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By Lieut. F. H. ROBERTS, United States Navy.

The science of warfare is as old as the history of man, yet that
part of it which deals with the construction and working of tor-
pedoes w T as only originated some 50 years ago. And as it is the most
modern form of fighting, so is it the most powerful and destructive.
There is no half measure about the torpedo. Either the object of
its attack escapes entirely or is utterly and completely destroyed,
for it strikes at its victim's most vital part, namely, that twixt wind
and water, or well below the armor belt.

The adoption of the torpedo as a naval weapon has had one espe-
cial and beneficial effect on the sea service of the present day. It
has been the means of supplying the younger officers of the Navy
with a fresh outlet for display of dash and enterprise. Twenty-
five years ago there was every prospect that the introduction of
mastless ships would turn the life of an ordinary junior executive
officer into the most uneventful and humdrum of existences. It
looked as if watch keeping and dock drills were to be the sum total
of his career in peace times unless he were fortunate enough to ob-
tain the independent command of a small gunboat, and even in that
case he would hardly be better off than before. The same conditions
confronted the men. The advent of the torpedo and the new class
of vessels which followed in its wake has changed all that, however.
As the torpedo has gradually developed from its crude initial state,
likewise has the ship which carries it as the main weapon of offense.
With a flotilla of torpedo boats and a host of destroyers there stand
at hand many opportunities of displaying individual ability, and, in
war time, many roads to fame and honor. In battle the greatest
prizes may fall into the hands of the youngest officers and their
gallant crews.



The earliest "infernal machine" on record dates from the siege
of Antwerp in 1585, where an Italian engineer, Zambelli, destroyed
an important bridge laid by the enemy over the Scheldt, by setting
adrift against it four scows, each carrying a masonry mine heavily

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charged with gunpowder. Ignition was to be effected either by a
slow match, or by a gunlock discharged by clockwork after the lapse
of a certain time. One of these floating mines exploded against the
bridge with tremendous effect, and thus stimulated investigation
in a new field of warfare. Other similar attempts were made during
the next two centuries by the French, British, and Russians, but,
like the fiasco before Fort Fisher, in our Civil War, they usually
proved to be failures. The condition that the charge shall be sub-
merged, which is essential in attacks directed against shipping, was
totally ignored. To an American engineer officer of the Revolution,
Capt. David Bushnell, the credit is due not only of experimentally
developing this principle, but also of devising a submarine boat, by
which the first attempt to apply it to the destruction of an enemy
was ever made. By his fertility of invention and persevering efforts
to perfect the new weapon he justly won the right to be considered
the originator of submarine mining as practiced at the present time.
His first practical trial was made in 1776, use being made of his sub-
marine boat, navigated by Sergt. Ezra Lee. The attack was directed
against the Eagle, the flagship of Lord Howe, lying in New York
Harbor, and the vessel narrowly escaped destruction. In 1777
Bushnell caused the blowing up of a prize schooner, lying at anchor
astern of the British frigate Cerberus off New London, by means of
a drifting torpedo which he had directed against the latter, and
which was ignorantly taken on board the schooner. In the following
winter he set adrift many torpedoes to annoy the British fleet in the
Delaware, thus giving occasion to the so-called "battle of kegs,"
which was commemorated in a humorous song by Hopkinson, the
author of Hail Columbia. Twenty years later Robert Fulton revived
the general ideas of Bushnell, and attempted to introduce submarine
warfare in the French Navy. He made a submarine boat named the
Nautilus, by which in August, 1801, he blew up a launch in the
harbor of Brest, the first instance on record of a vessel destroyed by
a submerged charge of gunpowder. Rejected by France, he next
induced Great Britain to organize an abortive "catamaran" expe-
dition against the French fleet lying at Boulogne. Although sup-
ported by Pitt, and successful in experimentally destroying the brig
Dorolhea by a drifting torpedo, his projects were finally rejected by
the British Government as unsuited to the interests of a nation that
enjoyed the sovereignty of the sea, which recalls to mind the now
obsolete expression of Mr. Arnold Foster that the submarine is the
weapon of the weaker power. Fulton returned disappointed to the
United States. He ultimately abandoned his efforts in submarine
mining, as his attention became absorbed in steam navigation.

