EXPERIMENTS ON THE PRACTICAL USE OF THE TORPEDO.
COMMUNICATED TO THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, FEBRUARY 14, 1811.
Navy Department, February 12, 1811.
Under the authority of the act of Congress of the 30th of March, 1810, entitled "An act making appropriation for the purpose of trying the practical use of the torpedo, or sub-marine explosion," certain preliminary experiments have been made in the city and harbor of New York. By letter, copy of which is herewith transmitted, and marked No. 1, Messrs. Wolcott, Colden, Livingston, Lewis, Williams, Garnett, and Kemp, were requested to attend the experiments, and to report their opinions thereon, either jointly or severally. These gentlemen accordingly attended, and their opinions will be found in the papers A, B, C, and D.
A. Letter and report signed by Messrs. Wolcott, Kemp, Colden, Garnett; and Williams.
B. Letter from Mr. Colden.
C. Letter from Mr. Livingston.
D. Letter from Mr. Lewis.
Commodore Rodgers and Captain Chauncey were also requested to attend the experiments; and to conduct the defence against the torpedo. The Commodore's observations, in which it is believed Captain Chauncey concurs will be found in paper E, which contains extracts of his journal kept on that occasion.
F. is a letter from Mr. Fulton.
These papers contain all the material information, with respect to Mr. Fulton's torpedo system, at this time in the possession of the Navy Department. They shew that Mr. Fulton has not, in the opinion of a majority of the committee, proved that the Government ought to rely upon his system as a means of national defence. Mr. Fulton states, however, that he has made important improvements since the experiments were made; and as he appears very confident of success, it is contemplated to authorise further experiments, in order to ascertain the effect of such improvements.
Of the five thousand dollars voted, about one thousand five Hundred dollars have been expended, leaving an unexpended balance at this time of about three thousand five hundred dollars.
All which, is respectfully submitted.
The Honorable Joseph B. Varnum, Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Congress having, during their last session, provided for an experiment of Mr. Fulton's torpedo system, it has been proposed by that gentleman that some preliminary experiments be made in the harbor of New York, and that yourself, Mr. Colden, Mr. Chancellor Livingston, Mr. Lewis, Colonel Williams, Mr. Garnett and Doctor Kemp, should be invited to attend such preliminary experiments, and report your opinions either jointly or severally upon the merits of his system generally, so far as a satisfactory opinion may be formed from an observation of such experiments.
It will not, I hope, sir, be either inconvenient or disagreeable to you to attend Mr. Fulton's experiments, and to report your opinion upon his system; and I shall consider myself obliged by your rendering this service.
Favor me, if you please, by an answer to this letter.
I have the honor to be, with great respect, sir, your obedient servant,
To Oliver Wolcott Esquire
[Same to Cadwallader D. Colden, Esq, Robert R. Livingston, Esq. Morgan Lewis, Esq. Colonel Jonathan Williams, John Garnett, Esq. Doctor John Kemp.]
New York, January 22, 1811.
We have now the honor to submit to your consideration, a statement of facts and observations, in relation to certain experiments exhibited by Mr. Fulton, as requested in your letter of May 4th, 1810.
It seems to be generally admitted that a ship may be destroyed by sub-marine explosions; but whether Mr. Fulton's system can be rendered practically useful, must as we conceive depend on future discoveries and improvements. The only opinion which we venture at this time to express, with any degree of confidence, is, that this system is at present too imperfectly demonstrated to justify the Government in relying upon it as a means of public defence. In expressing this opinion, we, however, disclaim the intention of attempting to discourage such investigations and experiments as the wisdom of Government, aided by other lights and information than we have possessed, shall consider fit and useful.
We cannot conclude this report without suggesting a reflection, which has been strongly impressed on our minds during this investigation, and which we hope will not be thought unworthy the attention of Government; namely, the necessity of an institution in the United States to which subjects of this nature might be referred. A legislative body, from the numerous and more important objects which demand its attention, must be incapable of that patient and systematical investigation which is essential in all improvements of science. The many useful and ingenious discoveries made by Americans prove their inventive faculties and powers of combination; but that they may be usefully directed, a national institution appears to be requisite. Such an institution, patronized by Government, would at all times be ready to examine the merit of any plan for improvements in civil or military science, and perhaps its approbation ought to precede the grant of any exclusive privilege.
Almost every State in Europe has such an establishment. In England there is a board of longitude, an institution for the improvement of naval architecture, an observatory, and a board of ordnance, to which a military academy is attached. In France an Academy of Sciences was established before the Revolution, and since that period the National Institute, which includes every department of science. It is not necessary to enumerate other similar institutions in different nations of Europe; and it cannot be doubted that astonishing improvements in every department of art and science have resulted from their labors, and thereby, entailed a debt of endless gratitude upon mankind. We, therefore, cannot but express our regret that America alone, while possessed of ample means, should be deprived of the advantage and glory which would result from uniting their efforts to those of other civilized nations. The present we deem an auspicious period for commencing the establishment, which we take the liberty to recommend to your patronage; as in addition to the resources of talent and learning already possessed, men of profound science in every department might probably be found, who, discontented with political vicissitudes, would be desirous to find a refuge in our country, hitherto happily exempted from the agitations of Europe.
We have the honor to be, with the highest respect, sir, your obedient servants,
CADWALLADER D. COLDEN,
The Honorable Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy.
Statement of facts and observations in relation to experiments exhibited by Mr. Robert Fulton, explanatory of his system of Torpedo war, in and near the city of New York, from September 21st to November 1st, 1810.
On the 21st of September a majority of the person named in the letter of the Secretary of the Navy, dated May 4, 1810, convened at the City Hotel, where they were attended by Commodore Rodgers and Captain Chauncey, of the navy and Mr. Robert Fulton. The object of this meeting was to agree on a mode of exhibiting the experiments proposed by Mr. Fulton explanatory of his system of torpedo war, in such manner as would enable the commissioners to report their opinion of the merits of said system, so far as satisfactory opinions could be formed from observations of said experiments.
At this meeting Mr. Fulton exhibited a torpedo lock, also a model of a torpedo, which he proposed to launch under the bottom of a ship, by means of a spar, projected from the North into the East river. To this proposal of Mr. Fulton, Commodore Rodgers replied, that a removal of the frigate President would be attended with inconvenience: but that the proposed experiments might be made either on the frigate in the North river, or on the brig Argus, then at anchor near the navy yard, in the East river. It was then agreed that the experiments should be made on the
brig Argus, with blank torpedoes; and that such defence should be made against them as a vessel of war could exert, without having recourse to her guns, or the employment of active force.
Owing to unfavorable weather and other causes, the commissioners could not convene at the navy yard before the 26th of September; at which time they viewed the brig Argus, prepared for defence against the application of torpedoes, in the mode which had been previously suggested by Mr. Fulton. This defence consisted of a net, suspended from the bow of the brig, and reaching to the bottom; also, of spars lashed together and suspended from the bowsprit and yards, in such a manner as would prevent boats from coming into contact with the brig. The studding sail booms were moreover armed with kentledge and heavy shot, and provided with grapnels, for the purpose of sinking or taking possession of any boat or torpedo which might come within reach. It was stated by the officers of the navy, that these means of defence were such as are usually possessed by ships of war, and that, after the preparations were made, ail the defences could be disposed in proper order, or replaced in a ship, in the term of fifteen minutes. After hearing the observations of Commodore Rodgers, Captain Chauncey, and Lieutenant Lawrence, commander of the Argus, Mr. Fulton candidly admitted that, on the supposition that the net before the brig reached the bottom, he was then unprepared for an attack, by any means which he had at that time provided.
