|Naval War College Museum model of Stiletto on display at the MIT Museum|
But how does a company that builds lightweight sailboats get involved in warship construction for the Navy? For the Herreshoffs, it began when Nathanael (or Nat as friends and family called him) graduated from MIT in 1870 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Nat developed an interest in steam power and accepted a position with the Corliss Steam Engine Company in Providence after graduation. The highlight of his time there was the company’s production of a gigantic 1,400 horsepower engine for the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. Nat oversaw operation of the 40-foot tall engine which powered the exposition’s exhibits. From that experience, he devised new ideas for shrinking steam engines down to a size that would make them practical for use in small vessels while still generating an impressive amount of power.
Fortunately for the Herreshoffs, their factory in Bristol was just a few miles up Narragansett Bay from the Naval Torpedo Station on Goat Island. The officers there quickly got to know the Herreshoffs and recognized that their steam vessels often outperformed the Navy’s own designs. Their interest in steam power was timely, as the Navy was in the midst of replacing its obsolete fleet of sailing ships left over from the Civil War.
One of the new vessel types then under development was the torpedo boat. Spar torpedoes had been used in the Civil War by both the Union and Confederate navies with limited success. In 1869, the Navy established the Torpedo Station on Goat Island to work out practical designs for automotive torpedoes that could be launched at a target from afar without exposing the boat’s crew to danger. Such a vessel would have to be small, fast, and agile – just what the Herreshoffs did best.
|Stiletto launching a torpedo in the Sakonnet River near Tiverton, c.1895|
Stiletto rarely left Narragansett Bay and was never used for anything besides experimental duty. However, her service provided valuable data to both government and private designers who were working to modernize the U.S. Navy. Students at the Naval War College studied how small vessels armed with torpedoes changed existing concepts of naval strategy. They played war games that highlighted both the potential and liabilities of torpedo boats. The lessons learned from these games served the Navy well when it deployed to the North Atlantic during World War I to face the ultimate torpedo-armed threat, the submarine.