Although Fulton began his experiments by employing a submarine
boat, experience led him to abandon this device. As finally rejected


by the United States Government, his system included four classes
of torpedoes: (1) Buoyant mines, anchored in the channel to be
defended, and exploded by a mechanical device set in action by
contact with the enemy's hull; (2) line torpedoes, designed to be set
adrift and fouled by the cables of the hostile fleet at anchor; (3)
harpoon torpedoes, to be discharged from a gun, and thus attached
to a vessel and fired by clockwork; (4) block ship torpedoes, to be
carried on booms projecting from vessels of peculiar type, and ex-
ploded by contact with the enemy.- The modern system includes all
these devices in a modified form, except the third a fact which
sufficiently shows how far Fulton was in advance of his age in
appreciating the capabilities of submarine warfare.

In the fall of 1810 Fulton succeeded in obtaining a trial of his
torpedo by the Navy Department, and a board, of which Commodore
Rodgers was president, was appointed to conduct them. Capt. James
Lawrence, of Chesapeake fame, was directed to prepare his vessel,
the ArguS) to receive the attack. The defense which he devised is
identical in principle to the modern defense against the automobile
torpedo. Lawrence hung a splinter net which he borrowed from the
President around the Argus at the end of his spare spars, which were
rigged out from the ship's side. The net was weighted with grapnels
and pigs of kentledge. When Fulton saw this he acknowledged that
his torpedo could not get through and asked for time to prepare a
scheme for overcoming the net. Thereupon, he proceeded to invent
what he called " a combination of knives calculated to be fired from
a gun for the purpose of cutting a hole through the net, which being
effective, a trough one-half the size of the body of a cart (containing
the torpedoes) was to be introduced into said hole and the torpedoes
emptied in the same manner that potatoes are commonly emptied
in the body of a cart." You will recognize in this combination of
knives a curious resemblance to the net cutters of the modern torpedo.

In the War of 1812 several abortive attempts were made by indi-
viduals to employ Fulton's system against British shipping in United
States waters, but the Government took little interest in the opera-
tions, and no success was achieved, although considerable alarm was
excited in the fleet of the enemy.

It was reserved for American engineers to demonstrate upon a
grand scale the important part which the modern torpedo can be
made to play in maritime warfare. The Civil War of 1861-1865
offered conditions peculiarly favorable to its development. The
Southern Confederacy \vas possessed of no fleet worthy of the name,
while a long line of seacoast and many navigable rivers exposed its
territory to easy assault by water. It could, therefore, well afford to
sacrifice most of those routes of communication, provided they could
be closed to the war vessels of the Union. Every variety of torpedo


became, therefore, admissible. After some preliminary trials, the
service was formally legalized in October, 1862, and an efficient
bureau was established at Richmond, which continually extended the
scope of its operations until the end of the war. Seven United States
ironclads, 13 w r ooden war vessels, and 7 Army transports were de-
stroyed by torpedoes, and 8 more vessels were more or less injured.
The Confederates lost four vessels by their own mines, and a fine
ironclad, the Albemarle, by the counteroperations of the United
States fleet. This wholesale destruction occurred chiefly during the
last two years of the war, and if at its beginning the system had
been as well organized as at its close the influence which might have
been exerted upon the naval operations of the Union forces can
hardly be estimated.

The details of the Confederate system were published to the world
soon after the end of the war and formed the basis for further in-
vestigation and development in many nations. The several devices
may be grouped in five distinct classes stationary torpedoes or sub-
marine mines, automatic drifting torpedoes, infernal machines, offen-
sive spar torpedoes, and submarine boats.