The commissioners viewed at the navy yard specimens of different torpedoes, and in particular anchor torpedoes, with the means proposed of securing them under water, in a position capable of annoying ships while passing over them. They also inspected a machine invented for the purpose of cutting the cables of ships while riding at anchor; the effect of which machine will be hereafter described.
At this meeting experiments were made of firing a harpoon, to which a small rope had been attached: the attempts to place the harpoon in a target did not succeed at a greater distance than fifteen feet, and at that distance the harpoon struck firmly, but obliquely.
On the 28th of September the commissioners met at the navy yard; when, to demonstrate the effect which the guns of a ship of war would have upon a boat of the size and description of that which Mr. Fulton had prepared for exhibiting his experiments, Captain Chauncey caused an old boat to be moored at about ninety yards distance, in which three boards were placed upright, representing the size of men. At this object a twenty-four pounder, loaded with canister and grape shot, was discharged; the effect was, that seventy-three shot passed through the boat; eighteen shot penetrated through the first board, nine through the second, and five through the third.
At this meeting an attempt was made to cut a cable under water, which failed; owing, as it is suggested by Mr. Fulton, to the imperfection of the machinery. It was then determined to postpone further experiments till the 29th of October. On the 1st of November the commissioners again convened at the navy yard, when Mr. Fulton succeeded in cutting a fourteen inch cable about six feet under water, without injuring his machinery. The operation was performed from an open boat, which remained about five minutes within pistol shot of the vessel at anchor.
The commissioners examined an anchor torpedo in the East river, which had several days remained under water; it was viewed when the ebb tide had just commenced and when the current was feeble: the torpedo at that time appeared to preserve nearly a vertical position, as intended by Mr. Fulton; but no experiment was made of the effect of the machinery upon the bottom of a vessel.
At this and other meetings of the commissioners, various models were exhibited by Mr. Fulton of machines, by means of which it was supposed by him the defensive measures of the officers of the navy might be counteracted and defeated; in oposition to which, they suggested counter projects. The duty of the commissioners being, however, confined to an observation of experiments, it is deemed unnecessary to report on this branch of the subject.
CADWALLADER D. COLDEN,
New York, January 26, 1811.
I had the honor to receive a letter from you in May last, desiring my services as one of a committee to attend a course of experiments to be made by Mr. Fulton on his torpedo system, and requesting that I would report to you, either separately or jointly with the other members of the committee, my opinions on the merits of Mr. Fulton's system, so far as satisfactory opinions might be formed from an observation of his experiments.
A variety of circumstances have occurred to prevent the committee from meeting to make a joint report. The gentlemen of the committee who reside in this city have at length, however, agreed upon a statement to be submitted to you; but as this is a mere detail of the experiments which we have witnessed, and as we, who have subscribed that statement, could agree upon nothing further, I think it my duty to offer for your consideration what follows, as the result of my observations on Mr. Fulton's experiments.
That gunpowder can be ignited under water with facility, and the infinite power of its expansibility, when exploded in that situation, seems to have been demonstrated by Mr. Fulton's experiments. The efficacy of his cable cutting machine, which requires but a very small charge, shows at once how easily powder may be fired under water, and that its force is equal to what it would be if exploded in the same machine in the atmosphere.
It seems to be proved that water is as resistible to a sudden impulse as a solid body; if so a very small quantity, of powder, if fired at any depth below the surface, as a cannot move the infinite weight of matter which resists its lateral pressure, must make way for its expansion through the perpendicular column of water with which it may be covered. When we see that the firmest rocks yield to the force or a small quantity of powder, we cannot doubt but that the strength of a vessel's bottom must be as nothing when exposed to the explosion of the charge of a torpedo.
If these may be taken as just principles, then, if means can be found of placing a torpedo under the bottom of a hostile vessel, notwithstanding any act or force she could use, the torpedo system would be complete. When we consider how much experience has been necessary to bring to perfection what are now considered as very simple operations, we should be cautious not to be discouraged by the failure of first essays. The history of powder, from the time of its first discovery till it was applied in the way in which it is now used, affords a striking example of the improvement to be derived from practice and experience. We should have had neither land nor floating batteries, nor armies with fire-locks, if the world had rested satisfied from the early experiments which were made with gunpowder, that there were no better means of applying it than the leather gun and the match, which were used in the infancy of the invention.
The committee saw no attempt on the part of Mr. Fulton to place a torpedo under the bottom of a vessel. He acknowledged that he was not prepared to overcome the means which had been adopted for defending the Argus against his floating torpedoes, and it appeared from Mr. Fulton's explanation of the manner of applying these instruments, that the defences of the vessel, independent of any force which might have been used, were insurmountable obstacles to the application to a torpedo in any way which Mr. Fulton had previously suggested. But though the means of defence which were applied to the Argus were only such as a vessel of war commonly carries as part of her equipment, and though they could be put in the state in which the committee saw them in a very short time, I cannot but think that, if the dread of torpedoes were to produce no other effect than to induce every hostile vessel of war which enters our ports to protect herself in the way in which the Argus was protected, torpedoes will be no inconsiderable auxilliary in the defence of our harbors.
As to the anchored torpedo, no other experiment was attempted than to show that, when in the water, it might be retained in the position necessary for its having the desired effect. The tide, however, being slack, or nearly so, at the time that the anchored torpedo was examined by the committee, its vertical position at that moment did not afford any evidence that it would resist a strong current; on the contrary, there was reason to believe that, in the way in which it was then anchored, it would yield to the pressure of a strong tide, so as to be driven to the bottom, or
to lay nearly horizontally in the water; but it cannot be doubted but that there are means of fixing a torpedo so that it will retain an upright position in the strongest tide.
Mr. Fulton's cable cutter appears to be a very ingenious invention. Its efficacy, when properly applied to the cable of a vessel, has been demonstrated; and it seems that it may be applied, when the persons who are to manage it are at a considerable distance from the object intended to be affected. It was suggested by the officers of the navy, and it cannot be questioned, but there are many means, by chains and, otherwise, of guarding a cable against this machine; but an invention which will oblige a hostile vessel, whenever she anchors in one of our ports, to guard her cables by the means above referred to, must be of great importance in a system of defence. A vessel of war, surrounded by large booms and spars, with nets hanging from her bows as deep as the water, with her rigging loaded with weighty pieces of iron, and with grapnels and shot suspended from her yards to guard her against torpedoes, and with chains to defend her cables against the cable cutting "machine", must be much less wieldy, and of course much less formidable for attack or defence than she would be without such incumbrances.
In all Mr. Fulton's experiments it was obvious that he labored under great disadvantages for want of experience. Several of his experiments failed in the first instance from defects in the machinery; which it was obvious were easily to be remedied. The application of his cable cutting machine required as much nautical skill as is requisite, to manage a boat in a strong tide way. For want of this skill, it was obvious that the cable cutting machine was not applied by Mr. Fulton with as much facility as it might have been by an experienced waterman. To make experiments upon this important subject which would be entirely satisfactory would require the co-operation of a number of persons practised in the modes that have been or which may be, suggested for applying Mr. Fulton's machines; we can as little judge of what may be the efficacy of a torpedo, when we see it in the hands of persons who have no experience with respect to it, as we could of the efficacy of a mortar, were we only to see it managed by men who had no practice in its use. Could Mr. Fulton have the means of making frequent experiments, and of training a number of men to the application of his machines, the Government might be able to form a just estimate of the value of his systems.
The experiments which the committee witnessed were too limited to authorize a confident opinion as to what may be the merits of Mr. Fulton's system. It is impossible to say how far the very ingenious suggestions made by Commodore Rodgers and Captain Chauncey, for guarding a vessel as well against torpedoes as against the cable cutter, would on experiment be found effectual. But I think Mr. Fulton's experiments give us ground to suppose that the knowledge of gunpowder is yet in its infancy, and that in time this new application of its irresistible power, by submarine explosions, may produce greater changes in the world than have been made by it since its introduction into Europe.
