Modern Engines of War.
For many centuries after the invention of gunpowder, little change took place in the weapons used in naval warfare, the chief developments being in the way of better workmanship and material, and the production of guns of larger size.
About the end of the eighteenth century, however, the period from which so many of our modern improvements begin to date, inventors began to plan new and improved methods of disposing of the enemy. About the year 1770, the American Bushnell conceived the idea of what his fellow-countryman Fulton afterwards called the “torpedo.” This weapon consisted of a case of powder which was to be attached to the bottom of the enemy’s ship by the aid of a submarine boat, leaving it to explode later on by means of a clock inside.
The submarine boat was actually made in 1775; it was egg-shaped in form, and held one man. It was propelled through the water by means of a screw propeller, worked by manual power; a similar screw, arranged vertically, enabled the boat to rise or sink at will. With this boat, during the War of Independence, he, or some other operator, succeeded in getting under a British man-of-war lying at anchor near New York. Without her crew having the slightest suspicion of his presence, he attempted to screw his torpedo to her bottom, but his auger encountered what appeared to be a bar of iron. When shifting to another position he lost the ship altogether, and being unable to find her again was forced to cast off the torpedo and make away, as the clock-work inside had been arranged to explode soon afterwards. And about an hour later the crew of the warship were first roused to their danger by the explosion of the torpedo at no great distance from them, and they were the more alarmed as they were wholly unable to account for it.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century another American, named Fulton, having borrowed Bushnell’s ideas, came over to Europe and endeavoured to get the French government to take up his plans for submarine warfare. After long delay he was at length given the sum of 10,000 francs, with which he successfully constructed a submarine boat. In this boat he remained under water for more than four hours, and having been required to blow up a small vessel had no difficulty in getting under her and in blowing her to pieces with his torpedo. The torpedo in a highly developed form is now one of the most important weapons in naval tactics.
In spite of the success of Fulton’s experiments, his plans were not adopted, either by Napoleon or by the British Admiralty, to whom Fulton afterwards offered them. The great European wars having been brought to an end by the downfall of Napoleon, the torpedo for a while sunk into oblivion, although during the Crimean war the Russians used submarine mines to protect their harbours. But during the American Civil War the torpedo was again brought to the front, and the Southerners, or “Confederates,” used vast numbers of them, to the great damage of the Northerners, or “Federals.”
At first these torpedoes proved so harmless—so few exploding out of the hundreds laid—that the Federal officers paid little attention to them. But as the war went on, better methods of exploding them were devised, and vessel after vessel was sunk in a few minutes, often with great loss of life. Some of these were sunk by submarine mines fired by electricity, others by floating torpedoes drifted down by the current or tide; others again by torpedoes at the end of a long spar carried in a small launch. In one instance, a submarine boat was employed, propelled by a screw worked by eight men. Instead of running just beneath the surface, however, her crew insisted on keeping the hatchway just above water, and open, with the result that the wave caused by the explosion of her torpedo rushed in and swamped her, so that she went to the bottom with all on board.
Another night a large frigate was blockading Charleston harbour when a David—as these torpedo boats were then called—was seen approaching. The frigate, which carried a crew of 700 men, slipped her cable and made off at full speed, although she was only being attacked by a small launch, manned by four men, armed with a few pounds of powder extended on a spar in front of her! In spite of a fierce fusillade aimed at her, not a shot struck the David, which returned in safety to Charleston.
The Russo-Turkish War afforded several additional examples of the same kind, which, as already mentioned, had not a little to do with the alteration in naval design and tactics that took place during the last two decades of the nineteenth century.