OF THE HOWELL TORPEDO
In 1883, when Congress appropriated funding to purchase
automobile or self-propelled torpedoes, the Navy issued a
public solicitation for concepts and to conduct a competitive
evaluation. The specification required each competitor to
build an experimental model at his own expense and demonstrate
it to the Navy Torpedo Board for evaluation.
The Navy received three proposals. The American Torpedo
Company and Asa Weeks both proposed surface-running,
rocket-powered torpedoes. LCDR John Howell, USN, proposed an
ingeniously designed flywheel-powered brass torpedo. A
132-pound flywheel, spun up to 10,000 rpm by a steam turbine,
provided the stored energy to move the torpedo through the
water. This means of propulsion outperformed all others for
the next thirty years. The flywheel also acted as a gyroscope,
keeping the torpedo on its lateral course.
The torpedo was 11 feet long, 14 inches in diameter,
and weighed about 500 lbs. It could be launched from either
above water or submerged torpedo tubes. The Howell attained a
speed of 26 knots for 400 yards with great accuracy. It could
be set to maintain a desired depth and explode upon contact
with its target.
1886 Lieutenant Commander Barber of the Bureau of Ordnance
testified before the Senate Committee on Ordnance and
Howell torpedo is the most valuable American locomotive
torpedo that has yet been invented for naval use…Our
government should take the necessary action to perfect
it…Its principal advantages over the Whitehead are directive
force, its size and its cost. Its remarkable power for
maintaining the direction in which it is pointed, when acted
upon by a deflecting force, makes it possible to launch it
with accuracy from the broadside of a vessel in rapid
motion, which in my opinion is the most practical method of
using a torpedo at sea; no other torpedo presents the
advantages in this respect that are possessed by the
In 1888 the Navy selected the Howell torpedo as the
first automobile torpedo for issue to the fleet. CDR Howell
sold his design to the Hotchkiss Ordnance Company which in
turn manufactured the new Mark 1 Howell torpedo for the Navy.
By 1892, U.S. Navy battleships mounted deck-mounted
torpedo tubes to fire the Mark 1 Howell. When the Navy ordered
its first operational torpedo boats (the Cushing Class), the
Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, had the task of arming these
new craft and training their crews to fire the Howell torpedo.
By the time of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the U.S. Navy
included operational seagoing torpedo boats that were the
forerunners of modern fleet destroyers.
With the relocation of the torpedo tubes to below the
waterline, the Navy replaced the Howell torpedo with the
Whitehead Torpedo Mark 1, 2, and 3 which did not require a
flywheel. The Navy used the Howell for about 10 years and
withdrew it about 1900.