I have the honor to be, sir, with very high respect, your most obedient servant,
CADWALLADER D. COLDEN.
The Hon. Paul Hamilton,
Clermont, December 7, 1810.
My distance from New York having prevented my meeting the gentlemen of the committee at the time they made up their report, and being so unfortunate as to differ with them in opinion as to the utility of torpedoes as a mean of defence in addition to those usually employed against a naval armament, I think it my duty in compliance with your request, to state my opinion, with a more detailed account of the experiment than is detailed in their report.
On the 21st of September the members of the committee met, and chose Mr. Livingston president, and Mr. Garnett secretary of the committee. Not having the minutes of Mr. Garnett, I shall not be able to specify dates so precisely as I might otherwise do.
Commodore Rodgers and Captain Chauncey, and a number of other naval officers, attended. Mr. Fulton opened the business by explaining the principles of his mode of attack, and exhibited a water proof torpedo lock, and the model of a boat with two moveable projecting spars, at the end of which two torpedoes were to be fixed. It was then agreed that the experiments should be made with blank torpedoes, upon the brig Argus, lying in the East river, and at a convenient distance from the navy yard, and that such defence should be made against them as a vessel of war could exert.
On the 26th of September, the commissioners met at the navy yard, at which time they examined the brig Argus, prepared for defence against an attack by torpedoes.
This defence consisted of a net suspended from the bows Of the brig, and reaching, it was said, as low as its bottom; also of spars lashed together and suspended from the bowsprit and yards, with a view to prevent boats from coming into contact with the vessel. The studding-sail yards and booms were armed with kentledge and heavy shot, and provided with grapnels for the purpose of sinking or seizing the attacking boat. It was stated by the officers of the navy, that these means of defence were such as ships of war usually possess, and that they could be fixed in thirty minutes, and of this they afterwards exhibited proofs at the request of the committee. Mr. Fulton admitted that he was not then prepared to show how a vessel thus guarded could be attacked, but that he would investigate the subject by the time of our next meeting. At this meeting Mr. Fulton exhibited his harpoon torpedo, and fired it at a target, but without the promised success, the rope at the end of the harpoon changing its direction and preventing the point from reaching the object at a greater distance than fifteen feet; at that distance it stuck firmly into the oak plank, carrying the rope with it. Mr. Fulton also exhibited his cable cutter, which consisted of a small piece of ordnance with a water proof lock, to the end of which a hook for catching the cable was adjusted; from this an iron rod with a broad end, similar to that of a chisel, was fired at a cable placed upon the ground before it, which it cut through.
The committee also examined the anchored torpedoes, which consisted of a piece of timber of about sixteen to eighteen feet long, from the bottom of which the anchor rope was suspended: the torpedo was placed within the hollow of this timber, in such a way as not to be fired by sweeps passing over it, nor easily taken up by them. It was to be maintained in its upright position by means of a bridle and small anchor.
On the 28th of September, the committee again met at the navy yard, when an attempt was made by Mr. Fulton to cut a cable under water. In order to effect this, the cable cutter above described was suspended by a float, but, from the inexperience of the boatmen, and their rowing down instead of up the tide, the float got entangled in the anchor rope, and the gun was discharged without cutting the cable. This experiment was, on the 1st of November, repeated; and a fourteen inch cable completely cut in two, many feet under water, I did not see this experiment, but collect it from the report of the committee, and a view of the cable after it was cut. I cannot, therefore, say the time that the boat was within shot, or its distance from the vessel; but presume that the report of the committee is correct on this head. On our meeting, on the 28th of September, Mr. Fulton exhibited the model of a vessel guarded in the manner the brig Argus was, with nets; and also showed the practicability (as he supposed) of passing the torpedo under the net, and making it rise to the bottom of the vessel, after it had passed. This, he alleged, might be effected by annexing a weight to a torpedo, that was specifically lighter than the water, which weight would be cast off at a given time, and the torpedo rise and strike the bottom of the vessel with sufficient force to be discharged. He exhibited the model of the clockwork prepared for this operation, which cast off the weight at the time for which it was set. To guard against this, Commodore Rodgers said that the net might be extended to the bottom of the river; in which case, it was admitted by Mr. Fulton, that the torpedoes could not be placed under the ship, but by passing them through the net. Commodore, Rodgers was asked whether it would be possible to sail and manoeuvre a vessel in a harbor surrounded with spars and booms, and with nets hanging down to the bottom of the river. He was of opinion that it was; but upon being requested to put the brig Argus in motion, with her nets and spars, which did not extend many feet below the vessel, he declined it until she should come round into the
North river, where she would have more room. On this subject, however, the commodore never had any experimental evidence, the ship never having been manoeuvred with these incumbrances. How far Commodore Rodgers' opinion on this head is correct, I pretend not to judge; but this question, so very important in deciding on the means that a ship possesses for defending itself against torpedoes, ought, in my opinion, to be tested by actual experiment; because no naval officer, however experienced, can as yet speak of it except as a theoretical and untried question. I was not with the committee, when they examined the anchored torpedo, but I saw it (I believe in company with one member of the committee) at two different times, when it appeared to me to be erect. What the effect of a ship passing over it would have been, whether or not the lock would have given fire, I cannot say from any actual experiment, though I have little doubt, from the construction of it, that it would have done so while the torpedo was vertical, or even if its head was inclined by the tide to a ship coming upon it against the tide; though I doubt whether it would have gone off if the ship sailed with the tide, if the tide should incline the head of the torpedo much in the same direction: but I have no reason to think that it would be so inclined; or if it would, it is obvious that this might be early prevented by the use of two instead of one bridle, and by various other ways. This was the sum of the experiments made by Mr. Fulton. He, however, suggested several ingenious modes by which he conceived the netting might be cut, and the torpedoes passed through them. These were answered by several modes of defence, equally ingenious, proposed by Commodore Rodgers, Captain Chauncey, and the other naval officers present. But as you have it in your power, sir, to command those, and doubtless will do so, by calling upon Mr. Fulton and the gentlemen of the navy, I do not think it necessary to repeat them; but will proceed to state my own opinion, drawn from what I was able to collect from the experiments, after mentioning one other, made by Commodore Rodgers, in order to show the effect of grape and canister shot. An old boat, whose planking was not, I think, one inch thick, was anchored at the distance of sixty or eighty yards from the wharf, with some boards set erect, to represent men. A four and twenty pounder, loaded with grape and canister shot, was levelled by Captain Chauncey, and fired at it. The boat and boards were perforated by a great number of shot. Not having been so exact as to count them; I cannot say the precise number, but certainly enough to have destroyed a boat of that kind, and killed or wounded every man in it. A circumstance struck me in this experiment, from which very important conclusions may be drawn. For the space of near two minutes after the gun was fired, (the day being calm) the boat was invisible to myself, and, I believe, to every person placed within twenty yards of the gun, owing to our being involved in the smoke of the cannon. Another circumstance was, that, though, the sides of the boat were old and thin, yet some of the shot did not appear to have passed through more than one side of the boat, most of them being found within it; from whence I infer, that a three-inch oak plank would have resisted those shot, and, of course, that grape or canister could not be of much effect when the men were covered by a deck, or when the sides of the boat were more than three inches thick.
It seems, sir, to have been admitted on all sides, on the faith of the experiments that have been previously made, and of which Mr. Fulton had given an account to the public, that powder placed under a vessel would destroy it; and, indeed, this might have been inferred from the incompressibility of the water, and the resistance it affords to any sudden and violent impulse.
