Curator's Choice -Whitehead torpedo

Whitehead torpedo
The Whitehead torpedo circa 1880s onwards - 'The Devil's Device'

"But for the Whitehead (torpedo), the submarine would remain an interesting toy and but little more". (Admiral HJ May, 1906).


Designed in 1866 by Robert Whitehead, the Whitehead was the first ever locomotive torpedo to be developed. The weapon is named after the torpedo fish which is an electric ray that attacks by delivering a stunning shock to its prey.

A British engineer working in Austria during the 1860's, Robert Whitehead was asked to design a new weapon for warships and coastal defence. He applied this engineering genius to an idea for a locomotive torpedo thought up by Captain Luppis of the Austrian Navy. He built his first torpedo with the help of his 12-year-old son and a trusted workman.

The Whitehead circa 1912.
The torpedo evolved to have a blunter nose which travels through water with greater ease.

The designer's skill in marketing created the legend of the 'Whitehead secret' which workmen were sworn to protect before they could work on the guidance and depth-keeping mechanism. In 1898 Whitehead purchased the 'gyroscope' from its inventor Mr Obry, and combined it with the 'secret' to make the torpedo more reliable in terms of depth and course.

The torpedo transformed naval warfare. It remains the most lethal anti-ship and anti-submarine weapon ever invented as it is almost impossible to defend against. The submarine's capability to approach undetected and launch torpedoes with total surprise from within an effective range, made it truly the 'Devil's Device'.

C-class Torpedo Compartment
C Class torpedo compartment

With this weapon Whitehead unlocked the potential of the submarine as a platform of war. He introduced the world to a weapon that almost changed the course of history during two world wars.

The Whitehead torpedo was fitted in the earliest British submarines from Holland I onwards. The first submarine torpedoes, propelled by compressed air, had a maximum range of 800 yards at 30 knots.