Robert Whitehead

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For other people named Robert Whitehead, see Robert Whitehead (disambiguation).
Robert Whitehead
Robert Whitehead.jpg
Born (1823-01-03)3 January 1823
Bolton, Lancashire, England.
Died 14 November 1905(1905-11-14) (aged 82)
Shrivenham, Berkshire, England[1]
Nationality English
Citizenship British
Spouse(s) Frances Maria Johnston
Children Frances Eleanor Whitehead, Alice C Whitehead, John Whitehead, Robert B Whitehead, Sir James Beethom Whitehead
Engineering career
Significant projects Developed the first self-propelled torpedo

Robert Whitehead (3 January 1823 – 14 November 1905) was an English engineer. He developed the first effective self-propelled naval torpedo. His company, located in the Austrian naval centre in Rijeka (Fiume), was the world leader in torpedo development and production up to the First World War.

Early life[edit]

He was born the son of a cotton-bleacher, in Bolton, England. He trained as an engineer and draughtsman, and attended the Mechanics Institute in Manchester.

His first professional employment was at a shipyard in Toulon, France, for Philip Taylor & Sons,[2] and then as a consultant engineer in Milan, Italy. He then moved to Trieste, on the Adriatic coast of Austria.

Whitehead's work in Trieste was noticed by the owners of Fonderia Metalli, a metal foundry in the nearby city of Fiume (today Rijeka, Croatia). In 1856 Whitehead became manager of the company, and changed its name to Stabilimento Tecnico di Fiume (STF). STF produced marine steam boilers and engines, which were the most modern products of that era. The Austrian Navy was a customer.

Meeting Luppis[edit]

In the early 1860s, Whitehead met engineer Giovanni Luppis, who had recently retired to Trieste from the Austrian Navy. Luppis had produced the first prototypes of a self-propelled torpedo in 1860, which he called the "coast saviour" (Italian: Salvacoste) (Croatian: Spasilac obale). Luppis' device was a low-profile surface boat, propelled by compressed air, and controlled by ropes from the land. Whitehead and Luppis formed a partnership to perfect the torpedo as an effective weapon.

The first torpedo[edit]

Whitehead's initial torpedo experiments were conducted with the help of his 12-year-old son, John, and a workman, Annibale Ploech. They discarded Luppis' concept of shore launch and control for an unguided weapon launched from a ship on a straight line at the target which became known as the Whitehead torpedo.

This resulted in Minenschiff, the first self-propelled (locomotive) torpedo, officially presented to the Austrian Imperial Naval commission on 21 December 1866.

The commission was impressed. The Austrian gunboat Gemse was adapted for launching torpedoes at the Schiavon shipyard in Fiume. The ship was equipped with a launching barrel, which was Whitehead's invention. More than 50 launch trials were performed in front of the factory, in Fiume harbour bay. Gemse's commander, frigate lieutenant Count Georg Anton of Hoyos, later married Whitehead's daughter Alice.

By 1870 Whitehead had managed to increase the torpedo's speed to 7 knots (13 km/h) and it could hit a target 700 yards (640 m) away.

The torpedo was driven by a small reciprocating engine run by compressed air.

Key innovations[edit]

Whitehead added two important features to the torpedo.

  • A self-regulating device that kept the torpedo at a constant preset depth. This consisted of a hydrostatic valve and pendulum balance, connected to a horizontal rudder, which controlled the running depth.
  • Gyroscopic stabilisation to fix the torpedo's direction. In 1898, Whitehead purchased the newly invented gyroscope mechanism from Ludwig Obry, who was also a naval officer.

Whitehead was fiercely jealous of his trade secrets, and employees were often sworn to secrecy about the guidance mechanisms employed in his torpedoes.

Whitehead & Co.[edit]

Robert Whitehead (right) and his son (left) with a battered test torpedo, Rijeka (Croatia), c.1875
Whitehead Torpedo and Ship-factory in Fiume, 1910

Though the product was promising, the torpedo did not produce profits for Stabilimento Tecnico di Fiume, which went bankrupt in 1873. In 1875, Whitehead reorganised the company as Torpedo-Fabrik von Robert Whitehead – later Whitehead & Co., Societa in Azioni.

When Whitehead retired, the Whitehead family sold the company to two large British armaments companies, Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth. Thus the company remained under British control until the First World War.


Whitehead's gravestone
The grave of Robert Whitehead at St Nicholas' Church, Worth, West Sussex, England, pictured in 2013

Whitehead was a devout Christian and supporter of the temperance movement: in the early 1880s he gave £1000 to Agnes Weston, who was attempting to buy and demolish two public houses in Devonport, expressing his hope that the gift "would knock a hole in one of them".[3] He left his fortune to his granddaughter Agathe Whitehead. In 1911, Agathe married Georg Ludwig von Trapp, who used torpedoes as a submarine commander in the First World War. Trapp and Agathe had seven children, who after Trapp's marriage to his second wife, Maria, became the Trapp Family Singers.

