Thursday, October 28, 2010

Artifact Spotlight: The Fish Torpedo

--Joshua Howard, Curatorial Volunteer

Fish Torpedo
As the Naval War College Museum interprets the history of the navy in Narragansett Bay, the history of the Naval Torpedo Station and its successor commands (the Naval Underwater Systems Center and Naval Undersea Warfare Center), has always been a strong element in the museum's exhibits.  In 1869, the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport's Goat Island was established to develop torpedoes, explosives, and other equipment associated with their operation. Since the late 1980s the Fish Torpedo, the first automobile torpedo designed and built at the station, has been a focal point of the museum's Torpedo Gallery.

The concept of sinking ships by damaging them below the waterline has been a naval strategy since ancient times. The ancient navies of the Mediterranean used large metal rams attached to the bows of their ships to punch holes into enemy vessels. Eventually stationary mines (then called torpedoes) came into use as a defensive weapon. During the nineteenth century, mobile torpedoes such as the spar torpedo, turned the device into an offensive weapon. In the late 1860s, Austria developed the first automobile torpedo based on the invention of Robert Whitehead. The so-called Whitehead Torpedo, driven by a compressed-air engine, was offered to the world's navies in 1868.

Fish Torpedo Cutaway Diagram
The Naval Torpedo Station, located on Goat Island, was established in 1869 and quickly became America’s leading center for torpedo design and testing. The Fish torpedo was the first torpedo tested in Newport in 1871.  With a range of 200 yards, the bronze torpedo was 12 feet long, carried a 100 pound dynamite charge, and travelled at a speed of  up to 8 knots. The Fish was powered by a compressed air tank and was the first torpedo with a propeller drive. Another innovation of this model was a hydrostatic bellows system to control the depth that the torpedo traveled. According to naval records of the time, the Fish sometimes moved in a circular motion, causing the launching ship to move quickly or risk being hit. By 1873, the development of the Fish was discontinued and the station moved on to new and improved designs.
Undated Full Length Photograph of the Fish Torpedo

The Fish Torpedo represents a significant part of both American and local naval history. It demonstrates the importance the United States Navy placed on torpedo development as well as the growing importance of Newport and Narragansett Bay as an ideal location for naval installations. Torpedo development here in Newport stimulated innovation in naval design and tactics and bolstered the local economy. Most of the torpedo parts and the vessels using them were built locally around the Bay. The museum currently displays the only surviving model of a  Fish Torpedo with other innovative designs including a Howell Torpedo and a Mark 14. Please visit this gallery to learn more about the torpedoes developed in Newport, Rhode Island.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Museum Acquires A.T. Mahan’s Civil War Era Officer's Sword


Lt. A.T. Mahan's M1852 Officer Sword

Last month, the Naval War College Foundation received Lt. Alfred Thayer Mahan's sword as gift from the estate of Neill H. Alford, Jr.

Lt. A.T. Mahan, 1862


Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914)  is most famous for his seminal book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. The book, published in 1890, was drawn from lectures he gave at the Naval War College as the first instructor of naval history and tactics. Mahan went on to serve as the College's second president from1886 to1889, with a second tour from1892 to 1893. His writings on naval strategy drew attention to the College and influenced a generation of world leaders and strategists during the dawn of the twentieth century.


Scabbard Detail

The Model 1852  U.S. naval officer’s sword, manufactured by the Ames Manufacturing Co. of Chicoppe Massachusetts, has a blade decorated with etchings of American naval motifs. The sword's scabbard is engraved with Mahan's name and the date of his promotion to Lieutenant, 31 August 1861. Immediately after his promotion he reported to USS Pocahontas for combat duty with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Less than a year later in September 1862, Mahan was assigned to the Naval Academy staff at Newport, Rhode Island, where he served in the Seamanship Department under Lieutenant Commander Stephen B. Luce. A local sword conservator will conserve the sword, using funds provided by the Naval War College Foundation. Upon completion, the sword will become a permanent part of the new “Naval Academy in Newport, 1861-1865” display in the Naval War College Museum. Here it will be an iconic artifact that links the Naval Academy and the Naval War College through the key figures that taught and studied at the Naval Academy during the Civil War and later went on to become the early leaders of the Naval War College.


Intended for permanent display in the Naval War College Museum, the late Professor Neill H. Alford, Jr., of the University of Virginia, directed in his will that the sword be donated in memory of Vice Admiral Bernard L. Austin, who had been the President of the Naval War College at the time that Professor Alford held the Stockton Chair of International Law at the War College in 1961-62.


Images are courtesy of the Naval War College Museum