Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, Rhode Island

Hit Counter


Researched by: Robert Loys Sminkey

Commander, United States Navy, Retired

The Naval Torpedo Station, Goat Island, Newport, Rhode Island, was established in 1869 as a Navy experimental station for the development of torpedoes and torpedo equipment, explosives, and electrical equipment. This action confirmed the Navy's increasing interest in the torpedo as an important naval weapon, one destined to affect drastically naval strategy and tactics.

While the rudimentary theory of an "automobile" torpedo had existed for a long time, naval engineering interests (particularly in the Austrian Navy) in the mid-nineteenth century encouraged development of a vehicle carrying a large explosive charge, mechanically powered and remotely controlled, that could be employed against surface vessels. In the 1860s Robert Whitehead, an Englishman working in Italy, became prominent in the development of a torpedo that could run at a given depth below the surface for reasonable distances. Whitehead's torpedo was offered for sale to the navies of the world. By 1880 nearly 1,500 Whitehead torpedoes had been manufactured and sold to various nations.

The United States Navy was aware of Whitehead's accomplishment. However, in the immediate post-Civil War period, it was more concerned initially with completing the transition from sail to steam, wooden to steel ships, and increasing professionalism. Ordnance problems accompanying these changes were multiple and complex. In furtherance of this conviction, in 1869 the War Department authorized the Navy's use of Goat Island. The site had been ceded by the town of Newport in 1799 to the United States Government for $1,500. Throughout most of its subsequent existence, the island has regularly sustained a military fort, the name of which changed with political winds. Immediately prior to the Torpedo Station's occupancy, it had been known as Fort Wolcott.

Upon establishment of the Torpedo Station, Lieutenant Commander E. D. Matthews, United States Navy, was designated Inspector-in-charge and three civilians were hired to staff the activity. The available facilities consisted of several wooden buildings in varying stages of disrepair that had been created and abandoned by previous occupants (including Naval Academy personnel stationed in Newport during the Civil War).

The initial research efforts at the Torpedo Station centered on stationary torpedoes (moored mines) and spar torpedoes (a boom-mounted contact explosive charge). In the upcoming decades, however, the Navy's research and development efforts de-emphasized the "fish" or "automotive torpedo" and concentrated on the spar or towing torpedo (primarily through the addition of electrical detonation features).

By early 1870 the station was well underway. Its first experimental work involved the stationary type of torpedo (then called a "mine"). This project required a staff expansion, a feature that continued throughout the station's first year of operations. The original three-member staff grew to twenty-four. Construction of work and office spaces also continued. Interestingly, plans of the Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) for future development of the island recommended no building hereafter erected should exceed one story in height because of the "high winds and sometimes violent winds" that characterized the area.

In the decade of the 1880s, the station's experimental work shifted emphasis to the Lay Torpedo (then favored by the Navy Department), to the development of shipboard electrical systems, and to improved guncotton. The practicality of the latter having been recently demonstrated, authority was received in 1881 to proceed with developing a manufacturing capability. In this regard, a guncotton storage facility was activated in 1883 and designated United States Naval Magazine, Rose Island, Rhode Island.

These program advances were not achieved without personnel costs. In 1881 two naval officers attached to the station were killed by a torpedo explosion while conducting experiments on Narragansett Bay. These tragedies and others resulting from accidental explosions and fires were normal expectancies in work requiring careful handling of volatile substances. However, throughout its existence the Torpedo Station maintained an impressively high safety record.

Two parallel developments in underwater ordnance further expanded the station's mission: first, shipbuilders constructed a fast boat deemed usable as a torpedo boat; second, continued improvements in the torpedo mandated development of offsetting countermeasures. Under the direction of Commander William T. Sampson, United States Navy--later prominent in the Spanish-American War--the station initiated its net development program.

Another early experimental subject for Torpedo Station personnel involved viable shipboard electrical systems. In July 1887 the station machine shop was wired as a pilot project in this program. This pioneering effort provided electricity for factory operations while adding a vital dimension to its experiments and demonstrations.