Mr. Fulton has thus presented to us a new application of powder, and it is impossible to say to what important consequences it may ultimately lead as a defence against naval attacks, or in the relative strength of nations. Those consequences are certainly much more obvious than such as were apparent from the early knowledge of gunpowder and its subsequent application to military purposes.
The first model presented, as I have said, by Mr. Fulton to the committee, was that of a boat with two moveable projecting spars armed with torpedoes. It appears to me, that, if one or more vessels of three or four hundred tons; (a number of which are always in our harbor, and may be fitted for the attack in a few hours) armed in the manner I have mentioned, and ballasted with wood, were to attack a ship of the line, by running upon it with all their sails set, and a favorable tide, that such ship, whatever might be its force, would incur the greater risk. The netting (if it were possible for a hostile ship to cover itself with netting) would be no defence against the impetus of such vessels. Its grape and canister shot could have no effect upon the few men placed on board such ship, and covered by the deck. Its round or chain shot might, by a bare possibility, carry away a torpedo; but when it is reflected that many are levelled against one ship, and that a single one can in a moment effect its destruction, it will, I think, be found extremely difficult to resist their attacks. Fire ships have not yet been rejected as a means of both attack and defence. Torpedo vessels have greatly the advantage over them. First, in being much cheaper—the expense of fire ships preventing the employment of such a number of them as may be necessary, they in no instance, that I have been acquainted with, equalling the number of the fleet with which they are to contend; whereas by a little exertion, and without any very extraordinary expense, forty or fifty torpedo ships may be fitted out in less than a week, in any of our large commercial harbors. Next, in the certainty of the attack: a fire ship frequently fails from the fire not taking. Even after it is grappled to a ship, as the effect of fire is not instantaneous, it may be cut loose and towed off. Again: as a vessel of war, even when inflamed by a fire ship, is not immediately destroyed, the men know that they have time to escape, and are not so alarmed as to prevent their exertion: when attacked by torpedo ships, they know their destruction will be instantaneous; they will lose their presence of mind, and, instead of seeking means of defence, they will look for those of escaping from, this untried danger. The fire ship, too, from the hazard to which the crew are exposed from an explosion, will soon be deserted, and often before it arrives near enough to grapple with an enemy. In the torpedo ships the crew incur no danger, even at the instant in which they touch the enemy's ships; because the explosion being directly upwards, can in no other way affect the attacking ship than by the agitation occasioned by the enemy's sinking, and this will not be so rapid as to prevent the few men necessary for navigating such ship from escaping by an aperture left in her stern, as in fire ships, for that purpose.
Though the harpoon did not carry the line so far as was expected, in the experiment that we saw, yet there is no reason to conclude, from its failure, that experience and practice may not improve upon this mode of attack; and the rather, as the cause of the failure was an obvious defect in the arrangement, which it will require but little skill or ingenuity to change for the better. A half inch rope was fixed near the sharp end of the harpoon; it was plain that the resistance of the air would retard the motion of this end carrying the rope, and of course gradually turn the harpoon. Should it be practicable to harpoon a ship at the distance of twenty or thirty yards, (which can hardly be doubted) light boats might, in a dark night, or even by day, when a ship was covered by its own smoke in attacking our batteries, approach with the utmost safety so near as to place the harpoon in her bows. I can hardly suppose, under such circumstances, that a ship would defend itself with netting extending to the bottom of the channel, and thus, clog its own movements in a narrow river, with the obvious danger of running on shore. If, however, the enemy's apprehension were so much alive as to compel them, to use this precaution, this alone will be an important point gained in the article of defence. It should also be recollected, that vessels thus guarded would afford a sure mark for fire ships, which should form an additional article of defence, because a fire ship running in upon the netting, would be so connected with the ship that it would be extremely difficult to disengage it.
I would here observe, that there is a very obvious difference between a cannon fired from the shore, and coolly pointed by the most skilful artillerist against a fixed object, and cannon fired in the hurry of battle from a ship covered with smoke, against a small boat in rapid motion. Experience convinces us that ships are frequently boarded by boats; and how vast is the difference between boarding a ship and merely approaching within a few yards of it, and firing a gun.
The cable cutter is certainly a very ingenious project. To render it successful, practice and experience are necessary. Two facts are ascertained, to wit: that a cannon may be fired under water with the same effect as in open air; and next, that the thickest cables may be cut by these means. The anchor of a large ship, in a river in which there is considerable current, must necessarily be placed at a considerable distance from the ship, so that not the least danger would be incurred by the boats that should be employed in cutting the cable during a dark night. The position of the ship points out that of the cable, and a little practice would enable the boat to place the hook upon it at a considerable distance from the ship. The effect of depriving a ship of her anchor in a calm, and without an enemy's port, are too obvious to need mentioning.
No defence, that I recollect, was offered by the naval officers against the anchored torpedoes. The only question was, whether they would maintain their vertical position when a strong tide run? As far as we could judge, from what we saw, there is no reason to doubt that they would; but, supposing that they would yield to the tide, they certainly would return to their position when the tide slacked—that is, for near two hours out of six. Are naval armaments so rapid in their movements as to take your forts, batter down your towns, and quit your harbors in less than six hours? Can they go in with the flood, and go out before the ebb commences? If not, anchored torpedoes, must, even under the most unfavorable view of the subject, effect their destruction, if distributed in the channels of your harbors with the liberality that the importance of securing them would dictate. Upon the whole, sir, I view this new, application of powder as one of the most important military discoveries which some centuries have produced. It appears to me capable of effecting the absolute Security of your ports against naval aggressions; provided that, in conjunction with it, the usual means necessary to occupy an enemy's attention are not neglected. I am far from thinking that, if your harbors were without batteries, and the enemy's ships were left at full leisure to arm themselves against torpedoes only, to search for and remove them, (a matter, however, of great difficulty) that it would be safe to trust to them; but, added to the other means of defence which prudence dictates, I think they may be made a most important auxiliary; provided, however, that a corps of men were raised and trained, in every part to the use of them; and provided, too, that an ill-timed parsimony should not confine the torpedoes (anchored torpedoes especially) to a number below that which the importance of the subject demands. I would, therefore, earnestly recommend the further prosecution of the experiments, already commenced, and upon a larger scale; nor do I think that trifling miscarriages, arising from want of practice arid nautical skill, should stifle in its birth a discovery that may lead to consequences, the extent and importance of which it is impossible at this moment to foresee; and I sincerely hope, sir, that they may do honor to your administration, by being brought to perfection under your patronage.
I have honor to be, sir, with great respect, your obedient servant,
ROBERT R. LIVINGSTON.
The Hon. Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy.
Staatsburg, January 22, 1811.
The expectation of a joint report from the gentlemen with whom I was associated on the subject of your letter of the 4th of May last, has hitherto prevented my accepting the alternative you proposed, of addressing you individually. A difference of sentiment having disappointed that expectation, I, transmit you a brief statement of the impressions I received from Mr. Fulton's experiments explanatory of his torpedo system.
A particular detail of the experiments, I understand, will be forwarded to you by another hand. It were useless, therefore, to repeat them here. They were much more limited, it is said, than was intended; owning principally to a continuance of unfavorable weather, occasioning an inconvenient delay to those gentlemen who resided at a distance. Restricted as they were, when considered as a first essay in support of an infant science, they certainly equalled, if not surpassed, those of most new inventions, and might challenge a comparison with the progress made in the application of gunpowder to the various species of fire arms. I might add, without, extravagance, they warrant an expectation that, aided by Government, (which every practical science promising public utility is entitled to be) and the efforts of genius, the sub-marine use of gunpowder will, at no distant period, be entitled to rank among the best and cheapest defences of ports and harbors.
