Whitehead torpedo

The Whitehead torpedo was the first self-propelled or "locomotive" torpedo ever developed.[lower-alpha 1] It was perfected in 1866 by Robert Whitehead from a design conceived by Giovanni Luppis of the Austro-Hungarian Navy. It was driven by a three-cylinder compressed air engine invented, designed, and made by Peter Brotherhood. Many naval services procured the Whitehead torpedo during the 1870s, including the US Navy.[7] This early torpedo proved itself in combat during the Russo-Turkish War when, on January 16, 1878, the Ottoman ship Intibah was sunk by Russian torpedo boats carrying Whiteheads,[2] though this story has been disputed in one book.[8]

Whitehead torpedo
Whitehead torpedo mechanism, published 1891
TypeAnti-surface ship torpedo[1]
Place of originAustria-Hungary
Service history
In service1894–1922 (Mk1 and Mk2)
1898–1940 (Mk3)
1910-1922 (Mk5)
  • with United States Navy[1]
Used bySee § Operators
WarsRusso-Turkish War[2]
Chilean Civil War of 1891[3]
World War II
Production history
DesignerRobert Whitehead
ManufacturerStabilimento tecnico Fiumano[5]
Torpedofabrik Whitehead & Co.[5]
Royal Laboratories
E. W. Bliss Company
VariantsWhitehead Mk 1[6]
Whitehead Mk 1B[6]
Whitehead Mk 2[6]
Whitehead Mk 2 Type C[6]
Whitehead Mk 3 Type A[6]
Whitehead Mk 5[1]
Mass845 lbs (Mk 1)[1]
Length140 inches (Mk 1)[1]
Diameter17.7 inches (Mk 1)[1]

Effective firing range800 yards (Mk 1)[1]
Warheadwet guncotton[1]
Warhead weight118 lbs (Mk 1)[1]
War Nose (Mk 1), contact[1]

Engine3-cylinder reciprocating[1]
Speed26.5 knots (Mk 1)[1]
depth control, gyroscope[1]
battleships, torpedo boats and submarines[1]

The term "torpedo" comes from the Torpedo fish, which is a type of ray that delivers an electric shock to stun its prey.[4]


During the 19th century, an officer of the Austrian Marine Artillery conceived the idea of using a small boat laden with explosives, propelled by a steam or an air engine and steered by cables to be used against enemy ships; his papers came into the possession of Captain Giovanni Luppis upon his death. Luppis had a model of the device built; it was powered by a spring-driven clockwork mechanism and steered remotely by cables from land. Dissatisfied with the device, which he called the "coast-saver",[9] Luppis turned to Robert Whitehead, who then worked for Stabilimento Tecnico Fiumano, a factory in Fiume (Rijeka), present-day Croatia.[7] In about 1850 the Austrian Navy asked Whitehead to develop this design into a self-propelled underwater torpedo.

Whitehead developed what he called the Minenschiff (mine ship): an 11-foot long (3.3 m), 14-inch diameter (35.5 cm) torpedo propelled by compressed air and carrying an explosive warhead, with a speed of 7 knots (13 km/h) and the ability to hit a target up to 700 yards (640 m) away.[9] In 1868, Whitehead introduced a solution to the stability problem for his torpedo: Pendulum-and-hydrostat control, contained in its Immersion Chamber. The Austrian Navy bought the manufacturing rights to the Whitehead torpedo in 1869.[10] By 1870 Whitehead's torpedoes were running at 17 knots (31.5 km/h). Still, there remained the problem of course correction: returning the torpedo to its correct course after it had deviated due to wind or wave action. The solution was in the form of the gyroscope gear, which was patented by Ludwig Obry, the rights to which was bought by Whitehead in 1896.[11]


In 1868, Whitehead offered two types of torpedoes to the world's navies: one was 11 feet, seven inches (3.5 m) in length with a diameter of 14 inches (35.5 cm). It weighed 346 pounds (157 kg) and carried a 40-pound (18.1 kg) warhead. The other was 14 feet (4.3 m) long with a 16-inch (40.6 cm) diameter. It weighed 650 pounds (295 kg) and carried a 60-pound (27.2 kg) warhead. Both models could do 8-10 knots (17 km/h) with a range of 200 yards (183 m).