About 1891 serious negotiations for torpedo manufacturing rights in the United States began between the Whitehead Company and E. W. Bliss Company, Brooklyn, New York. Upon agreement in 1892, the Navy contracted with Bliss to manufacture 100 Whitehead torpedoes at a unit price of $2,000. This action represented tacit admission by the Navy of the Whitehead torpedo's superiority.

Actual torpedo development in the United States during the period 1870-1900 consisted principally of experimenting with various existing types. Chemical, electrical, and rocket propulsion was attempted, and guidance and new power generation systems were developed. Torpedo Station personnel conducted many experiments and tests of the devices submitted by civilian and military scientists and engineers.

Along with torpedo development efforts, a considerable amount of the station's productive effort concentrated on manufacture of main charge explosives and explosive components (primers and detonators). Also, extensive experimentation involved launching platforms. From the outset torpedo acceptance was determined by "in-water performance."

In addition to this early specialization, the station also experimented with a pneumatic dynamite throwing gun that proved impracticable; the use of dynamite and nitroglycerine as explosives for projectiles; and with guncotton--the latter with substantial success. Other station research work led to the Navy's adoption of smokeless powder.

he rapid expansion in undersea warfare technology at this time hastened development of the torpedo boat destroyer (later called "destroyer") as well as expanded submarine capabilities. The Navy's first vessels in these classes, USS Bainbridge (DD-1) and USS Holland (SS-1), joined the fleet during this period. In 1900, USS Holland visited Newport for demonstration and test purposes. This occasion provided station personnel greater understanding of the boat's performance characteristics.

During the first decade of the twentieth century the Torpedo Station underwent a major reorganization. In 1907 explosive main charge manufacturing and related equipment was transferred to Indian Head, Maryland, and construction of a torpedo manufacturing plant began on Goat Island. This decision placed the Torpedo Station's manufacturing effort in competition with the private sector (principally the Bliss Company). Heretofore Bliss had enjoyed a virtual monopoly in supplying torpedoes to the Navy. The new manufacturing capability, operational in 1908, commenced with an order for twenty Whitehead Mark 5 torpedoes. The new arrangement with the Whitehead firm reportedly provided the Navy greater protection regarding rights, tooling, and in other areas.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Germany's unrestricted submarine warfare policy constituted the main threat to its navy. Development of effective antisubmarine warfare (ASW) countermeasures received highest priority. Torpedo research and development virtually ceased; production of depth charges, aerial bombs, and mines soared. The Torpedo Station's mission reflected this program shift.

Wartime conditions drastically affected Torpedo Station operations, which were already responding to developments in Europe. An increased production capability requiring a greatly expanded work force (both naval and civilian) brought operating problems. Production demands imposed additional training requirements, particularly in regard to handling the volatile materials. Physical facilities underwent rapid expansion as plant buildings and quarters sprung up on the island. For the first time, women were added to the station work force. By November 1918 over 300 women (mostly assigned to primer - making tasks) were on the 3,000-member payroll.

Captain Edward L. Beach, United States Navy, commanded the Torpedo Station during this wartime expansion. In addition to mission fulfillment, he encouraged numerous activities to combat the isolated nature of the station's work force (no visitors permitted) and to maintain high morale. Frequent flag-raising ceremonies, concerts by the station's civilian band, and athletic events provided ample diversion. The task was complicated by ongoing seasonal shortages (water in the summer, coal in the winter) and the concern for maintaining Newport's moral tone. The latter underwent the usual turbulence accompanying wartime conditions, intensified by the influx of thousands of military and naval personnel. While the Torpedo Station did not experience the large personnel increases of the nearby

Training Station--the former's uniformed personnel ranged between 500 and 1,000--it would be affected by changing social conditions. Interestingly, the Torpedo Station received its first regularly assigned chaplain in January 1918.