The most interesting of these is, perhaps, the spar torpedo. This
form of weapon afforded the best opportunity for the display of
personal gallantry, and several officers won distinction in its use. It
consisted, as you all well know, of an explosive charge secured to
the end of a spar or outrigger and designed to be brought in contact
with the enemy's hull and exploded in hand-to-hand conflict. In
fact, the guiding principle of its construction and design rendered
it necessary that wherever the torpedo went the operator had to go,
too. When it was exploded against a ship's bottom the people oper-
ating it were only a few fee,t off and consequently placed in a most
dangerous position.

The Federal Navy rigged spar torpedoes on ordinary steam
launches. The Confederate ironclad Albemarle was sunk by Gush-
ing at her moorings by this mode of attack. The exceptional gal-
lantry displayed merits special description. The boat of an ordinary
steam launch was equipped with a spar torpedo and a brass howitzer.
The torpedo was provided with an air chamber and at the proper
moment was to be detached from its boom and allowed to rise under
the enemy. Lieut. Cushing, with a crew of 13 officers and men, ad-
vanced 8 miles up the Roanoke River, passing the Confederate
pickets unobserved. On approaching the Albermarle, moored to
the wharf and protected by a boom of logs about 30 feet from her
side, steaming ahead full speed he jumped the launch over the boom,
and under a heavy fire exploded his torpedo against her bottom. Most
of his party were captured and some were drowned ; Lieut. Cushing


himself, and one man, escaped by swimming and threading the
swamps to the Union lines. The feat immortalized Gushing. One
of our newest and most up-to-date destroyers bears his name. An
anecdote of Gushing may here be related. Some years after the war,
when Gushing was in command of a ship in the West Indies, his gig
was jostled at the landing by a foreign man-of-war's boat. Gushing
remonstrated with the officer, who angrily handed him his card.
Gushing gave him his, and remarked that he was at his service.
When the foreigner read the name and realized what he had drawn,
his spirit quickly cooled, and an apology was promptly made.

The Confederate Navy adopted the spar torpedo to an entirely
different type of vessel. These were called into existence in an at-
tempt to break the Union Blockade of southern ports in 1863. They
were operated at Charleston, S. C. As the boats were designed to
blow up the Goliaths of the blockade they appropriately went under
the biblical name of Davids. They represent the striking ingenuity
and fertility in resources of the beleagured Confederates.

The Davids were mostly steam, though some were operated by
hand. These steam Davids were not constructed to dive, but took in
water ballast for running on the surface in an awash condition. The
first boat was successfully launched and manned by a volunteer crew
under Lieut. Paine. In one of the first trials a passing steamer
caused a heavy swell to break over the boat when the hatch was
opened. This swirled down the opening and swamped the boat.
The officer was the only one of the crew saved. Notwithstanding this
mishap the boat was raised and a second volunteer crew, under Lieut.
Douglass Glassell, after a few trial trips, essayed an attack at 9.15
p. m. on the 5th of October, 1863, against the Federal ships off
Charleston. He fell in with the Ironsides, a ship dreaded on ac-
count of her heavy attacks on the forts. All these ships had been
specially warned to look out for submarine attacks; and after dark
the Ironsides shifted her anchorage every night.

The officer of the watch on this particular occasion saw what ap-
peared to be a plank with a cylindrical pole on it coming toward
his ship. The quartermaster hailed the object. The reply was a
volley of musketry from the open hatch of the submarine, which
killed an officer on board the Housatonic. The object came closer to
the ship. Shortly afterwards a heavy explosion occurred which
shook the vessel severely, threw a column of water on the spar deck,
flooded the engine room, broke one man's leg, and started many leaks,
with some external damage above the water line.

A spar torpedo was used in this attack, but, being exploded too
near the surface, the damage was not so great as might have occurred
had the charge been more submersed.


In the explosion the submarine swamped; the lieutenant and two
others managed to save themselves by swimming clear of the boat
and were picked up by a coaling schooner.

