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Torpedo Boats - 1890s

The United States was slow in taking part in this competition, so actively pursued abroad, only one torpedo-boat, the Cushing, being ordered before 1890, in which year it came into service. USS Cushing, a 116-ton torpedo boat, was built in Bristol, Rhode Island. When commissioned in April 1890, she was the Navy's only modern torpedo boat, and spent most of her career assisting in torpedo development efforts. The first torpedo boat built for the Navy, Cushing was attached to the Squadron of Evolution and equipped for experimental work to complete the development of torpedo outfits and to gather data for the service. On 8 September 1891 she reported to Newport for duty at the Naval Torpedo Station, and except for a brief period out of commission, 11 November 1891-11 January 1892, Cushing continued her torpedo experiments in this area until 1893.

A second, the Ericsson, was authorized in 1891, and then the government rested until 1894. Since then it showed more activity in this direction, twenty-two of these boats having been authorized prior to July 1, 1897. The speed of these boats increased from the Cushing, of 22.5 knots, successively to 24.5 in the Rodgers, the Winslow, and the Foote, and 28.6 in the Porter, while of those not yet in service several are estimated at 30 and 30.5 knots. The largest ordered is the Stringham, two hundred and twenty-five feet long, twenty-two feet wide, and six feet six inches draught, with 340 tons displacement, an estimated power of 7200 horse, and an estimated speed of thirty knots.

The fifty-third Congress authorized the first six torpedo boats, and by 1897 thirteen more had been authorized and contracts for them awarded. This meant that a new element of strength had been added to the US Navy. Every precaution was taken to secure the latest improvements, the contractors not being confined in any instance to the Departments plans, but being allowed to bid also on plans of their own. In fact, the proposals of the Department had been general in their nature so as to induce shipbuilders to include in their own plans every modern improvement that competition could suggest. In this way the government has been able to avail itself not only of the knowledge of its own constructors, but also of that of the shipbuilders. This it has not hesitated to do, as is shown by the awards; for in all but the case of one of these boats contracts have been awarded on contractors plans.

For the ten of the thirteen boats contracted for in October 1896, the awards were for three different classes of boats, four being for 20-knot, three 22-knot and three for 30-knot boats. This classification resulted from adjusting the available appropriation to the greatest number of suitable boats procurable, careful consideration, of course, being given to what was needed in view of the almost total lack of torpedo boats of any description and the character of work that would most likely be required of them.

It was very clear from the plans submitted that the shipbuilders had examined carefully the latest boats abroad. The Union Iron Works was awarded the contract for a vessel of the torpedo-boat destroyer type. This vessel, which has was named the Farragut, when completed, was similar to the Desperate, the latest torpedo-boat destroyer built by England, and the departures by the Union Iron Works from the plans of the Desperate were in favor of a more formidable and effective boat.

The Bath Iron Works, the successful bidders for the other two 30-knot boats, consulted in the preparation of their plans Professor Byles, of the University of Glasgow, the designer of the swift oceam steamers Paris and New York. This company was so confident of what it could accomplish that it exceeded the requirements of the law and guaranteed a speed of 30 knots. The three boats for which contracts were awarded in August 1897 were all required to make 30 knots.

The exigencies of the year 1898 caused the ordering of a large number of these boats, some of them bearing the title of torpedo-boats, one of their requisites being that they should make a high speed in a moderate seaway, while to sixteen of them have been given the composite title of "destroyers of torpedo-boat destroyers," these being required to make a high speed in a heavy sea-way. These titles indicate a remarkable development in this direction. First came the torpedo, then the torpedo-boat, then the torpedo-boat destroyer, and then the destroyer of the destroyer.

In 1898 the Naval Construction Board prepared the specifications of the proposed destroyers and torpedo-boats to be built in accordance with the authority conferred by the naval appropriation act of 04 May 1898. Twenty-eight boats - 16 torpedo-boat destroyers and 12 torpedo-boats - were to be built. Bids were invited on the basis that the torpedo-boats shall not be less than 150 nor more than 170 tons displacement, capable of making a speed of not less than 26 knots an hour.

One of the most important requisites of the proposed vessels was that the torpedo-boats be able to make a high speed in a moderate seaway. The disablement of the boats was guarded against by a provision that the engines and boilers shall be in separate compartments. The torpedo-boats were to have a coal capacity of 40 tons, and their steaming radius was to be about that now possessed by the torpedo-boat Porter, which is with the division of the North Atlantic Squadron near Porto Rico.

The torpedo-boats were to be supplied with an unusually formidable armament. They are to be equipped with 3-pounder semi-automatic rapid-firing guns and three torpedo tubes. The total cost of each torpedo-boat was fixed at $170,000. The contracts will provide penalties for each quarter-knot below the contract requirement and for every day's delay beyond the time limit to be fixed. It is proposed that the torpedo-boats shall be furnished to the Government within within 12 months.

Ten torpedo boats served in the Spanish-American War. They were of six basic designs. Cushing (Torpedo Boat # 1) was the oldest, having been completed in 1890. The others had been commissioned in 1896-98. They included Ericsson(Torpedo Boat # 2); Foote, Rodgers and Winslow (Torpedo Boat #s 3 through 5); Porter and Du Pont (Torpedo Boat #s 6 and 7); plus the very small Talbot, Gwin (Torpedo Boat #s 15 and 16) and McKee (Torpedo Boat # 18). The Cushing had a speed of 22.48 knots, the Ericsson and Foote had a speed of some 24 knots, and the Porter and Dupont were 26-knot boats. All these little ships served in the Atlantic area, most of them operating off Cuba at some point during the war. Winslow received battle damage and casualties in an engagement at Cardenas, Cuba, on 11 May. Ericsson took part in the 3 July battle off Santiago. In the Spanish war they were never in a single instance put to legitimate torpedo-boat work. The Spanish war proved not their destructiveness nor their war time utility, but demonstrated their inherent weaknesses. During this war the tendency was not to test them but rather to preserve them.

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