The facts resulting from the experiments are:
1. That gunpowder is susceptible of ignition and explosion under water.
2. That a sufficient quantity, exploded under the bottom of a vessel lying in that element, will destroy her.
3. That it may be applied, under water, to fire arms, with as much effect, under some circumstances, as in the atmosphere.
4. That by such application a vessel may in a few minutes be cast from her moorings.
5. That the necessary defence of a ship against floating torpedoes must greatly encumber her, and proportionably impair her activity.
The supposed difficulty of conveying torpedoes under the bottoms of vessels affords the principal objection to their practical use as engines of war; and the nautical gentlemen who attended the experiments of Mr. Fulton, and who, when free from bias, must be the best judges, were, with one exception, of opinion they could, with the ordinary muniments of a ship, defeat every effort which should be made for that purpose. Specimens of the means to which they would resort were exhibited in the equipment of the Argus. Of these the only one which appeared to me of much importance as a defence against an attack with torpedoes, was the subtension of the brig's splinter net from the bowsprit yard to a considerable depth below the surface of the water, where, I understood, it was kept to its position by a quantity of kentledge attached to its lower line. This defence I conceive to be useful only where the vessel lies at anchor; though the nautical gentlemen were of a contrary opinion. Whether they are correct or not, can be ascertained be experiment alone. In any situation of the vessel, however, it does not present to my mind an insurmountable obstacle.
The annoyance which the boats employed in the management of the torpedoes would be subjected to from the ship's battery, appeared to many to afford of itself a complete protection. On this subject it is with diffidence I offer an opinion. The little experience I have had has not been calculated to impress my mind with great respect for a battery employed against a small moving object; particularly where the battery itself, after a few discharges, acquires a degree of motion. The uncertainty of round shot, on such occasions, is obvious; and the effect of musket ball discharged from great guns may be easily rendered harmless. It is a fact known to gunners, that you cannot give to a cannon, loaded with leaden ball, her full charge of powder, without risking a fusion of the lead. They are, therefore, on such service, always undercharged, and their force thereby proportionably diminished. The experiment of Captain Chauncey gave conclusive evidence of this fact: for, although the boat fired at was not removed beyond sixty yards from the mouth of the cannon, and her siding of not more than one-half or three-quarter inch stuff, many of the balls which penetrated her were found lying in her bottom. A three inch, oak plank would have effectually resisted them, and probably grape shot also.
The introduction of torpedoes, as an item in a system of defence, will certainly meet with opposition from adverse interests, deep rooted prejudices, and perhaps foreign attachments. Its advocates will have to encounter the pertness of the witlings of the day. Still I trust it will not be deserted, while even a distant prospect of its becoming permanently useful shall remain.
Accept, sir, an assurance of my sincere respect and esteem.
Extract from Commodore Rodger's Journal.
September 21, 1810.
At eleven o'clock in the forenoon, Captain Chauncey, of the navy, and myself, accompanied by Colonel Wharton, according to appointment, met at the City Hotel, Broadway, Mr. Fulton, and a committee appointed by. the Honorable Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy, consisting of Chancellor Livingston, Governor Lewis, C. D. Colden, Esq. Mr. Garnett, Doctor Kemp, and Colonel J. Williams, (Mr. Oliver Wolcott, late Secretary of the Treasury, a member, being absent) to investigate and report their opinions of the principles, as well as to demonstrate, by such experiments as Mr. Fulton might advise, the efficacy, of (as engines of national offensive and defensive war) certain sub-
marine projects published by him, under the title of "Torpedo War," which he had proposed to Congress as being well calculated to supersede the necessity of a navy. And to enable the projector to prove, by actual experiment, the efficiency of his scheme, a law was passed in February, 1810, appropriating five thousand dollars to the purpose. The committee all being present, with the exception of Mr. Wolcott, at noon Mr. Fulton opened the subject by placing a torpedo lock on the table; and after some preliminary observations relative to the progress and improvements in the various arts and sciences, he quoted a few paragraphs from his book, entitled "Torpedo War," to enable him to explain more forcibly the affinity of his preceding remarks to the subject then before the committee. He expressed a desire that I would have the frigate President transported from the North river (where she was then lying) to the East river; contiguous to the navy yard, for the purpose of making an experiment. I asked Mr. Fulton if the experiments could not as well be made in the North river, and observed that the President was under-going some repairs in her rigging, preparing to paint, &c; consequently that she could not conveniently be removed. He observed that he preferred the East river, on account of its contiguity to the navy yard: as at the yard, he would (previous to the experiments) be afforded the means of making the necessary arrangements with his machinery; as well as with his boats and men, which might be required. The United States' brig Argus was, at this time, lying in the East river, near the navy yard, which enabled me to offer her for his accommodation; which, he having accepted, the committee (with the exception of Mr. Wolcott, an absent member, and with the concurrence of Mr. Fulton) unanimously resolved that the experiments should accordingly be commenced on the 24th instant, with blank torpedoes, on the United States' brig Argus; and that such defence should be made by her as a vessel of war was capable of, without the use of her guns, or any other active force of similar kind.
The time and mode of experimenting being now determined on, Mr. Fulton placed a torpedo on the table, and observed that it was the kind with which he should commence his essays on the Argus, (for a description of which see the cut.) This kind of torpedo, it will be observed, is intended to be applied to a vessel's bottom, from the bowsprit of a torpedo boat, by the aid of a long pole, suspended by an swivel on the end of the bowsprit, so nearly on a balance, that a man in the bow of the boat can elevate or depress the torpedo with his right hand, and at the same time fire it, by pulling a line which he holds in his left.
Mr. Fulton having fully explained the principles of the before described torpedo, the committee adjourned to meet on the 24th instant, for the purpose of commencing the experiments, as had been previously resolved.
September 22, 1810.
On this day Mr. Fulton (having previously prepared a torpedo boat) had various torpedoes and apparatus transported to the navy yard, for the purpose of essaying with on the Argus, consisting of five different kinds; as also a combination of various different machines, viz: a hook, chisel, and gun, intended for the purpose of cutting off cables under water.
On this day, with the advice of Captain Chauncey, I gave Lieutenant Lawrence (commander of the Argus) directions to prepare his vessel in a manner to prevent the application of torpedoes under her bottom; and which he accordingly did, with nothing more than simply her own spare studding sail booms, nine fire grapnels, a few pigs of kentledge, and the President's splinter net, as follows:
Spritsail yard, from which is suspended a net.
No. 2. Studdingsail booms upon the surface of the water.
No. 3. Fore yard.
No. 4. Main yard.
No. 5. Topsail yard across the stern.
The splinter net, having seven pigs of kentledge, of two hundred pounds each, attached, at equal distances, to its lower part, was suspended, by its upper part, from the bow, in a transverse direction, to the keel, by the assistance of a light yard, that was supported by the bob-stays about eighteen inches below the hawseholes, in such manner that the net formed a curtain or barricade in front of the vessel with the weights attached to the lower part of it barely touching the bottom.
The spare studdingsail booms of the Argus formed a floating chevaux de frize to prevent boats from coming in contact with the vessel's hull (as described in the cut) and were supported in that position with ropes leading to the ends of the lower yards, bowsprit, and a spare topsail yard across the stern, to which the main topsail braces led. These, with the addition of about twenty-five battering rams and grapnels, suspended from a small hawser, which was fastened by the bite to the jib boom, the two ends leading aft on each side of the vessel, through blocks on the extreme ends of the fore and main yards, down to the ends of the topsail yard across the stern, and hauled well taught (as described below) were all the obstacles with which Mr. Fulton had to contend, in the application of his torpedoes to the Argus's bottom; but these, however, were found sufficiently conclusive arguments to render all his schemes abortive, as will hereafter be shown by his own confession.
End of jib boom.
