Torpedo boats belong to four classes: (a) torpedo boat destroyers; (b) sea-going boats; (c) harbor boats; and (d) portable boats carried by men-of-war. The original purpose of the torpedo boat had been for harbor defense. This policy had dictated a small craft capable of hiding in a cove or harbor. The early torpedo boat was a small and rather fragile craft, since it was intended to carry on its work stealthily and not make general engagements. Torpedo boat destroyers are classed with torpedo boats because of similarity in general design and because they will undoubtedly be used for torpedo attack in the same manner as the smaller craft from which they differ little except in size and the possession of a battery sufficiently powerful to quickly sink and destroy boats of the lesser dimensions.
They vary in size from 250 to 500 tons. Ocean-Going Torpedo Boats were at the time also classed as TBD Torpedo Boat Destroyers. That is, these boats were intially grouped with larger vessels that were later classified as DD Destroyers when the smaller vessles were classified as TB Torpedo Boats. The torpedo boat proper carried very few and very small guns. Sea-going boats were of 100 to 250 tons; harbor boats (capable of going to sea in moderate weather) of 30 to 100 tons; and portable boats of from 5 to 15 tons. The speeds are in somewhat similar ratio, destroyers having 26 to 35 knots; sea-going boats, about 25 knots; harbor boats, 20 to 25 knots; and portable boats, 13 to 17 knots.
Torpedo boats are named for naval heroes and other notable persons. Torpedo boats are numbered in a single series, "Torpedo Boat xx", often abbreviated "TB-xx". In 1918 many names were reassigned to new Destroyers then under construction, and they became Coast Torpedo Boats [CTB] with a differing numerical sequence.
The beginnings of the torpedo-boat were very humble. They were, for the most part, ordinary boats furnished with a long pole to carry the torpedo, the "sac d'poiulre" to use the American expression, which contained sixty pounds of ordinary cannon powder, which a few determined men then proceeded to explode against the hull of a ship. It was by no means a matter of course that these early attempts should be crowned with success. Sometimes the tiny assailant was seen in time, and forced to beat a retreat under a shower of projectiles ; or, if he did succeed in coming into actual contact with his enemy, the column of water raised by the explosion fell upon his boat and sunk it. This happened when one attacked the Federal ship " New Ironsides" on the night of October 5, 1863.
The first torpedo boat was possibly Picket Boat Number One, a steam launch built in 1864 for use in support of the U.S. Navy's blockade of the Confederacy. Outfitted with a spar-torpedo, she could also be employed to attack larger enemy vessels. On the dark night of 27-28 October 1864, Lieutenant William B. Cushing and a crew of 14 men took Picket Boat Number One up river to Plymouth, North Carolina. In one of the Civil War's most daring naval actions, they attacked the Confederate ironclad Albemarle, sinking it with the spar torpedo. Only Lt. Cushing and one other man escaped, and Picket Boat Number One was lost, but the Union forces on the North Carolina sounds were freed of the great threat presented by the continued existence of the Albemarle. Many other attempts with torpedo-boats failed.
The Americans, the inventors of the carried torpedo, or at least, the first to put them in actual use, stopped short in the matter since the close of the War of Secession. Unconcerned and impassive, but with eyes fixed on the other side of the ocean, they note the successive transformations and keep account of the discussions in regard to the different improvements. A commission appointed by the United States Government for the purpose of considering the question of attack by and defence against torpedo-boats, came to the almost unanimous conclusion that torpedo-boats will certainly destroy an armor-clad if they escape destruction during the two minutes in the course of which the vessel attacked will be able to employ its quick-firing guns.
When, on March 5, 1874, the iron torpedo-boat "Intrepid" was launched from the upper ship-house, of Charlestown Navy Shipyard in Boston MA, she was the first vessel of the kind added to the American navy - a torpedo ram.
The United States government, in 1876, ordered a large wooden launch, the Lightning, of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. She was 58 feet long, and made about 17.5 knots on trial. Herreshoff's Lightning was a long, narrow, double-ended launch, partly decked. She was fifty-eight feet long, and she carried two SPAR torpedoes. The introduction of steam power as applied to yachts, launches, torpedo boats and craft for trade opened a new and wide field. The early use of the water-tube boiler made the performance of the first torpedo boat, the Lightning, a revelation in the then infancy of high speed craft.
The invention of the automobile torpedo prompted the US Navy to experiment with a new type of vessel, the torpedo boat, using the Torpedo Station and Naragansett Bay. As early as 1881 the Naval Advisory Board had recommended the construction of torpedo boats, but despite mounting agitation it was not until 1886 that action was taken. The sudden and unmistakable decision of the leading naval power to adopt torpedo boats as serious weapons of warfare had the inevitable effect of startling all the European navies into further expenditure in this direction.
In 1884 the Vice-Admiral Porter asked, in a memorandum presented to the Congress of the United States, that twenty torpedo-boats, of one hundred tons each and of twenty knots speed, be at once constructed. In addition he would have each man-of-war of more than twelve hundred and fifty tons to carry a torpedo-boat.
In 1885 and 1886, torpedo boats, both first and second class, were built by Austria, Chili, China, France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. The United States still stolidly refused to take a lesson from the old world, and for reasons remain somewhat obscure, refrained from building anything more than one experimental second-class boat. It is true the United States had not then adopted the Whitehead torpedo ; still the Howell, with certain restrictions, was adaptable for boat work. In any case it is very curious that the Power which had had more practical experience of torpedoes in actual warfare than any other, should be the least enterprising regarding them.
In the United States, the Messrs. Herreshoff, of Bristol, RI, built a number of very fast boats, designed to be used with torpedoes. One of these was the noted steam-yacht Stiletto, which may well be taken the prototype American torpedo boat. The Stiletto was built of wood, with iron braces; length, 94 feet; width, 11 feet; draught of water, 4 feet 6 inches, and attained a speed of 25 miles per hour. Stiletto was launched in 1885 at the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co., Bristol, R.I., as a private speculation; purchased for the United States Navy under an Act of Congress dated 3 March 1887; and entered service in July 1887, attached to the Torpedo Station, Newport, RI. Stiletto was the Navy's first torpedo boat capable of launching self-propelled torpedoes. Purchased for experimental evaluation, Stiletto was based throughout her career at Newport, R.I. During 1897, she was modified to burn fuel oil, but results of trials held subsequently were disappointing, and the experiment was not repeated. Stiletto was struck from the Navy list on 27 January 1911 and sold on 18 July 1911 at Newport, R.I., to James F. Nolan of East Boston, Mass., for scrapping.
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