The following is an account of this attack by Hobart Pasha :

I remember on one occasion during the war, when I was at Charleston,
meeting in a coffee room at that place a young naval officer (a southerner),
with whom I got into conversation. He told me that that night he was going
to sink a northern man-of-war which was blockading the port, and invited
me to see him off. I accompanied him down to his cigar box, as he called it,
and found that she was a vessel about 40 feet long, shaped like a cigar on
the bow of which was placed a torpedo. On his stepping on board, with his
crew of four men, his boat was immersed till nothing but a small piece of
funnel was visible. He moved off into the darkness at no great speed, say at
about 5 miles an hour. The next evening, on visiting the coffee house, I found
my friend sitting quietly smoking his pipe. He told me that he had succeeded
in making a hole in the frigate which he had attacked, which vessel could, in
fact, be seen lying inshallow water some 7 miles off, careened over to repair
damages. But he said that on the concussion made by firing the torpedo the
water had rushed in through the hatches of the boat and she had sunk to the
bottom. All his men were dro\vned. He said he didn't know how he escaped
himself, but he fancied that he came up through the hatches, as he found
himself floating about, and swam to shore. This affair was officially reported
by the American blockading squadron, corroborating the fact of the injury done
to the frigate, and stating that the torpedo boat was got up, with four dead
bodies in her hold. Here is one system which might be utilized in naval
warfare, if perfected ; and I am given to understand that a submarine torpedo
boat is already invented by Mr. Nordenfelt.

Early in the year 1864 Admiral Dahlgren, commanding the South
Atlantic blockading squadron, was warned by spies that an im-
proved submarine had been launched of a slightly different type
from that which attacked the Ironsides. He ordered extra look-
out precautions to be taken in the ships, but few of his officers
thought the submarine would be able to reach the outer anchorage
of Charleston Harbor.

The southerners were quite aware of this opinion and determined
at all hazards to make an attempt to reach the ships and blow up
as many as they could with their new weapon.

On the night of February 17 they succeeded in getting the boat
over the bar and directed her toward the nearest vessel. This turned
out to be the Housatonic. The officers of the watch and lookouts,
soon after 8 p. m., saw, a few hundred yards off, what they thought
was a small boat making toward them. On nearing the ship the craft
was hailed, but no answer came. The crew were at once sent to
.quarters; but it was then ascertained the pivot guns could not be
depressed sufficiently to hit the object if they had been fired.

The order was next given to slip the chain. The stranger came on
and touched the side. As the propellers of the big ship moved, a
loud explosion followed the grazing and cracking sound of the


breaking spar, which carried the torpedo from the bow of the sub-
marine. The Housatonic had a large hole driven in her starboard
side abreast the mainmast and sank until the hammock nettings
were just awash when the keel was on the bottom. Many of the
crew were saved by the boats of the Canandaigua, which was
anchored near by, but an ensign and several men were drowned.

Nothing more was seen of the David, and it was generally sup-
posed she escaped until, some years later, when divers were sent down
to examine the wreck of the Housatonic, they found the gallant little
David lying alongside the big ship with the remains of her nine
heroes on board.

This boat was propelled by hand power and not steam, as in the
early boats. The crew of eight men worked on a sort of pump
handle for turning the propeller. The air supply was sufficient to
last the crew two to three hours; Tind we notice in connection with
this boat that hydroplanes were fitted externally at the foremost end
to assist in keeping the boat low in the water and for making small

The U. S. S. Minnesota was attacked by a steam David when
anchored off Newport News, Va., April 9, 1864. The officer of the
watch on board the Minnesota saw a boat adrift on his port beam,
hailed her, and she replied Roanoke.

A tug acting as a guard boat was directed to examine the boat.
The stranger neared the large ship ; she was very low in the water,
almost awash, with no sign of oars, but the quartermaster heard
her puff. The tug was ordered to run her down if no further re-
plies were received, and the sentries on the forecastle fired several
volleys at her; then a loud explosion occurred. The crew went to
quarters, and in the confusion the David escaped. A considerable
amount of damage was done structurally to the steamer, and large
quantities of stores were destroyed by water through leakage, etc.

The following dispatch was captured in a telegraph station on
James Eiver a few weeks later :

RICHMOND, VA., April 11, 1864.

