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Whitehead Torpedo

By Patrick McSherry 

The crew of the OLYMPIA maintains a torpedo aboard ship
The torpedomen of the Cruiser U.S.S. OLYMPIA at work

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The torpedo was one of the most dreaded pieces of ordnance of the Spanish American War period. Some theorists claimed that the torpedo would make capital ships obsolete. Torpedoes could be launched from tubes aboard vessels of various sizes, including the new, highly touted but ineffectual torpedo boats.


Self-propelled torpedoes were a technically evolutionary step from the American Civil War era passive floating mine, then called a torpedo. With successes of modified torpedoes on the end of long spars, such as that used to sink the CSS ALBEMARLE in the American Civil War, new delivery systems were studied. The British perfected the spar torpedo where an electronically fired explosive charge was placed on the end of a forty foot long spar that projected ten feet under water outward from the hull of the "attacking" vessel. This would enable the explosive to contact the hull of the enemy vessel below the waterline, hopefully below any armor.

The spar torpedo required the two vessels to be in extremely close proximity which posed considerable danger to the attacking vessel. To overcome this problem, British Engineer Robert Whitehead developed the self-propelled torpedo in 1866. Most navies of the world took great interest in the new weapon, however, the United States Navy did not.

When the U.S. Navy commissioned its first torpedo boat almost twenty-five years later, in 1890, the other navies of the world already had nearly one thousand of the vessels in operation. Over nine hundred were in use among the five major navies of the world alone.

In 1891, during the Chilean Civil War, the Chilean naval vessel ALMIRANTE LYNCH torpedoed and sank the rebel Chilean armored vessel BLANCO ENCALADA with a 14 inch Whitehead torpedo at the close range of one hundred yards. The world, including the U.S., took notice, in spite of the impractically and unusually close range.

In 1896, the Austrian naval officer Ludwig Obry invented the gyroscope, making the torpedo a reliably stable weapon.

The torpedo was a new, highly feared weapon system which saw very little use during the war. In spite of all of the amazing claims of its abilities, the Spanish American War saw no vessel on either side was sunk through the use of a torpedo by the enemy. However, at the battle of Santiago, the Spanish cruiser VIZCAYA apparently suffered a hit to a loaded torpedo tube in it bow, blowing out the bow, and putting the ship out of action.

Cutaway view of a Whitehead Torpedo

A cut-away view of a typical Whitehead torpedo of the Spanish American War period.

The torpedo warhead, usually consisting of gun cotton (H above) was fired by a plunger, which, when it contacts an enemy vessel, pushes inward and contacts a percussion cap. The air flask (B above), which contained air under as much as 2,000 pounds per square inch, contained air used to run the compressed air engine (D, above). The torpedo was equipped with dual propellers, running in opposite directions, to avoid any veering of the torpedo from the torque of the propeller


The torpedo, in spite of being a good idea in theory, had many limitations. The two largest were the related aspects of method of delivery and range. The Whitehead torpedo had a maximum range of one thousand yards, yet frequently the launching vessel had to get within four hundred yards to have a respectable chance of hitting its target. To approach within one thousand yards of an enemy vessel was quite dangerous and four hundred yards was almost impossible. A vessel, even a fast torpedo boat, such as the USS WINLSOW, could not get close enough to launch its torpedoes with accuracy before being subject to deadly enemy fire. Innovations, such as searchlights, destroyers and rapid fire guns greatly limited the effectiveness of the torpedo boat and the torpedo itself.

The launching mechanisms used for torpedoes aboard torpedo boats, as well as on larger vessels such as the USS OLYMPIA and USS OREGON were not generally directional. With some exceptions, the launchers used, had to aimed by aiming the entire vessel within certain operational limits. Otherwise, the vessel basically had to wait for the enemy to cross into its line of fire. For this reason, the USS OLYMPIA carried six torpedo tubes in various locations. Some torpedo boats carried some trainable launchers. The torpedoes themselves had no instrumentation that would allow them to home in on an enemy ship.

The torpedo, however, did have two advantages. First, had a torpedo actually hit its target, its charge would have created great damage. Secondly, and more importantly, was the threat the weapon created. Though the torpedo did not inflict any major damage during the war, the sheer threat of its existence was a weapon in itself. Even large armored vessels had to be ever vigilant to prevent night attacks by torpedo boats and their deadly torpedoes, creating an additional strain on the ships' crews. The torpedo required the development of counter-measures, caused an alteration of tactics, and was useful as a weapon of terror. Both sides in the Spanish American War were equipped with torpedoes, and the Spanish torpedo boats were one of the most feared wings of the Spanish Navy.

Whitehead Torpedo Fuse

 Whitehead torpedo pistol, or fuse. The arrow indicates which direction to screw it into the torpedo.
( Image courtesy of the Doug Howser Collection)


11 feet
18 inches
836 pounds
26 knots
Maximum Range:
1000 yards
110 pounds
Motive Power:
Three cylinder engine, driven by compressed air.

The torpedo was launched by a small powder charge.


(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on

Alden, Cmdr. John D., USN (Ret.), American Steel Navy , (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1972).Alden, John D., Cmdr., USN, (Ret.), American Steel Navy. (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1972).

Clerk of Joint Comittee on Printing, The Abridgement of Message from the President of the United States to the Two Houses of Congress. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1899). 4 vols.

Etchepare, Francisco Javier Pérez, Santiago, Chile (correspondence with author concerning the ALMIRANTE LYNCH.

Harris, Lt. Cmdr. Brayton, The Age of the Battleship. (New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1965).

Howser, Doug (image of torpedo pistol)

International Correspondence Schools, The Mariner's Handbook. (Scranton: International Textbook Co.1906) 224-228.

Naval History Department, Navy Department, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1959).

Sternlicht, Sanford, McKinley's Bulldog, the Battleship Oregon . (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, Inc., 1977).

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