Whitehead is buried at the Parish Church of St Nicholas, Worth in Crawley, West Sussex. His epitaph reads "His fame was in all nations round about".

Kozala Cemetery in Fiume/Rijeka is home to the Whitehead Family Mausoleum.

His invention of the torpedo was a key development in naval history.

  • "But for the Whitehead the submarine would remain an interesting toy, and little more" – RN Admiral H.J. May.
  • "The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril" – Sir Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during World War II.


Whitehead′s son, Sir James Beethom Whitehead, painted in 1907 by John Henry Frederick Bacon.

His descendants include Countess Marguerite of Hoyos (his granddaughter), who was married to Herbert von Bismarck, and thus most of the Bismarck family of today. They also include Agathe Whitehead (his granddaughter by his son, Sir James Beethom Whitehead) and her children with her husband Georg Ludwig von Trapp, who remarried after she died and became famous as the patriarch of the Trapp Family Singers who were portrayed in the semi-fictional stage play and movie, Sound of Music.

Use of the torpedo[edit]

Most of the world's major navies took note of the development of this device by the late 1880s. Even the extremely reduced post-Civil War United States Navy was involved in torpedo development; and established a Torpedo Facility in Newport, Rhode Island in 1870.

"Velikiy Knyaz Konstantin"

The first vessel sunk by self-propelled torpedoes was the Turkish steamer Intibah, on 16 January 1878, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. She was hit by torpedoes launched from torpedo boats operating from the tender Velikiy Knyaz Konstantin under the command of Stepan Osipovich Makarov.

"Patricio Lynch"
"Blanco Encalada"

Three naval actions during the late nineteenth century changed the world navies' perception of the torpedo:

  1. During the 1891 Chilean Civil War, the Chilean vessel Almirante Lynch, torpedoed and sank in port the rebel frigate Blanco Encalada with a 14-inch (360 mm) Whitehead torpedo at the close range of one hundred yards.
  2. In 1894, in the Revolta da Armada, the rebel Brazilian vessel Aquidaban was torpedoed and sunk at night while moored in a roadstead by the Brazilian torpedo gunboat Gustavo Sampaio with a 14-inch (360 mm) Schwartzkopf torpedo, and perhaps also by the torpedo boat Affonso Pedro.
  3. In 1895 during the Sino-Japanese War, the Chinese battleship Dingyuan was put out of action in port by multiple torpedo hits over the course of two nights by several Japanese torpedo boats.

The risks of torpedoes to the ships that carried them were shown, however, at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, in July 1898, when the Spanish cruiser Vizcaya was severely damaged by a shell hit that detonated one of her own internally mounted bow torpedoes while it lay armed in its above-water tube. The USS Texas, who also fought in the battle, had its bow and stern tubes removed before the war under just such a concern. One of the major concerns of the US Navy in the Santiago campaign was Spanish torpedoes. All ships during the blockade of Santiago, despite the heat and to the great discomfiture of the crews, kept their portholes shut to delay sinking if the ships were struck by torpedoes or mines.

During the Battle of Santiago, the Americans tried to keep about 2,000 yards from the Spanish ships, out of range of the torpedoes, although Spanish Vizcaya and Reina Mercedes tried to close the range. The USS Brooklyn had been forced into the infamous "Schley turn" in the battle by the aggressive tactics of the Reina Mercedes which would have launched torpedoes, and then was placed in long torpedo range, 1,100 yards, to the Vizcaya which was preparing to launch torpedoes before the explosion. At that time, pre-torpedo concern recommended battle ranges were about 1,000 yards so it can be presumed that the mere presence of Whitehead torpedoes significantly changed Naval combat tactics. It may have also contributed to the abysmal inaccuracy of the Spanish and American ship's guns, the American's only prevailing through overwhelming force, their telescopic and iron sights proving inadequate. It could be argued that the old doctrine of getting one's ship as close to the enemy and overwhelming them with superior firepower was defeated by the Whitehead torpedo. Ranges would very quickly extend much further and lead to the development of the first dreadnoughts and more scientific long range gunnery optics.[citation needed]

In 1940, the German heavy cruiser Blücher was sunk during the invasion of Norway by two, at that time very antiquated, Whitehead torpedoes, launched under water from fixed, shore-mounted tubes.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gray, Edwyn. The Devil's Device: Robert Whitehead and the History of the Torpedo, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991 310pp, ISBN 0-87021-245-1
  • Wilson, H. W. Ironclads in action;: A sketch of naval warfare from 1855 to 1895, London: Sampson Low, Marston and Company, 1895, Fourth Edition 1896 (Two Volumes), pre ISBN


  1. ^ Death obituary. The New York Times, first published 15 November 1905.
  2. ^ Brown, David K. "Whitehead, Robert". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36868.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. ^ Agnes Weston: My Life among the Bluejackets, James Nisbett: London, 1909. Page 136

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