Whitehead torpedo

The Whitehead torpedo was the first self-propelled or "locomotive" torpedo ever developed.[a] It was perfected in 1866 by Robert Whitehead from a rough design conceived by Giovanni Luppis of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in Fiume.[7] 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.[8] This early torpedo proved itself in combat during the Russo-Turkish War when, on 16 January 1878, the Ottoman ship Intibah was sunk by Russian torpedo boats carrying Whiteheads,[2] though this story has been disputed in one book.[9]

Whitehead torpedo
Torpille Whitehead.jpg
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]
Maximum speed 26.5 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]


Robert Whitehead with a battered test torpedo, Fiume (today's Croatia), c.1875
Argentinian sailors with a Whitehead torpedo, Fiume, Austria, 1888

During the 19th century, an officer[who?] 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",[10] Luppis turned to Robert Whitehead, who then worked for Stabilimento Tecnico Fiumano, a factory in Fiume.[8] In about 1850 the Imperial 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 (3.4 m)-long, 14-inch (36 cm)-diameter torpedo propelled by compressed air and carrying an explosive warhead, with a speed of 7 knots (13 km/h; 8.1 mph) and the ability to hit a target up to 700 yards (640 m) away.[10] 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.[11] By 1870 Whitehead's torpedoes were running at 17 knots (31 km/h; 20 mph). 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.[12]


Whitehead torpedo's general profile, as illustrated in The Whitehead Torpedo manual, published by the US Navy in 1898: A. war-head B. air-flask. B'. immersion-chamber CC'. after-body C. engine-room DDDD. drain-holes E. shaft-tube F. steering-engine G. bevel-gear box H. depth-index I. tail K. charging and stop-valves L. locking-gear M. engine bed-plate P. primer-case R. rudder S. steering-rod tube T. guide-stud UU. propellers V. valve-group W. war-nose Z. strengthening-band
Mk3 Whitehead torpedo fired from East Dock, Goat Island, Newport Torpedo Station, Rhode Island, 1894

In 1868, Whitehead offered two types of torpedoes to the world's navies: one was eleven feet seven inches (3.53 m) in length with a diameter of 14 inches (36 cm). It weighed 346 pounds (157 kg) and carried a 40-pound (18 kg) warhead. The other was 14 feet (4.3 m) long with a 16-inch (41 cm) diameter. It weighed 650 pounds (290 kg) and carried a 60-pound (27 kg) warhead. Both models could do 8–10 knots (15–19 km/h; 9.2–11.5 mph) with a range of 200 yards (180 m).

The United States Navy started using the Whitehead torpedo in 1892 after an American company, E. W. Bliss, secured manufacturing rights.[11] 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 1,350 pounds per square inch (9,300 kPa), 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.[13]


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) with ranges of up to 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 9 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.[citation needed]


  Austro-Hungarian Navy[8]
  Royal Navy[4]
  Imperial German Navy[8]
  French Navy[8]
  Regia Marina[8]
  Imperial Russian Navy[8]
  Argentine Navy[8]
  Mexican Navy[14]
  Belgian Navy[8]
  Royal Danish Navy[8]
  Hellenic Navy[8]
  Portuguese Navy[8]
  Chilean Navy[8]
  Royal Norwegian Navy[8]
  Swedish Navy[8]
  United States Navy[11]

See alsoEdit


Explanatory notesEdit

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


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "Torpedo History: Whitehead Torpedo Mk1". Archived from the original on 15 September 2014. Retrieved 28 May 2013.
  2. ^ a b c 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. Archived from the original on 19 August 2021. Retrieved 5 August 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Curator's Choice: Whitehead Torpedo". Archived from the original on 18 August 2013. Retrieved 31 May 2013.
  5. ^ a b "Chronology: Torpedo in Word and Picture". Archived from the original on 6 April 2014. Retrieved 8 June 2013.
  6. ^ a b c d e Silverstone, Paul (2006). The New Navy, 1883-1922. Taylor & Francis Group. pp. xxiii. ISBN 0-415-97871-8. Archived from the original on 19 August 2021. Retrieved 5 August 2016.
  7. ^ Gray, Edwyn (1991). The Devil's Device: Robert Whitehead and the History of the Torpedo. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. p. 310. ISBN 0-87021-245-1.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o "Torpedo History: Historical Background". Archived from the original on 15 September 2014. Retrieved 1 June 2013.
  9. ^ Robert Stem (18 September 2008). Destroyer Battles: Epics of Naval Close Combat. pp. 18–19. ISBN 9781473813564. Archived from the original on 19 August 2021. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  10. ^ a b "Robert Whitehead - a Brief History". Archived from the original on 3 March 2016. Retrieved 8 December 2012.
  11. ^ a b c "Artifact Spotlight: Whitehead torpedo" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 12 May 2013. Retrieved 8 December 2012.
  12. ^ 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 978-0-8173-1564-1. Archived from the original on 20 August 2021. Retrieved 5 August 2016.
  13. ^ The Whitehead Torpedo. Bureau of Ordnance, United States Navy. 1898. Archived from the original on 30 October 2014. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
  14. ^ "Comodoro Manuel Azueta Perillos, Ensayo biografico" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 May 2021. Retrieved 11 February 2021.


  • Caruana, Joseph; Freivogel, Zvonimir; Macmillan, Don; Smith, Warren & Viglietti, Brian (2007). "Question 38/43: Loss of Ottoman Gunboat Intibah". Warship International. XLIV (4): 326–329. ISSN 0043-0374.
  • Gibbs, Jay (2008). "Question 38/43: Loss of the Ottoman Gunboat Intibah". Warship International. XLV (4): 289–291. ISSN 0043-0374.