No. 2. Spritsail yard.
No. 3. Fore yard.
No. 4. Main yard.
No. 5. Topsail yard across the stern.
No. 6. Fire grapnels.
No. 7. Pigs of kentledge.
After the Argus was thus prepared for the experiments, several thousands of the citizens of New York assembled at Corlear's Hook (opposite the navy yard) for the purpose of witnessing the result of Mr. Fulton's operations on her; but the weather proving somewhat unfavorable, and the committee, in consequence, having sent to notify that they would not attend on this day, a boat was despatched to inform the people collected there that no experiments would be made before the next day.
Boats were again sent to New York for the committee, but in two hours after returned with information from Governor Lewis, that the president of the committee (Chancellor Livingston) being indisposed, and the weather not being favorable, would prevent their attendance on this day; Colonel Williams and Mr. Garnett (two of the committee) came over, however, and in company with Mr. Fulton, Captain Chauncey, and myself, and some gentlemen, went on board of the Argus, and examined the preparations made for her defence: this they did though without comment, Mr. Fulton excepted, who acknowledged that the means of defence then exhibited were sufficient to prevent the application of torpedoes to her bottom, unless some mode could be devised to remove the obstacles, which he declared might be done, although he could not then precisely say how, as, from his not being previously aware of the difficulties which he then found he had to encounter, time must be given for reflection and further invention.
In this day's remarks it may be proper to note, that Mr. Fulton made an experiment on the wharf with his machine for cutting off cables underwater, (for the form of which see margin) and succeeded; but without proving it would have the same effect under the water, or, even if it could, that it was of any use as an instrument of war.
After this experiment, he made several others, by firing harpoons at a target of about five feet square; but did not succeed in attaching the harpoon to the target, in any instance, at a greater distance than fifteen feet.
The committee met at the navy yard, on this day, at half past ten o'clock in the morning, at, which time Mr. Fulton made several essays with his harpoon gun, but did not succeed any better than in his preceding experiments. After this, at his request, the committee retired to the house of Captain Chauncey, where models had been prepared by the exhibitor, to explain results which he had not been able to prove by actual experiment; and, after explaining causes and effects, he informed the committee that, since their last meeting, his mind had been, in part, employed in devising means to destroy the security which nets afforded to vessels, in opposition to his torpedoes, in substance as follows: That he had invented a combination of knives, calculated to be fired from a gun, for the purpose of cutting a hole through the net, which being effected, a trough, about half the size of the body of a cart, (containing the torpedoes) was to be introduced into the said hole, and the torpedoes emptied in, and, to use his own words, "in the same manner that potatoes are commonly emptied from the body of a cart."
It now appearing that Mr. Fulton had given up the intention of experimenting on the Argus, I mentioned to the committee that she was then under sailing orders, and that, if Mr. Fulton did not intend to make any essays on her, I would order her to prepare for sea, and which I should have done, had he not, at the time, expressed a desire that she might be detained a few days longer, as it was probable, (as he said) that he might, in a very short time, be prepared to make some experiments on her.
The committee now adjourned, to meet on the 28th instant.
Note. It will be recollected that Mr. Fulton addressed a letter to the members of Congress, who voted in favor of the torpedo bill, (dated April 15th, 1810) in which he assured them that nets, booms, &c; instead of obstructing, would facilitate his operations.
The committee met according to appointment, and the lighter of the yard was anchored with a piece of an old twenty-two inch cable, for the purpose of affording Mr. Fulton an opportunity of showing more demonstratively, the actual effect of his machine for cutting off cables under water.
Cable which was intended to have been cut by the cable cutter.
No. 2. The buoy of the machinery afoul of the cable.
No. 3. Large flat hook which supports a gun.
No. 4. Torpedo boat, with her side against the current.
No. 5. A rope from the boat, attached to the machinery.
The cable being thus prepared, Mr. Fulton made an attempt to hook, and, cut it off, but did not succeed even in hooking the cable, much more in cutting it off, whilst, at the same time, he was obliged to require the assistance of the men on board of the lighter, to which the cable was attached, to extricate the torpedo boat from the awkward position in which the tide had placed her, from the machine being on one side of the cable, and the boat on the other. (See the figure.) The gun was; however, fired under water, but the only visible effect produced was the bursting of the lock.
Mr. Fulton having concluded his experiments for this day, but having, on a former occasion, denied the practicability of a ship using her guns to any important advantage, against torpedo boats, even at the distance of twenty yards, Captain Chauncey, to remove all doubts on this subject, had an old condemned boat (about eighteen feet long) anchored ninety yards from the wharf, with three small pieces of board placed in her, in positions representing three men sitting down. At this distance he discharged a grape and canister from a twenty-four pounder, and of which were actually drove seventy-three shot through the boat, eighteen through the first piece of board representing a man, nine through the second, and five through the third.
Mr. Fulton having now expressed doubts whether the preparations made on the Argus could be effected with any reasonable degree of facility, the committee proposed that she should be got under weigh, and that the preparations then made on her should be displaced, which, being done, that she should be brought to an anchor again, and the same preparations replaced, in order to prove the facility with which such an operation could be performed.
This proposal was accordingly assented to; but the rudder of the, Argus being, at the time, on shore, and under repair, the performance was necessarily postponed, to take place on the 1st of October, in the North river.
Owing to clam weather during the two preceding days, the Argus was not removed into the North river, as had been determined on the 28th ultimo; the committee, however, not thinking it then necessary that she should be removed for the purpose of performing the experiments which, at their last meeting, had been resolved on, agreed that they should be made where she then lay, in the East river, and which was accordingly complied with, when, to the astonishment of those who had entertained any doubts of the facility with which a vessel could be so prepared, after she had been dismantled of such preparations, the same were seen replaced in less than fifteen minutes.
Mr. Fulton having now candidly acknowledged (and that, too, in a manner much to his credit) that his want of nautical information had led him into many errors; at the same time, all parties wishing to see the project fairly, and thoroughly tested, the committee adjourned to meet again on the 29th instant, in order that he might be afforded sufficient time to make experiments on the improvements which he had suggested, as being necessary to the perfecting of his torpedoes, and the manner of applying them.
Owing to the bad weather, the committee was prevented attending to the torpedo experiments, consequently they were not renewed, as had been resolved at the last adjournment, on the 1st of the present month.
Boats were sent to New York, for the purpose of conveying the gentlemen, of the committee to the navy yard, but none of them attended except Colonel Williams and C. D. Colden, Esq. the latter of whom came at a late hour.
No experiments were made on this day, but Mr. Fulton exhibited a miniature model of a vessel of three hundred tons, in the presence of Colonel Williams, Captain Chauncey, and myself; at which exhibition were also present General Morton, Doctor Bullus, and some other gentlemen of similar curiosity; which he called a torpedo block ship, the sides of which were calculated (as he said) to be cannon proof, and the decks proof against musket shot, the former being six feet thick, and the latter six inches.
No. 2. Hull of a vessel whose sides are six feet thick, cannon proof, and decks six inches thick, musket proof.
No. 3. Four long booms, with a torpedo on each.
No. 4. Bumpkins, by which the booms are supported.
No. 5. A skull wheel, which is intended to propel this vessel against the tide.
This vessel is intended to be armed with two torpedoes on each side, which are each to be applied by the means of a spar ninety-six feet long, projecting from the vessel's side, supported at the inward end by a double circular swivel, and at the outward end by guys leading from the mast heads. For the particulars of this singular vessel, (which, to my confined imagination, truly deserves the name of a non descript) I leave the reader to make his own conclusions from the figure annexed, and by which alone he will be enabled to judge whether such torpid, unwieldy, six-feet-sided, six-inch decked, fifteen-sixteenth-sunk-water-dungeons, are calculated to supersede the necessity of a navy, particularly when the men who manage them are (as is intended) confined to the limits of their holds, which will be under water, and, in as perfect darkness as if shut up in the black-hole of Calcutta.
