This week in 1877

British torpedo boats make waves abroad

Britannia may have ruled the waves in the late 19th century but that didn’t stop the UK from manufacturing some pretty impressive and devastating warships for foreign governments.

Torpedo boats were originally invented by Confederate forces in the US Civil War as small, fast vessels that could deposit naval mines (the original meaning of the word ’torpedo’) on larger battleships and detonate them at a safe distance.

The 14 December 1877 issue of The Engineer carried a praising assessment of the craft looking at a new design built by Messrs Yarrow and Co of Poplar, saying that, although they hadn’t yet played a significant role in warfare, ’they deserve to be ranked amongst the most remarkable structures ever made by engineers and shipbuilders’.

Sitting very low in the water, the 75ft-long steel boat could reach speeds of around 20mph on its steam engine and carried a 40ft-long pole that projected the electrically detonated torpedo in front of the boat, 10ft under the water.
A steersman stood below deck, looking out through an iron truncated cone and feeling what The Engineer described as the exciting sensation ’which we fancy would be experienced by a man standing on the back of a “running” whale’.

Piloting the vessel into battle must have been incredibly daunting and it was vital that the steersman calculated the correct distance to retreat to once the torpedo was placed. But The Engineer noted: ’So long as there is a chance of destroying an enemy’s ship, brave men will not be lacking to try it at any personal risk.’

“Brave men will not be lacking to try to destroy an enemy’s ship”

As impressive a collaboration between engineers, electricians and shipbuilders as this torpedo boat was, its rapid evolution into the modern destroyer was already in motion thanks to the invention of self-propelled torpedoes by English engineer Robert Whitehead in 1866.

In an illustration of the rapid pace of innovation in the Victorian era, the first vessel able to launch modern torpedoes, HMS Lightning, had already been completed by the time of The Engineer’s article.