In January 1918 the station was rocked by an explosion in Number 2 Workroom. Though not the first such incident in the station's history, it was of major proportions: thirteen employees died in the blast and twelve were injured. The affected area contained the daily allotment of detonators to be filled with fulminate of mercury; these in turn were used as torpedo primers. The explosion collapsed the workroom and the victims, badly mutilated, had to be dug out. Two hundred men, working nearby in the primer department, escaped injury. Emergency equipment and personnel responded quickly. The explosion report and accompanying clouds of dust brought Newporters to Government Landing, opposite the station. General confusion reigned for some time as rescue operations were hampered initially by the station's isolated location, its restricted access policy, and the lack of specialized emergency equipment. Emergency vehicles and personnel exercised priority over normal use of available ferries, barges, and boats. Despite the usual wartime spy rumors, local and Navy Department investigations failed to uncover any subversive implications. The cause was ultimately adjudged "accidental." There were no survivors from Number 2 Workroom to testify otherwise.

The end of World War I brought the usual readjustment problems. The Navy's postwar mission came under intense review as the lessons of the war and the political climate, foreign and domestic, were incorporated into new Navy policy and programs. The influential role of the submarine in the recent war assured the Torpedo Station's continued operation. Yet a reduced demand for torpedoes, certainly down from the wartime volume, meant substantial cutbacks.

By the spring of 1919 the Torpedo Station had returned to its principal prewar activity: torpedo manufacture. Other activities would continue on a vastly reduced scale. Primer work--because of existing surpluses--was discontinued. Facilities previously utilized for primer work were shifted to manufacturing bombs, detonators, fuses, and torches. The closing of the Navy Experiment Station, New London, and transfer of its work on the Mark 1 torpedo to Newport, continued the station's involvement over the next twenty-five years on Mark 1 and Mark 2 torpedoes (culminating finally in the Mark 20).

In 1919 the Torpedo Station added a new storage facility on Gould Island, a fifty-six-acre tract located off Conanicut Island in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay. During the next several years additional buildings were erected on the island to provide torpedo and warhead storage as well as housing for a Marine detachment. In 1931 two seaplanes were assigned to the Torpedo Station to participate in air-launch torpedo tests. For this purpose hangers and ramps were constructed at the southern end of Gould Island.

By 1920 the Torpedo Station was approximating its projected postwar operational scale. Increased productivity necessitated expansion of physical facilities. Another twenty acres of Goat Island were added to the station's limits (a 100 percent increase over its original acreage). Gould Island was likewise improved. Despite these measures, employment at the station continued downward from the wartime high. By 1923 the number had dropped to 927--down from the wartime high of approximately 3,000. A slight staff expansion followed, and in 1926 the station employed about 1,100 civilians. Three hundred and eleven enlisted personnel were also aboard, 206 designated Ship's Company. Official inspections of the Torpedo Station continued throughout the 1920s. High marks were assigned to its operations though recreational facilities were considered marginal and the small medical staff overworked.

Throughout the early 1920s the Navy Department continued to study its shore establishment alignment. Particular emphasis was placed upon identifying bases, yards, and stations considered essential to maintaining fleet effectiveness and efficiency. One study group, headed by Admiral Hugh Rodman, stressed the importance of the Narragansett Bay area and the need to retain and expand naval facilities there. The group's recommendations were used frequently in future years to justify the retention and expansion of the Navy's presence in Narragansett Bay.

Adhering to the prevailing economy wave, in the early 1920s the Navy ended its contract with the Bliss Company upon termination of the Mark 9 project. Also, maintaining that it now possessed the know-how to manufacture the needed torpedoes, the Navy ended manufacturing activities at the Washington, D. C., Navy Yard and the Torpedo Station at Alexandria, Virginia.

