The Whitehead Torpedo

In 1959, The Sound of Music premiered on Broadway. It quickly became a hit and in 1965 was turned into the famous film with Julie Andrews. But did you know that this singing family has a relationship with the torpedo?

The Von Trapp family is not known for their military history but rather for their famous escape of Nazi occupied Austria. What the movie leaves out is the fact that Maria did not actually bring the gift of song into the Von Trapp household. The children already had a love of singing from their mother, Agatha Whitehead Von Trapp. The Von Trapp’s have multiple ties to Navy life. Not only was Georg Von Trapp (the father) in the Austrian Navy serving aboard submarines, Agatha is the granddaughter of Robert Whitehead – the inventor of the modern torpedo. In fact, most of the wealth that belonged to the Von Trapp family before the war was from sales of the Whitehead Torpedo. But who was Robert Whitehead?

Robert Whitehead

Robert Whitehead was born in 1823 in Bolton, England. At fourteen, he left school to become an apprentice to an engineer. He would spend several years attending Manchester’s Mechanics Institute. In 1844, Whitehead left for France and would later start his own business in Milan. By the 1850’s his work with marine steam engines allowed him to have successful businesses throughout Europe. This success attracted the Austrian government, who asked him to develop a new weapon for marine ships. Austrian Captain Giovanni Luppis enlisted the help of Whitehead to develop a weapon that could damage another vessel from a far distance. Their invention became the first self-propelled torpedo and would become the starting point for all future designs.

In 1866, the first experimental model was ready. Propelled by a two cylinder, compressed-air engine, the model could travel 200 yards at a speed of 6 ½ knots. By 1868, Whitehead had refined his design and offered two versions of his torpedo for sale – an 11-foot, 8-inch model and a 14-foot model. The United States Navy described the torpedo in an 1898 manual in the following manner:

The Whitehead Torpedo consists of a cylindrical air-flask to which is attached an ogival head and a conical after-body, bearing the tail. The head contains the explosive charge, for use in action, or fresh-water ballast for use in exercise; the air-flask contains compressed air, the motive power of the torpedo; the after-body contains the engine and the controlling mechanism; and in the tail, are the propellers and the rudder. Air is compressed in the air-flask to a pressure of 1350 lbs. per sq. in., or ninety atmospheres, approximately, and the torpedo is launched from a tube, above or below the water-line, by air or gun-powder impulse. The air-flask is of heavy forged steel; the other parts of the shell of the torpedo are of thin sheet steel, strengthened at various points by strengthening-rings and at the joints by stout joint-rings. The interior parts are generally of bronze, with a few easily accessible parts of steel.[1]

Figure 2

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.

The Austrian Navy was the first to place and order for the torpedo. While Austria purchased the manufacturing rights in 1869, Whitehead negotiated a contract which allowed him to continue selling his torpedo to other countries. By 1881, Britain, Russia, France, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Argentina, and Belgium had purchased Whitehead torpedoes. In 1877, he introduced the MK2, an improved version of his MK1 models that traveled faster and further. The MK2 had speeds of 27-28 knots, but the larger 16 ½ foot model was twice the speed compared to its 11-foot model. At first, the United States tried to develop their own torpedo before buying the Whitehead. In 1892, the Whitehead torpedo joined the U.S. Navy after the E.W. Bliss Company secured manufacturing rights. Five types of models were purchased – MK 1, MK 2, and MK 3 units in multiple sizes. All models featured three-cylinder engines and a gyroscope to control the larger models. The gyroscope was used in the later models solved the issue with course correction that was seen in the MK 1 model. The gyroscope was patented by Ludwig Obry. Whitehead bought the rights to the gyroscope in 1896 to use in his torpedoes. Between 1896 and 1904, the Bliss Company produced 300 Whitehead torpedoes. Whiteheads made up most of the torpedo arsenal for the U.S. Navy until 1910. The MK 3 was still being used in WWI and the last known use of a Whitehead torpedo was in WWII.

Robert Whitehead died in 1905, leaving a small fortune to his family. By the time of his death, new innovations lead to the MK 5. A hot running torpedo, the MK 5 used an air heater and a four-cylinder reciprocating engine. The heat allowed the Whitehead torpedo to run 4000 yards at 27 knots. What Whitehead accomplished in such a short time was rarely seen. The Whitehead torpedo set the primary design of today’s modern torpedoes. While his great-grandchildren are remembered for their singing, Whitehead should also be remembered for the important place he holds in Naval history. A MK 3 Whitehead torpedo is currently on display at the museum.


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