On This Day in History: Secretary of the Navy Orders Construction of Naval Torpedo Station
|Illustration of Naval Torpedo Station, 1876|
On this day in 1869, Secretary of the Navy Adolph E. Borie ordered the construction of the Naval Torpedo Station (NTS) on Goat Island in Newport. The NTS was the first U.S. Navy installation dedicated to manufacturing torpedoes, experimenting with new designs, and instructing personnel in their use. It provided the bulk of the Navy’s torpedoes through two world wars and operated continuously until closing in 1951, although its research and development activities continue today at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center.
During the Civil War, twenty-eight ships sank from contacting torpedoes. These weapons fell into two categories: stationary floating torpedoes (mines in today’s parlance) and spar torpedoes. The latter consisted of an explosive charge secured to the end of a long pole that jutted out over the bow of the vessel that carried it. The attacker had to ram the torpedo into the side of an enemy ship and then manually detonate the explosive with a trigger mechanism. While effective if properly delivered, they required the crew to expose themselves to enemy fire as well as the explosive force of the torpedo itself.
The Navy established the NTS to develop new torpedoes that were both more deadly and put the operator at less risk. Much of the early work at the NTS built upon the success of a British designer named Robert Whitehead who, in 1866, produced the world’s first “automobile torpedo.” Whitehead’s design could be launched from a ship and carried an eighteen pound charge for 700 yards at six knots. By 1871, the NTS debuted an improved version of the Whitehead torpedo known as the Fish. Another design known as the Howell torpedo became the first self-propelled weapon issued to the U.S. Navy in 1889.
Initially, NTS designers worked on both automobile torpedoes and mines. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took over responsibility for mines between 1871 and the start of World War I as part of their mission to provide for the fixed defenses of America’s harbors. This left NTS free to concentrate on self-propelled designs at a time when the Navy was undergoing the most radical transformation in its history. The old wooden warships of the Civil War navy were gradually being replaced by new steel ships that carried their guns in turrets and could operate under steam or sail. While rifled guns still ruled the day in battle, improvements in torpedo design made them a greater threat to capital ships. They became especially dangerous when they were mounted on small, fast-moving vessels called torpedo boats that could dart in close to launch their weapons and moved too quickly to be targeted by the guns of their quarry.
During the early years of its existence, students at the Naval War College spent a great deal of time studying the question of how best to employ torpedoes. When a reporter from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper visited the school in 1888, he noted that the classes used war games to try to predict the impact of new technology on naval tactics and strategy:
“While the cruisers and torpedo-boats of the new navy are developing at the ship-yards, the officers who are to manoeuvre these engines of modern warfare in the future are equipping themselves with practical experiments, and seeing service by means of imaginary combats on the chart and blackboard.”
Future innovations such as submarines and aircraft would further disrupt conventional thinking about the best ways to use torpedoes. From 1869 to 1951, the NTS served as the premier facility for manufacturing and experimenting with these weapons.
Curator, Naval War College Museum