Howell torpedo
The Howell Automobile Torpedo was the first self-propelled (locomotive) torpedo
The modern torpedo is a self-propelled missile weapon with an explosive warhead, launched above or below the water surface, propelled underwater towards a target, and designed to detonate either on contact with it or in proximity to it.The term torpedo was originally employed for...

 in United States Navy
United States Navy
The United States Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The U.S. Navy is the largest in the world; its battle fleet tonnage is greater than that of the next 13 largest navies combined. The U.S...


It was conceived by LCdr. (later Rear Admiral) John A. Howell
John Adams Howell
John Adams Howell was a Rear Admiral of the United States Navy, who served during the Civil War and the Spanish–American War. He was also a noted inventor.-Biography:Howell was born in Bath, New York, on 16 March 1840...

 (1840–1918), USN, in 1870, using a 60 kg (130 lb) flywheel
A flywheel is a rotating mechanical device that is used to store rotational energy. Flywheels have a significant moment of inertia, and thus resist changes in rotational speed. The amount of energy stored in a flywheel is proportional to the square of its rotational speed...

 spun at very high speed (10000 to 12000 rpm) to store energy and drive propeller
A propeller is a type of fan that transmits power by converting rotational motion into thrust. A pressure difference is produced between the forward and rear surfaces of the airfoil-shaped blade, and a fluid is accelerated behind the blade. Propeller dynamics can be modeled by both Bernoulli's...

s. Because it had no complicated engine
An engine or motor is a machine designed to convert energy into useful mechanical motion. Heat engines, including internal combustion engines and external combustion engines burn a fuel to create heat which is then used to create motion...

 and fuel system, the Howell was much cheaper and easier to build than its main competitor, the Whitehead
Robert Whitehead
Robert Whitehead was an English engineer. He developed the first effective self-propelled naval torpedo. His company, located in the Austrian naval centre in Fiume, was the world leader in torpedo development and production up to the First World War.- Early life:He was born the son of a...

. In addition, unlike the Whitehead, the Howell was wakeless, not giving away the position of the firing vessel; its flywheel was, however, very noisy. It did demand large winch
A winch is a mechanical device that is used to pull in or let out or otherwise adjust the "tension" of a rope or wire rope . In its simplest form it consists of a spool and attached hand crank. In larger forms, winches stand at the heart of machines as diverse as tow trucks, steam shovels and...

es to "spin up" the flywheel (a drawback not solved in the Howell's operational lifetime.) Also unlike the Whitehead, its trim did not vary up and down. (In this, it resembled the extremely unrealistic torpedoes depicted by Hollywood.) These things were all due to the gyroscopic
A gyroscope is a device for measuring or maintaining orientation, based on the principles of angular momentum. In essence, a mechanical gyroscope is a spinning wheel or disk whose axle is free to take any orientation...

 effect of the flywheel; any tumbling was corrected by simple pendulum
A pendulum is a weight suspended from a pivot so that it can swing freely. When a pendulum is displaced from its resting equilibrium position, it is subject to a restoring force due to gravity that will accelerate it back toward the equilibrium position...

 (an idea pioneered, it should be said, by Whitehead). It made the Howell the first torpedo to use this effect; when, in an attempt to improve stability, Whitehead (using a Ludwig Obry design) adopted them in 1895, Howell sued for patent infringement
Patent infringement
Patent infringement is the commission of a prohibited act with respect to a patented invention without permission from the patent holder. Permission may typically be granted in the form of a license. The definition of patent infringement may vary by jurisdiction, but it typically includes using or...


After very protracted development -- the product of a paucity of funds, the novelty of the torpedo as a weapon, and, one must say, myopia
Myopia , "shortsightedness" ) is a refractive defect of the eye in which collimated light produces image focus in front of the retina under conditions of accommodation. In simpler terms, myopia is a condition of the eye where the light that comes in does not directly focus on the retina but in...

 of the Navy's senior officers -- fifty Howell Torpedoes Mark 1 were ordered (from Hotchkiss Ordnance Company of Providence
Providence, Rhode Island
Providence is the capital and most populous city of Rhode Island and was one of the first cities established in the United States. Located in Providence County, it is the third largest city in the New England region...

, Rhode Island
Rhode Island
The state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, more commonly referred to as Rhode Island , is a state in the New England region of the United States. It is the smallest U.S. state by area...

) in 1889. This was 14.2 in (36 cm) diameter, 129.75 in (330 cm) long, with a 96 lb (43.5 kg) warhead and a range of 400 yd (365 m) at 25 knots (46 km/h). Contemporary Whiteheads, built by E.W. Bliss & Co, had superior performance, and greater growth capacity.

These fifty would be the only production examples, as the Howell was superseded by a rapidly-improving Whitehead in 1892; as a consequence, the Howell's drawbacks were never cured. It is, therefore, impossible to know if quieting would have mitigated any loss of surprise to noise (as sometimes suggested). It is probable, however, USN submariners
A submarine is a watercraft capable of independent operation below the surface of the water. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability...

 in WW2
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 would have been grateful for anything that would have made torpedoes simpler, cheaper, and more susceptible to interwar trials; the Whitehead-based Mark 14 torpedo
Mark 14 torpedo
The Mark 14 torpedo was the United States Navy's standard submarine-launched anti-ship torpedo of World War II.This weapon was plagued with many problems which crippled its performance early in the war, and was supplemented by the Mark 18 electric torpedo in the last 2 years of the war...

which they went to war with was an unquestioned disaster.


  • Blair, Clay. Silent Victory. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975
  • Fitzsimons, Bernard, general editor. "Howell", in The Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Weapons and Warfare. London: Phoebus/BBC, 1978. Volume 13, page 1371.
  • "Howell torpedo", in The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, online
  • Kirby, Geoff. "A History of the Torpedo The Early Days", in The Journal of the Royal Navy Scientific Service, Vol 27 No 1.
  • Milford, Frederick J. "US Navy Torpedoes--Part One: Torpedoes through the thirties", in The Submarine Review, April 1996. (a quarterly publication of the Naval Submarine League, P.O. Box 1146, Annandale, VA 22003)

External links

  • Howell Torpedo Display at the US Naval Undersea Museum
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