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.


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