Boats were sent to New York for the committee, but the weather being unfavorable, none of the gentlemen attended.
Boats were sent to New York for the committee; but none of the members attended except the Honorable Oliver Wolcott, C. D. Colden, Esq. Colonel Williams, and Mr. Garnett. On this day Mr. Fulton made an essay with his sub-marine gun, and succeeded in cutting off, under water, an old fourteen inch cable, that had been prepared for the purpose; and this, I understand, he did (not being myself present) without any injury to the gun or lock. It is, therefore, proved, that, by such means a cable can be cut off under water; but I, nevertheless, deny that it is possible to use this machine so as to make it of any importance as an engine of war: for the cable cannot be hooked with any probable degree of certainty, without exposing the assailants in such manner, and for such a length of time, to part of the ship's cannon, as well as to her musketry, swivels, blunderbusses, &c. as would ensure them destruction before they could perform the operation, and which was amply verified in the beforementioned experiments, as Mr. Fulton and all the men in the boat with him were exposed for at least fifteen minutes to the fire of the musketry from the vessel on which he made the essay, and, of that time, they were at least five minutes within short pistol shot. At the same time, it will be observed, that the vessel was specially prepared for the purpose, and the relative positions of her and the cable, such (according to Mr. Fulton's opinion) as to enable him to perform the operation with the greatest facility. But, even admit that the machine for cutting off the cable could be applied, in
defiance of the opposition before stated, the crew of a ship have it in their power to make such a machine (and such as will occur in the mind of every seaman) in twenty minutes, as to prevent, even if no other means were used, the possible application of a cable cutter.
After the beforementioned performance of cutting the cable, the members of the committee, at the request of Mr. Fulton, proceeded to examine a torpedo which had been previously anchored off the navy yard, for the purpose of showing the position which a torpedo of that description would maintain in the tide.
This torpedo was, by the effect of a bridle anchored in such a manner as to present the surface, by which it was supported, on an inclined plane, to the resistance of the tide; so that the action of the tide served to propel it upwards: and to prevent its being thus propelled beyond a certain distance from the bottom, a weight was attached to its lower extremity, by means of a rope of correspondent length, to the desired distance from the bottom.
The position of this torpedo was shown on the ebb tide, and actually (as I am informed) maintained the position which Mr. Fulton supposed it would. This, however, was done without his proving any thing of its effect as an engine of war, or even that it would maintain a similar position on the flood tide; and which it must be admitted would be very uncertain, owing to the weight attached to the lower end of the torpedo always being liable, on the change of the tide, to become entangled with the moorings of the machine itself.
Therefore, all that has yet been proved relative to this description of torpedoes, I consider in amount as nothing, when compared with the object for which it was constructed; and even if it was capable of being made as perfect as the projector has described, in his book, entitled "Torpedo War," (but which I utterly deny) it can never be of any important consequence; as by the aid of a very simple piece, of machinery, in form like the back bone of a fish, (and which would naturally suggest itself as a preventive) its effect may, without the question of a doubt, be rendered harmless.
The committee on this day adjourned, for the purpose of making their report; Mr. Fulton having informed them that he had no further experiments to make: therefore,
Having attended all the experiments, and noted in my preceding remarks every thing of any consequence relative to the same, I have only further to observe, that Mr. Fulton bought a vessel, for the purpose, as he said of convincing the committee, by occular demonstration, of the effect of his torpedoes; but which, however, (after being at the trouble of transporting her to the navy yard) he never attempted; owing, as I am induced to believe, to an entire conviction, in his own mind, that such an attempt would only serve to prove more distinctly that the practice of every, or any part of his project would be found not only impossible, but that even its theory would be proved as conclusively absurd. Further, however, I do not, at this moment, feel myself at liberty to animadvert; as Mr. Fulton has pledged himself to Mr. Wolcott, Colonel Williams, Doctor Kemp, and Mr. Garnett, (members of the Committee) in presence of Captain Chauncey and myself, to acknowledge in a public manner the incorrectness of all such part of his theory as he should not be able to establish by these experiments; consequently I cannot but conclude that his amor patriae, as well as a respect for his word, (which he pledged as beforementioned) will induce him to publish to the citizens of the United States, in the same public manner, that what he may have led them to
expect he now finds himself unable to perform, namely, that his torpedoes, so far from being of the importance which he had considered them, were, on a more thorough examination of their principles, assisted by all the practice of which he, himself, had supposed them susceptible, found, to say the least, comparatively of no importance at all; consequently that they ought not to be relied on as a means of national defence.
Kalorama, District of Columbia, February 1, 1811.
I have the honor to return to you the report of the committee on the torpedo experiments, with that of Commodore Rodgers; and the letters of Robert R. Livingston, Morgan Lewis, and Cadwallader D. Colden, on the same, subject. The opinions expressed in these papers are, I think, as favorable to this infant art as, under all circumstances, could be expected.
It is proved and admitted—
1st. That the water proof locks will ignite gunpowder under water.
2d. It is proved that seventy pounds of powder, exploded under the bottom of a vessel of two hundred tons, will blow her up; hence it is admitted, by all the above parties, that, if a sufficient quantity of powder (and which I believe need not be more than two hundred pounds) be ignited under the bottom of a first rate man of war, it would instantly destroy her.
3d. It is proved and admitted, by all parties concerned in the experiments, that a gun can be fired under water, and a cable of any size may be cut by that means at any required depth.
With these immensely important principles proved and admitted, the question naturally occurs, whether there be within the genius or inventive faculties of man the means of placing a torpedo under a ship, in defiance of her powers of resistance. He who says there is not, and that, consequently, torpedoes never can be rendered useful, must of course believe that he has penetrated to the limits of man's inventive powers, and that he has contemplated all the combinations and arrangements which present or future ingenuity can devise, to place a torpedo under a ship.
There is no man of sound sense, who has the least acquaintance with the difficulties under which all the arts have labored in their infancy, who, on calm reflection, will be so weak or vain as to presume that he possesses a strength of intellect to foresee all that can be done, not only in infant arts, but in arts now familiar and long established. But as it is impossible now to conceive the various modes which may be invented for placing torpedoes under a ship, and as the success is of incalculable importance to our country, there is every reason to prosecute the experiments with ardor; and we are encouraged to this by a contemplation of the progress of the whole military art, and particularly the attack and defence of fortified places. The celebrated Vauban, after years of experience, aided by a powerful genius, to fortify cities, confessed that it was impossible to make any work so strong by art alone that it could not be taken by the art and exertions of a besieging army, in which the besiegers commence, by parallels and. zig zags, to approach the rampart of the besieged, and run their mine or subterranean passage under the works, to blow them up. During the whole time of their approaches, which is frequently for weeks or months, the besiegers are under as heavy a fire from the besieged as has or perhaps can be invented; when the explosion makes a breach in the rampart, it is defended by all the guns, loaded with grape and canister shot, which can be brought to bear upon it: the trench is enfiladed with cannon and small arms. In fact, the whole power of the besieged is directed to defend the breach, perhaps not twenty feet wide; yet, in defiance of so concentrated a fire--a fire infinitely more destructive than any ship could keep up from her bow—there are hundreds of instances of such breaches, having been forced, and the works taken. Is it impossible to contemplate the ingenious combinations, the perseverance, the risk, and acts of valor, of a besieging army, and then believe that there are not ways and means, enterprise and courage, when organized and exercised, to mine through water, which is the work of a few minutes, and blow up a ship, when the risk is not one thousandth part so great as that of storming a breach? I think, sir, this comparative view of the danger in storming a breach, and attacking a ship, proves that, added to the three principles before mentioned and admitted, the courage to undertake the attack of a ship with torpedoes must be admitted also.