In another move to reduce maintenance costs, in 1922 all torpedoes designed prior to Mark 7 were condemned (withdrawn from service). This move reduced the Navy's inventory to four models: Marks 7-10. Torpedo manufacturing continued on a severely reduced scale throughout the 1920s, the main effort being directed toward improved operating performances of existing types. Development of the Mark 11, begun at the Washington Navy Yard, was completed at Newport in 1926.

World War I had vitally affected the nature of naval warfare. Considerable advances in combatant ship design, the extensive use of submarines, and the virtual explosion in aerial combat assured a widening concern by the Navy. The Torpedo Station continued to respond to these challenges. Its early experimentation also included a successful torpedo launch from a seaplane. Actual development of an aircraft torpedo covered a twenty-five-year period during which the problems were compounded through the involvement of two Navy Bureaus--Ordnance and Aeronautics (BuAer)--in the project. BuAer's interest stemmed from the parallel need to develop a satisfactory torpedo plane.

Early efforts to develop a suitable launching platform involved adaptation of existing torpedoes for aircraft application. In 1925 BuOrd initiated a project to develop a torpedo specifically for aircraft launching. By the early 1930s the viability of a torpedo plane concept was seriously questioned. Doubt arose not only because developmental work at the Torpedo Station and elsewhere had revealed the unsatisfactory operating features of the plane then in use (poor performance, poor capability for self-defense, large size, and high operating and maintenance costs) but also because of poor torpedo performance.

Torpedo research, development, and manufacturing continued throughout the 1930s. Torpedoes for use by cruisers, destroyers, and submarines received principal emphasis. Torpedo development consisted of continuous refinements. However, USS Farragut (DD-348), launched in 1934, was an entirely new ship and required major improvements in its torpedo armament. The Torpedo Station developed the Mark 15 torpedo in response to this requirement; for submarines, the Mark 14 torpedo was manufactured. These two torpedoes, together with the Mark 13 (aircraft), constituted the Navy's modern torpedo inventory in December 1941.

The United States rearmament program, beginning in the late 1930s, expanded activities at the Torpedo Station. An enlarged manufacturing capability and work force followed. Renewed research and development, coupled with increased torpedo output, accelerated the systematic study of all phases of underwater acoustics. One resulting product was the American version of the homing torpedo. By the end of 1940 employment at the station had increased markedly, reaching 4,800--up almost 1,000 over the preceding twelve months.

When a national emergency was declared in May 1941, every aspect of the station's activities was undergoing rapid expansion. Additional buildings were constructed and functions were being relocated from the main production facility at Goat Island to various points within the Narragansett Bay area. By 1944 the Torpedo Station had become the largest single industrial-type employer in Rhode Island, with more than 12,600 employees, including many women. The facility operated twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

World War II demand for more torpedoes and the increasing scarcity of vital materials led to the development and manufacture of the Mark 23 torpedo (short range, high speed). Although identical to the Mark 14, it was not favored by the operating forces since the Mark 14's multi-speed option permitted greater tactical flexibility. The latter feature became increasingly important during the final stages of the Second World War when the presence of more sophisticated escort vessels and advanced tactics dictated firing from longer ranges.

As the American World War II effort wound down in 1945, station activities slackened similarly: programs terminated, physical facilities closed, and personnel departed. By December 1945 Goat Island had become a shadow of its wartime greatness. Yet the station's war production record had proved of vital importance in the Navy's offensive record. It had produced nearly one-third of the approximately 62,000 torpedoes manufactured for the Navy during the period 1 January 1939-1 June 1946. During its entire operational history it had participated significantly in developing the torpedo from the immobile explosive mine of the Civil War period to the modern, highly mobile, deadly effective weapon.

The end of the Second World War on 2 September 1945 foretold major changes at the Torpedo Station. Wartime experiences would determine postwar naval directions. Underseas warfare had become increasingly complex; its essentiality even more obvious. To establish and implement Navy postwar policies and programs would require a complete reorganization. The birth of atomic power would be an all-pervasive determinant.

