The Torpedo

Christopher Lloyd traces the development of naval missile technology alongside the often adverse reactions these “infernal machines” provoked.

It is astounding to me,” wrote Sir John Fisher when he became First Sea Lord in 1904, “how the very best amongst us fail to realise the vast impending revolution in naval warfare and naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish.”

Exactly a century earlier another great admiral, Lord St. Vincent, called Pitt “the greatest fool that ever existed” because he was encouraging the inventor Fulton to develop “a mode of warfare which those who commanded the seas did not want and which, if successful, would deprive them of it”—a prophecy that nearly came true in 1917, when the new pattern of warfare which still persists appeared in the German U-boat campaign, unrestricted by any of the rules of war.

The main armament of the submarine is, of course, the torpedo, which Fulton so named on the analogy of the torpedinidae or electric ray fish.

If we can discount the unsuccessful attempts of David Bushnell, who tried in the War of American Independence to sink two British ships by affixing mines to their bottoms, Robert Fulton may be called the inventor of the torpedo, as he was of the submarine.

In justification of these revolutionary weapons he argued that, since war was responsible for the poverty of nations and that since navies (particularly the British) were the instruments of tyranny, it was the duty of an American democrat to discover “a system which must of necessity sweep all military marines from the ocean, by giving the weaker maritime powers advantages over the stronger which the strong cannot prevent.”

Memories of the recent Battle of the Atlantic suggest that he was nearly right.

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