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Experiments with the American Torpedo-Shells at Chatham

The Illustrated London News, vol. 47, no. 1338, p. 357-358.

October 14, 1865

EXPERIMENTS With The American
Torpedo-Shells At Chatham.

The first use of submarine explosive shells for the destruction of hostile ships of war is attributed by the Americans to Mr. David Bushnell, of Connecticut, who, about 1777, contrived a machine in which the operator, with air enough to breathe for half an hour, could dive under the bottom of an enemy's vessel, and fasten to it a box of powder, which was afterwards to be fired by means of a gunlock and a long cord. This machine, which took its name from its shape resembling the American turtle or torpedo, was tried without success against the British squadron in New York harbour and in the Delaware. Twenty years later Robert Fulton, the author of steam navigation in America, devised a method of applying submarine bomb-shells, which he laid before the British Government. It was discountenanced by our naval authorities, but found some favour with Mr. Pitt, who on one occasion witnessed near Walmer Castle the blowing up of the brig Dorothea by means of a 180-pounder torpedo--that is, an explosive shell, the name being now transferred from the original diving-machine to the immediate instrument of destruction. Fulton's shell was provided with clock-work to set the gunlock in action and fire the powder, after the lapse of a given time. The whole subject, however, seems to have lain in abeyance till the Russian war of 1854, when the channels leading to Cronstadt were defended by sunken magazines of powder, held by buoys at a certain depth beneath the surface; the intended method of ignition, when the enemy's ships passed over, was by the breaking of a small glass tube, containing sulphuric acid, which would then flow down a long flexible tube, containing at its bottom a preparation of chlorate of potash, so as to produce a flame communicating with the magazine. These Russian torpedos, however, did not prove very efficient, and were harmlessly fished up by our exploring boats.

The late civil war in America has occasioned the practical application and modification of these engines of warfare in a great variety of forms. They were extensively used by the military and naval engineers of the Southern Confederacy, the most successful example being shown by the destruction of the Tecumseh, at Mobile, in August, 1863. A torpedo diving-boat, with steam-engine and screw-propeller, and with two vanes, like the fins of a fish, to regulate its upward or downward motion, was constructed by them at Charleston, and another at New Orleans; but in these instances the torpedo-shells, as employed by the Southerners, were to be thrust forward at the end of a long arm or spar, so as to be placed in direct contact with the bottom or side of the ship to destroyed.

This principle, which seemed fatal to the usefulness and convenient applicability of the invention, has been entirely superseded by the new kind of torpedos exhibited last week at Chatham. The merit of the novel combination, in its present shape, is shared by Mr. W. W. Wood, Chief Engineer of the United States Navy, and Mr. G. W. Beardslee, of New York, inventor of the magneto-electric telegraph, which had already been employed with remarkable success for military and engineering purposes on land. Without going into a description of Mr. Beardslee's invention, which supersedes the galvanic battery as well for the transmission of messages as for the explosion of mines or magazines, at any distance, either on land or under water, and sunk at any depth, it may be stated that the magneto-electric apparatus, requiring no acids or plates, is carried in a small box, as portable as a writing-desk; it may be worked very easily upon an open telegraph wire on land, or a wire, in the water, insulated by a coating of vulcanised india-rubber. In August, 1864, when Mr. Beardslee's apparatus was experimentally applied to the ordinary line of telegraph wire between New York and Washington, a charge of gunpowder at Washington was fired in an instant by the operators at New York, and


Page 357

vice versá, at a distance, of 240 miles; whereas in former experiments of this sort with Grove's galvanic batteries, the combined power of no less than 150 pairs was required to ignite powder by means of burning a platinum wire, at Baltimore, forty miles from Washington. Mr. Beardslee employs a patent fusee or cartridge, for mines and torpedoes, which is so ingenious that we must give it particular notice. It consists of a small wooden cylinder, about three quarters of an inch in diameter, and 3 in. long; at one end of the cylinder is a cavity which holds the combustible, which is confined only by pasteboard or membrane, so that, when ignited, it will blow straight into the heart of the principal charge; the two wires of the electric circuit, entering at the other end of the cylinder, terminate upon the little wooden disc which forms the bottom of this cavity, so that the end of one wire is about a quarter of an inch from the other; the electric circuit is completed by drawing a dash with a blacklead-pencil across the tiny space of the wooden surface connecting the two ends of wire; and the fusee is then charged. It is a property of blacklead or plumbago to burst into flame when reached by the electric current; hence, by sending a current through the circuit thus composed, which may have wires of any length, the pencil-mark lying in the track of this current, and consisting of a few disintegrated particles of plumbago, is infallibly set on fire, and must infallibly set fire to the whole charge of the fuses, and of the torpedo or mine. The use of such a fusee is in every way superior to the method of producing ignition by platinum wire, which involves a great waste of electric power. Torpedos have been exploded by this fuse at a depth of 500 ft. or 600 ft. under water, in the oil-wells of Pennsylvania. At the Military Academy, West Point., in January last, an 11-inch shell, at the depth of 170 ft. beneath the ice of the Hudson, was exploded through five miles of wire. By other explosions, at a depth of 20 ft., the ice was torn up in an extraordinary manner. At the same place, when further experiments were made last April, sixty shells of that size, arranged in three groups or circuits, were exploded at the same instant of time. The utility of this process for submarine engineering was shown, in February, 1864, by the speedy removal of the massive piles which the Southerners had placed to obstruct the entrance of Elizabeth River, near Norfolk, Virginia; three discharges, at intervals of half an hour, clearing away ten clusters of piles, chained together, and driven 15 ft. deep into the bed of the river, the depth of water being 30 ft.

