible torpedo boats. After a while these vessels could be completely submerged and so became true submarines. Submarines are called boats to this day because they evolved from the old torpedo boats of the 19th century.
Oh yes, and the ship called a “destroyer” was originally a fast ship with rapid fire, small caliber guns that was supposed to attack and destroy the torpedo boats. Their formal name was the “torpedo boat destroyer.” After a few years that bulky name just turned into “destroyer.”
If this page hasn't been enough here's a history of the torpedo.
And here's a short history of early submarines.
Back to the page for the 8/21/2000, Back of the Book program.