NWCM torpedo boat model now on display at MIT Museum

The MIT Museum recently opened an exhibit about the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company of Bristol, RI, and its astounding record of success in producing racing yachts as well as small motorized craft. Lighter, Stronger, Faster: The Herreshoff Legacy celebrates the spirit of innovation by examining the unparalleled impact on marine design and engineering of Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, one of two brothers who founded the company. Best of all, the exhibit features our model of the Stiletto, an experimental torpedo boat built by the Herreshoffs for the U.S. Navy! We are thrilled to have it on display at the MIT Museum where it will remain through 2021.
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.

Nat originally drew up the plans for Stiletto as a private project to test his new “square” boiler. After winning a well-publicized race on the Hudson River, Stiletto attracted the Navy’s attention as a possible test platform for torpedo boat technology. Congress authorized her purchase in 1887, and she entered service at Goat Island the following year. The Navy’s initial plan was to install two bow torpedo tubes, but this was changed to a torpedo gun mounted on the centerline that could traverse 180 degrees to allow launching over either side. Stiletto was eventually equipped with a single bow tube in 1892.
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.


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