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.

  • In 1886 Lieutenant Commander Barber of the Bureau of Ordnance testified before the Senate Committee on Ordnance and Warships.
  • “The 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 Howell…”

     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.









NUSC on Torpedoes
Naval Underwater systems Center
Newport, Rhode Island

A Brief History of U.S. Navy Torpedo Development
NUSC Technical Document 5436, 15 September 1978
E. W. Jolie, Weapon Systems Department
Naval Underwater Systems Center Newport Laboratory

Evolution of the Torpedo
Design Department
Naval Torpedo Station
Newport, Rhode Island
30 September 1946

A History of the Development of the Torpedo
Prepared by U.S. Naval Underwater Weapons Systems Engineering Center
Newport, Rhode Island

Engineering, May 25, 1945
The Development of the Torpedo – I and III
By Commander Peter Bethell, R. N.

The Devil’s Device, The Story of Robert Whitehead, Inventor of the Torpedo
By Edwyn Gray
Naval Institute Press
Annapolis, Maryland
ISBN 0-87021-245-1

The Howell Torpedo
Prepared by Honeywell, Inc.
From original manuscripts and photographs


Back to Menu