Secretary of the Navy, Navy Department:

Passed through the Federal fleet off Newport News and exploded 53 pounds
of powder against the side of the flagship Minnesota at 2 a. m., 9th instant.
She has not sunk, and I have no means of telling the injury done. My boat
and party escaped without loss under the fire of her heavy guns and musketry
and that of a gunboat lying to her stern.


The David differed slightly from the Davids of Charleston, as
she was a steam pinnace into which water-ballast tanks were built
and the whole upper works plated over with armor. With the tanks


full, only a small turtle back was visible, with a manhole and aper-
ture for funnel, which was capable of being lowered.

Another David attacked the steamer Memphis at 1 a. m. on March
6, 1864, in the North Edisto River, and succeeded in getting under
her quarter. The ship's engines were moved, and it is believed one
of the blades of her propeller struck the torpedo spar of the David
and broke it, consequently the attack failed.


As the naval ordnance improved, quick-firing and machine guns
became so effective that the spar torpedo went into the discard.
In its place came the auotmobile torpedo, an invention of an Austrian
naval officer, Capt. Luppis. Its early development was given into
the hands of an able engineer named Mr. Robert Whitehead, and
the well-known Whitehead torpedo of to-day is the result of his
efforts. This torpedo during the period of our Spanish War was
supposed to automatically maintain a set depth and steer a course
while making a run of about 400 yards at a 20-knot speed. Its
early performances were, however, erratic. Other types of torpe-
does began to make their appearance about this time, notably among
them the Howell, the invention of Rear Admiral John Adams
Howell, United States Navy. With the advent of the automobile
torpedo came also the first really successful attempts at submarine
building, each having the same basic principles of design, and the
development of one materially assisting the progress of both.

A Mr. Holland, an American, taking the Whitehead torpedo as
his model, perfected the first successful submarine boat. Mr. Hol-
land stated:

The submarine boat is a small ship on the model of the Whitehead torpedo,
subject to none of its limitations, improving on all its special qualities except-
ing speed, for which it substitutes incomparably greater endurance. It is not,
like other small vessels, compelled to select for its antagonist a vessel of about
its own or inferior power; the larger and more powerful its mark the better
its opportunity.

Soon Mr. Simon Lake, also an American, developed a submarine.

Both the Holland and the Lake types are now in use in our service.

The science of submarine construction has advanced from the
original Davids to large seagoing types, which are now capable of
crossing the Atlantic under their own power.

With each development of the torpedo there also came a corre-
sponding development in surface torpedo-boat construction.

At first, with a 400-yard-range torpedo, the torpedo boat was small
and designed with the idea of sneaking upon its prey unobserved. It
was necessarily confined to harbor and the waters close to the coast.


With the advent of long-range torpedoes they are now being built
capable of running over 12,000 yards, or 6 nautical miles the type
of surface craft carrying them was increased in size, until we now
have all our destroyers displacing over 1,100 tons and capable of ac-
companying the fleet into any waters.

You will probably see some of them during your present cruise.
Their appearance will give each one of you certain impressions of
their latent power to do good for our own forces and destruction to
those of our enemies.

You may depend upon it, such impressions that you may so receive
are well founded.


I have given you, briefly, the general trend of development up to
the present. The navies of the world, step by step, have gradually
passed from the age of sail to the age of steam, and during this
transition the torpedo, the surface torpedo boat, and the under-
water torpedo boat, or submarine, as it is now called, have come into

The question asked many years ago, " Who can say that coal whips
will outlast tacks and sheets ? " has been answered. And, more than
this, coal whips in their turn have given place to oil pumps.

These are now powerful units of our country's right arm of de-
fense, the Navy, in which so many of you earnest men are now taking
an active part. You have had your first real insight into life in the
Navy during the past few weeks. You have been introduced to a
pair of hammock hooks and find it possible to use them for quarters.
You are learning how to keep yourself and your ship and your guns.

You are becoming well acquainted with the Navy ration. This,

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Online LibraryUnited States. Bureau of Naval PersonnelLectures delivered to civilian volunteers, naval training cruise for civilians, 1916 → online text (page 1 of 9)