The United States Navy started using the Whitehead torpedo in 1892 after an American company, E. W. Bliss, secured manufacturing rights.[10] As manufactured for the US Navy, the Whitehead torpedo was divided into four sections: the head, the air flask, the after-body and the tail. The head contained the explosive charge of guncotton; the air flask contained compressed air at 1350 pounds per square inch, or 90 atmospheres; the after-body contained the engine and the controlling mechanism, and the propellers and rudder were in the tail. The air flask was constructed from heavy forged steel. The other parts of the shell of the torpedo were made of thin sheet steel. The interior parts were generally constructed out of bronze. The torpedo was launched above or below the waterline from a tube, using air or gunpowder discharge.[12]


In 1871, the Royal Navy bought manufacturing rights, and started producing the torpedo at the Royal Laboratories at Woolwich, England. The Royal Navy fitted the Whitehead torpedo on its earliest submarines, from HMS Holland 1 onwards.[4] The French, German, Italian, Russian navies soon followed suit and began acquiring the Whitehead torpedo. By 1877, the Whitehead torpedo was attaining speeds of 18 mph (29 km/h) for ranges of 830 yards (760 m).

By the 1880s, more of the world's navies acquired the Whitehead and began deploying torpedo boats to carry them into battle and engineers began to envision submarines armed with Whitehead torpedoes. In 1904, British Admiral Henry John May commented, "but for Whitehead, the submarine would remain an interesting toy and little more".[2][4]

The last known operational use of a Whitehead torpedo was during the Battle of Drøbak Sound on the 9th of April 1940. Two torpedoes were fired from a torpedo battery in the Oslofjord at the German cruiser Blücher. This finished the ship off after it had been severely damaged by cannon fire from Oscarsborg.


 Royal Navy[4]
 Imperial German Navy[7]
 French Navy[7]
 Austro-Hungarian Navy[7]
 Regia Marina[7]
 Imperial Russian Navy[7]
 Argentine Navy[7]
 Belgian Navy[7]
 Royal Danish Navy[7]
 Hellenic Navy[7]
 Portuguese Navy[7]
 Chilean Navy[7]
 Royal Norwegian Navy[7]
 Swedish Navy[7]
 United States Navy[10]

See also


Explanatory notes

  1. Naval mines (which are typically static or passively mobile) were known as torpedoes when the Whitehead torpedo was developed.


  1. "Torpedo History: Whitehead Torpedo Mk1". Retrieved 2013-05-28.
  2. Delgado, James P. (2011). Silent Killers: Submarines and Underwater Warfare. Osprey Publishing. p. 74. ISBN 978-1-84908-365-2.
  3. Newpower, Anthony (2006). Iron Men And Tin Fish: The Race to Build a Better Torpedo During World War II. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 15. ISBN 0-275-99032-X.
  4. "Curator's Choice: Whitehead Torpedo". Retrieved 2013-05-31.
  5. "Chronology: Torpedo in Word and Picture". Retrieved 2013-06-08.
  6. Silverstone, Paul (2006). The New Navy, 1883-1922. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. xxiii. ISBN 0-415-97871-8.
  7. "Torpedo History: Historical Background". Retrieved 2013-06-01.
  8. Robert Stem (2008-09-18). Destroyer Battles: Epics of Naval Close Combat. pp. 18–19. ISBN 9781473813564. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  9. "Robert Whitehead - a Brief History". Retrieved 8 December 2012.
  10. "Artifact Spotlight: Whitehead torpedo" (PDF). Retrieved 8 December 2012.
  11. Stein, Stephen K. (2007). From Torpedoes to Aviation: Washington Irving Chambers & Technological Innovation in the New Navy 1876 to 1913. University of Alabama Press. p. 123. ISBN 0-8173-1564-0.
  12. The Whitehead Torpedo:. Bureau of Ordnance, United States Navy. 1898.


  • Gibbs, Jay (2008). "Question 38/43: Loss of the Ottoman Gunboat Intibah". Warship International. XLV (4): 289–291. ISSN 0043-0374.
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