The exhibition which took place in the Medway, on Wednesday week, in the presence of the Duke of Somerset, First Lord of the Admiralty; Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Talbot, commanding the squadron at the Nore; Captain Stewart, the superintendent of Chatham dockyard; Sir Robert Walpole, commandant of the garrison; Colonel Boxer, and other professional or scientific gentlemen, fully maintained the reputation of the American torpedos. The official party was accompanied on board the Admiralty yacht Wildfire by Mr. Donald M'Kay, the extensive shipowner, of Boston, who has undertaken to help in introducing the contrivance of Messrs. Wood and Beardslee to the Governments and public of Europe. Mr. Beardslee himself had been busied for a week before in making his preparations at Chatham; and on the Saturday previous to this exhibition he had sunk a torpedo charged with 440 lb. of powder in the mud and sand off Gillingham Point, at the entrance to Chatham Harbour. The depth of water at high tide was 26 ft., and the place was marked by a pole bearing a red flag, the wire attached to the torpedo being kept by a float on the surface. The Admiralty yacht having taken up her station a few hundred yards from the barge on which Mr. Beardslee and his assistants were stationed with their electrical apparatus for igniting the shells, the signal was given for commencing. A boat's crew was dispatched from the operator's barge to establish electrical communication with the sunken shell, which was to be fired through a length of two miles of wire. This preliminary completed and the train all ready for firing, in an instant there rose from the placid bosom of the river high into the air a huge column of water, in shape and action much resembling those great waterspouts occasionally witnessed by sailors in mid-ocean, and to which, though very beautiful to look upon, they do their best to give a wide berth. The splendid volumes of snow-white feathery spray soared quickly to a height of little less than 200 ft., and then fell gently again in exquisitely graceful curves into the vortex whence they had risen, leaving no trace of themselves behind, save a slowly-expanding circle of bubbling, foaming water, the muddy, yeasty aspect of which showed that the river had been stirred to its lowest depths....The explosion of the next torpedo--also a 440-pounder, but suspended 2 ft. below the surface--produced effects but slightly differing from those just described, except that it was accompanied by a more deafening report, while fragments of the cylinder were sent spinning high above the topmost wreaths of delicate, feathery spray, and the rare beauty of the too-transient display was more strongly contrasted with the after turbidness of the seething waters. Several other experiments of a similar nature followed, the third torpedo, a 440-pounder, being suspended 15 ft. below the surface; and the fourth, of the same size and charge, suspended in 30 ft. of water, instead of resting on the bottom. They were fired through wires one third of a mile in length. The last of the 440-pounders lifted an enormous mass of water, which seemed as if scooped out of a hollow 100 ft. in diameter and hurled into the air to a height of little less than 200ft., with an effect which was awfully grand.

Preparations were now made for destroying the Terpsichore, 18-gun sailing-frigate, which had been placed at the disposal of Mr. Beardslee by the Admiralty in order to put the destructive powers of the torpedo to the most practical test. Although a torpedo charged with only 50 lb. of powder would, according to Mr. Beardslee's statement, be more than sufficient to destroy a vessel of the size of the Terpsichore, he had proposed, with a view of obtaining the fullest possible effects, to use a full charge of 440 lb. in the torpedo--sufficient, it may be remarked, to destroy the largest vessel in the British Navy. It was, however, considered that so tremendous a force brought to bear on so comparatively small an object would be attended with results not contemplated; and accordingly a couple of 75 lb. torpedoes were taken, in the small boat, close alongside the Terpsichore and there sunk, being just let down from the side of the boat. As the tide was running very strong, but one of the two torpedoes lodged at its proper place, so as to have the ship within reach of the explosion; the other, being carried aside as much as 10 ft. or 12 ft., could have no material effect. The boat with Mr. Beardslee and his men drew off a short distance; then, after a momentary pause, came the stifled report of both the torpedos at once, and the Terpsichore suddenly rose at her bows 10 ft. or 12 ft. into the air and heeled over on her starboard side, while great masses of water burst up through her decks, her whole frame being convulsed and heaving as with agony, till she began to settle down [f]orwards. In another moment her stern stood up at an acute angle, and her bow sank deeper and deeper. Not a fragment, however, of her timbers was seen to be detached from the rest of her bulk, not a splinter had been shot up into the air or had fallen off into the water, and she appeared to be going down bodily. The mischief she had received would seem to be a broken back; for she still continued to go down by the head, until, in about five minutes from her first movement, she lay fast aground in the Medway mud on an even keel, with the tide, now at three-quarters ebb, up to within a few inches of her portholes. There was not then enough water entirely to cover her. She was left there till last Monday, when the wreck was lifted and hauled into dock at Chatham. On Tuesday morning the water was pumped out of the dock, and the frigate having in the mean time been shored up, the whole of her hull was exposed to view, allowing a careful examination to be made of her bottom by the dockyard officials. The injuries effected by the torpedo are all on the starboard side of the hull, slightly abaft the fore chains, the port side of the bottom showing no injury whatever, with the exception of the loosening of a few of the sheets of copper. The full explosive force of the torpedo appears to have caught the frigate about 8 ft. upward from her keel, blowing in her timbers and planking, the opening thus effected being about 10 ft. square. A close examination shows that few of the timbers are broken off, the separation being at their points of junction. Proceeding on board the frigate, the effects of the explosion are still more apparent, the planking of the main deck for a length of above 20 ft. being ripped up, while the deck beams are broken in various directions and forced upwards to the upper deck. Even had the explosion not sunk her, the tremendous shock she sustained would have rendered her useless, while some idea of the effects of the shock may be formed from the circumstance of the whole of the iron knees on the port side, which carry the upper-deck beams, being wrenched and broken off. The frigate has been inspected this week by a large number of persons, including several of the officers of the Royal Engineers.

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