In 1946 production at the Torpedo Station virtually ceased. The large inventory of torpedoes left over from World War II negated any significant production program. The Navy had developed several other manufacturing sites during World War II that became available under postwar surplus property disposal. Considerable political wrangling followed as various management studies cited the advantages of the several sites.

With the end of World War II, the station ended its manufacturing program. At that time BuOrd envisioned a role for the Torpedo Station very similar to its earlier functions: design, research and experimentation, ranging and proofing, and storage and issue.

Technological advances in underseas warfare, spawned by World War II and accelerated by continued research and development in related sciences, widened the station's postwar mission.

The shift to research and development programs rendered production facilities at Goat Island excess to the station's postwar mission. The condition was intensified by the Navy Department's decision to maintain production facilities at several newer plants constructed during World War II.

While the Torpedo Station staff continued its custodial responsibilities at the Goat Island installation, an increasing amount of research and development work (concentrating on underwater missiles and related equipment) was being relocated at Coddington Cove on the grounds of the Naval Training Station. At the same time, another Torpedo Station component--the Central Torpedo Office (CTO)--was undergoing change. The CTO had been established in 1941 to coordinate and expedite contractor production, but the cessation of World War II hostilities brought substantial changes in mission and staff; however, in 1947 its technical responsibilities were widened and it became an independent Navy activity.

Throughout the period 1946-1951, activity at Goat Island continued to be minimal, and in December 1951 the Torpedo Station was formally disestablished. In its place, the Naval Underwater Ordnance Station (NUOS) emerged. Navy interest in undersea warfare had greatly expanded, being reflected in the new station's post-World War II work in propulsion, range instrumentation, fire control systems, launchers, explosive echo ranging, and oceanography.

While the Central Torpedo Office had been redesignated the Naval Underwater Weapons Systems Engineering Center (NAVUWSEC) in 1963, along with NUOS it continued its specialized, individual operation. However, in 1966 the Navy Department moved to coordinate the dual functions (NUOS and its extensive underseas research and development capabilities and NAVUWSEC's auditory expertise in undersea production and service engineering, quality assurance, and evaluation and maintenance) into a single activity: Naval Underwater Weapons Research and Engineering Station (NUWS). In 1970 this designation was changed to Naval Underwater Systems Center (NUSC), Newport, when the Newport operation was merged with the Naval Underwater Laboratory, New London, Connecticut.

In 1969--the centennial anniversary of the Torpedo Station's establishment in Newport--the NUOS organization celebrated a century of Navy underseas technology. While two major wars and a century of experimentation had revolutionized underseas warfare, the station continued to be the principal research and development and testing and evaluation center for the Navy's underwater weapons systems. Its mission had now expanded to include research, development, test, evaluation, engineering, and technical assistance to responsible bureaus in the areas of procurement, production, maintenance, quality assurance, logistics, and design cognizance as well as in-service and technical assistance to the fleet.

Throughout the post-World War II years, the Center has undergone major organizational and programmatic changes. Headquarters staff at Newport continues to direct widely dispersed systems of research and development laboratories, test stations, acoustic field stations, and test and evaluation facilities. In recent years physical facilities at Newport have been expanded to include a multimillion dollar Project Support Facility, plus a $2.1 million Services Shop and a $3.5 million Weapons Development Building.

In 1982 the Newport NUSC staff approximated 1,500 members, primarily engineers and scientists, plus technicians and administrative personnel. The NUSC military component averaged between twenty-five and thirty members. As "the most heavily tasked of all Navy labs" (the 1972 budget of approximately $100 million was projected to be $578 million in 1985), the Center continues to demonstrate its creative research stature that had its genesis over a century ago in the Torpedo Station's original research with guncotton for use in guns and torpedo charges. Today, NUSC is tasked with a range of complex technological research and development programs in furtherance of its mission as the principal Navy research, development, test, and evaluation center for submarine weapon systems.