Robert Whitehead (1823–1905)

The torpedo was a new weapon developed in the nineteenth century that had a terrible impact in the two world wars. The British engineer Robert Whitehead developed the self-propelled underwater explosive device from earlier inventions by the American Robert Fulton and the Italian Giovanni de Lupis. Whitehead operated across Europe.

He was born in Bolton in northern England and studied at the Manchester Mechanics Institute. His first work took him across Europe with the engineering company of Philip Taylor and sons – to a shipyard at Toulon in France and to Milan. He moved to the coastal city of Trieste, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The owners of the nearby foundry at Fiume (now Rijeka in Croatia) invited him to join them and he became its manager in 1856. The company made engines and boilers for ships.

At Trieste in around 1860 Whitehead met the engineer Giovanni de Lupis, who had already made prototypes of a self-propelled torpedo. These were small boats steered by long ropes and powered by compressed air. Whitehead evolved a new design in 1866 that was launched from a tube that pointed the torpedo in the direction of the target. By 1877, the torpedoes could travel for 760 metres in about a minute driven by a small engine using compressed air. They were later improved with an internal gyroscope to keep them on course, invented by Ludwig Obry.

The torpedo was bought by many navies, including those of Austria, Britain, Germany, France, Denmark, Argentina and the United States. For the British Royal Navy Whitehead opened a separate factory at Portland harbour in England in 1891. The invention did not make profits and Whitehead sold it two British armaments companies, Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth. Torpedoes became truly significant when the operational use of submarines began after 1900. Whitworth retired to England, where he died in 1905.