November 1905: Farewell to the inventor of the torpedo

Obituaries in archive editions of The Engineer always make interesting reading; with our benefit of hindsight we often have a different view than contemporaries of the deceased. An interesting case in point is the obituary of Robert Whitehead, a name now perhaps little known but significant because he was the inventor of the torpedo: this autonomous weapon was the forerunner of the UAVs that are now such a controversial feature of warfare.

Robert Whitehead and his son with a battered test torpedo circa 1875

“Paradoxical as it may seem, Mr Whitehead is reported to have considered [the torpedo] as a means for ensuring peace rather than bringing war,” the obituary said. “His idea, no doubt, was of the fearful effects of the torpedo, once realised, would be a sufficient deterrent to peoples and nations contemplating war.” History, of course, repeats itself and we can only imagine the conversation Whitehead might have had with proponents of deterrence theory in the 20th century and beyond.

Even in his lifetime, Whitehead was proved wrong; the obituary noted that he had been too ill in the last year of his life to have taken much notice of the conduct of the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. Both sides possessed torpedo technology, but this did nothing to prevent them from opening hostilities, and, over the course of the war, both sides launched a total of nearly 300 torpedoes and one of the Russian flagships – the battleship Knyaz Suvorov – was the first modern ship to be sunk by a torpedo. Both sides possessed large numbers of torpedo boats, many of which had been built in Britain.

Moreover, in this conflict the Imperial Russian Navy was the first navy in history to possess an independent operational submarine fleet. Whitehead’s obituary said that without the torpedo the submarine “would have no raison d’être”. It is safe to say, it added, that Whitehead had probably had more influence than anyone else on modern naval tactics.

Although torpedoes had existed for some time before Whitehead, it was he who developed the first self-propelled and self-steering torpedo. This happened in Austria, where Whitehead spent most of his working life; the invention was achieved with what The Engineer seemed to regard as remarkable speed. A Captain Luppis of the Austrian Navy approached Whitehead in 1866 with a model of a torpedo – a small boat propelled by clockwork that was supposed to be steered from the shore and carried a percussion explosive in its nose. In less than a year, Whitehead had developed his first prototype. The first successful prototype was developed in 1868, and the Austrian Navy adopted the technology the following year, with Britain following suit in 1871. At that time, the torpedo could travel at a speed of eight knots for about 600 yards. By Whitehead’s death, the range had improved to more than 4,000 yards, the speed to 36 knots, and the weight of explosive carried had increased from 30lb to about 200lb.

According to The Engineer, the gyroscopic steering mechanism of the then-current torpedo was developed by a Mr L Obry of Trieste. “This is based upon the principle that a body revolving on a free axis tends to preserve its plane of rotation,” it explained. “A gyroscope with a plane of rotation parallel to the vertical axis of the torpedo will have an angular motion if the torpedo is diverted from its original course. This angular motion is employed to actuate the steering mechanism by operating an air motor connected with the rudders, and keeping the torpedo in the line of discharge.”

The gyroscope was in fact clockwork, having a flywheel rotated by a spring, which was wound up with a key on the outside of the torpedo and kept in tension until launch.

Whitehead did not come from an engineering background. He was born in Bolton, in a family that was, like many in the region, employed in the cotton industry. At 14, however, he was apprenticed to his uncle, William Swift, who was the manager of a Manchester engineering works. Showing early aptitude as a draughtsman, he moved to Marseille with his uncle, but soon left and set up business on his own in Milan, where he was mostly involved in the silk-weaving industry. Moving to Trieste in 1848, he opened his own engineering works where he built engines for the Austrian Navy.

It seems that Whitehead was a pleasant man, “much loved for his courtesy and benevolence”, according to the obituary. “There is reason to believe he felt acutely that, though honoured by other countries, the country of his birth did not regard him in the same manner,” but “he was the most modest and retiring of men, and did not seek public fame for himself.” He died at the age of 83.