The Torpedo - an Anglo-European collaboration led by Robert Whitehead


The Torpedo - an Anglo-European collaboration led by Robert Whitehead

The first self-propelled, 'modern' torpedo, that has since become a staple weapon in naval warfare, was devised in 1866 by English engineer Robert Whitehead, working in partnership with an Austro-Hungarian Giovanni Luppis.

The original work was to supply the Austrian Imperial Navy, but Whitehead took over the project and created a manufacturing enterprise bearing his name.

Whitehead was born in Bolton, trained in Manchester and then went on to work in France, Italy and Austria. He started working in partnership with Luppis in the 1860s to perfect the torpedo as an effective weapon for the Austrian Navy. He devised and built a tubular device designed to run underwater on its own, powered by compressed air.

The project result was the Minenschiff (mine ship), a submarine weapon, and the first modern self-propelled self-steering torpedo. It was officially presented on 21st December, 1866, to the Austrian Imperial Naval commission. The name 'torpedo' was first used in the early 16th century, coming from Latin torpere, and literally meaning ‘stiffness, numbness’, and by extension ‘electric ray’ (which gives a shock causing numbness). The use to describe an explosive device came subsequently from the late 18th century, and first described a timed explosive device for detonation under water.

Whitehead developed the torpedo whilst working as a manager of the Fonderia Metalli company situated in Fiume (Rijeka), today in Croatia.

The Austrian gunboat Gemse was adapted for launching in the Fiume shipyard of Schiavon. This ship was equipped with a launching barrel, which was also Whitehead’s invention. More than 50 launch trials were performed in front of the factory, in Fiume bay, and the gunboat’s commander was a frigate lieutenant, Georg Hoyos, who later married Robert Whitehead’s daughter Alice.

Though the product was promising, the torpedo did not help Stabilimento Tecnico di Fiume survive and it went bankrupt in 1873, when Whitehead took the project over in conjunction with his son-in-law, Count Georg Hoyos, and transformed it into a private company called Torpedo-Fabrik von Robert Whitehead. Later, the company was changed into a stock company Whitehead & Co., Societa in Azioni. The works were devoted solely to the construction of torpedoes and accessory appliances. Whitehead's son John subsequently became a third partner. 

In 1890 a branch was established at Portland harbour in Britain, under Captain Payne-Gallwey, a former naval officer, and in 1906 control of the company was acquired by Vickers, Sons and Maxim in conjunction with Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth and Co. In 1923, the Wyke-Regis near Weymouth, was re-opened for torpedo development, which later became part of Vickers-Armstrongs, the major British defence manufacturer.

Ironically, Whitehead hoped that such devices would discourage war, due to their cold, deadly efficiency. He died in 1905, the year that also saw the first modern ship to be sunk by torpedo, the Russian battleship Knyaz Suvorov.

Further Reading

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