I will now consider the progress of the experiments at New York, and the prospect of future improvement which they present,
First, as to the harpoon, it is admitted that, at the distance of "fifteen feet, the harpoon stuck firm." Were it improved, it should not be fired at a greater distance from the ship than thirty or forty feet, because the sudden jerk on the line might break it off at the torpedo: men in a boat, at thirty feet distance from a ship, are in as great danger as when in with her bow and under her guns; thus, as the harpoon can be fixed at fifteen feet, I will not at present insist on a greater distance, though I am certain that practice will enable me to fix the harpoons at the distance of forty or more feet, if required; but I do insist that organized men, who have courage to storm a breach or to attack a vessel by boarding, have courage to approach within fifteen feet of a ship to fire a harpoon, or even, if necessary, to drive a spike into her bow; when the ship discharges her bow guns, her bow must be covered with smoke, after which all shot against the boats will be random, particularly if the attack be made in the night; but, to protect the men, the torpedo boats may be decked with thick oak plank, and rendered proof against canister and musket shot. The risk of the men would then be inconsiderable: for, while, a boat was near in with the bow of the ship, her cannon could not be brought to bear so as to fire round shot. It is, therefore, a fair conclusion that, courage added to art, a ship cannot guard herself against a torpedo attack by means of her guns and small arms only. She must, therefore, have nets, booms, grapples, &c. &c.
I will now do justice to the talents of Commodore Rodgers, by stating that the nets, booms, kentledge, and grapnels, which he had arranged round the Argus, made, at first sight, a formidable appearance against one torpedo boat and eight bad oarsmen. I was taken unawares: I had explained to the officers of the navy my means of attack; they did not inform me of their measures of defence; the nets were put down to the ground, otherwise I should have sent the torpedoes under them. In this situation, the means with which I was provided being imperfect, insignificant, and inadequate to the effect to be produced, I might be compared to what Bartholomew Schwartz, the inventor of gunpowder, would have appeared, had he lived at the time of Julius Caesar, and presented himself before the gates of Rome with a four pounder, thereby endeavoring to convince the Roman legions that, by the means of such machines, well organized, he could batter down the walls and take the city: a few catapultas, casting arrows and stones upon his men, would have caused them to retreat; a shower of rain might destroy his ill guarded powder, and the Roman centurions, who could not conceive the various modes in which gunpowder has since been used to destroy the then art of war, (as my opponents cannot now see the combinations by which torpedoes may supersede the necessity of ships of war) would very naturally conclude that it was a useless invention; while the manufacturers of catapultas, bows, arrows, and shields, would be the most vehement against further experiments.
This, sir, may be conceived a digression; but, being on an interesting subject, I have stated this supposed first, experiment with a four pounder as a case in point. Some of the first cannon were made of leather; but, if such cannon failed, does it therefore follow that gunpowder, was useless? Or does it follow, because I was not prepared to put torpedoes through a net the first time it was presented to me, that the defect was in the torpedoes? You, sir, will instantly perceive it was not; but arose from the want of time and experience. I had not one man instructed in the use of the machines, nor had I time to reflect on this particular mode of defending a vessel. I have now, however, had time; and I feel confident that I have discovered a means which will render nets to the ground, booms, kentledge, grapnels, oars with sword blades through the port holes, and all such kinds of operations, totally useless. It is as follows:
Should an enemy of any force enter one of our ports, and put her nets to the ground, let Government press from the wharves four or more merchantmen, loaded or in ballast; each of them from three to four hundred tons burthen;
*It entered five inches into oak plank.
in the magazine there should be thirty or forty torpedoes, each containing two hundred pounds of powder, and each adjusted to the end of a spar or boom from forty to sixty feet long, tapering from the butt to the point, where the torpedo, of a conic form, and having on each side a long blade or scythe, should be firmly fixed; let the butt end of the spar be tied so as to act like a swivel, under the fore chains, one on the larboard the other on the starboard side, and the other end of the spars, with the torpedo, be hoisted up to the spritsail yard, and held there until near the scene of action. The expense of thus preparing a ship will be eight hundred or one thousand-dollars, and each will be as dangerous to an enemy as a fire ship. The expense of a fire ship is from eight to ten thousand dollars, which sum could certainly be expended to greater advantage by arranging torpedo ships, as here proposed, and for the following reasons:
First, eight thousand dollars would pay for arranging eight torpedo ships, which could be done in a few hours; each with two torpedoes projecting from the bow; which eight ships, moving at one time towards the enemy, would divide her fire on eight points, and render it less dangerous to each than in the case of one fire ship, which would draw on her the whole fire of the vessel attacked.
Second, the expense of a fire ship is so great that an attack is seldom made with more than one, which must be grappled with the enemy; then set on fire and abandoned by her men, who must take to their boat, and expose themselves to the boats and guns of the vessel attacked. Should the fire ship be grappled to the enemy, still she may not burn so as to communicate the fire; or, if to the leeward, she may be cut adrift; at all events, if in port, the men could escape to the shore; therefore, their danger not being great, they would work with more confidence and ardor to extinguish the flames and save their ship; yet the danger with which fire ships impress an enemy makes them respect the ports where they are prepared for action.
In the year 1776, Commodore Talbot grappled a fire ship to a British two decker, in the river Hudson: he set his ship on fire, and returned to shore under a heavy discharge of musketry and cannon, without losing a man. He failed to burn the enemy, but he drove the vessel attacked, and one of equal force, from seven miles above New York down to Staten Island. The following note is his account of this enterprise.
As it does not require so much bravery to make an attack with a torpedo ship as to grapple a fire ship to an enemy, the use of fire ships proves that courage is to be found to attack with, those which may be armed with torpedoes.
Suppose, then, two torpedo ships fastened to each other by a chain eighty or one hundred feet long, forming a bridle opposite to the fore chains, in the manner I arrange my floating torpedoes; then to be sailed or floated down on the tide, the torpedoes let down twenty-two feet under water, one ship steered for the larboard and one for the starboard, side of the enemy; in this manner, the chain would cross her cable, before which she must either slip or cut cable and run, or the momentum of the torpedo ship's would sheer round, stern outwards, and press the torpedoes through the nets under her bottom, where instant explosion would be instant death. Such an operation gives no time for an enemy to deliberate, or exert themselves to push off, or cut torpedo vessels adrift, or to calculate on getting to shore in boats. The tremendous consequence of explosion under a ship deprives common men, such as sailors, of all firmness, and the irresistible danger would also influence the major part of officers; hence this mode of attack is infinitely more to be dreaded than that of fire ships; and, for these reasons, an enemy will not dare to enter our ports to put it to the test. Should any one doubt the practicability of this mode of passing torpedoes through nets and under a vessel, the importance of the object merits the experiment. I therefore conceive it useless, at this time, to say more on the theory.+
Of the anchored torpedoes, I have had the pleasure to show you the improvements I have made on these, since the meeting of the committee at New York, to give them stability under water, or to take them up or put them down when necessary. There is a very simple mode to convince any unbeliever of the advantage, which this kind of engine will present, and the respect for our harbors; which it will create in the mind of an enemy. Let me put one under water, and they who do not believe in its effect, may put their confidence to the proof by sailing over it.
A compound engine of this kind will cost from eight hundred to a thousand dollars; three hundred and twenty of them could be made for the first cost of one ship of 54 guns; of which three hundred and twenty, say one hundred at New York; one hundred, if required, at Boston; one hundred at Charleston; twenty in the Delaware, to be placed in the waters between the forts or batteries; and thus four ports could be guarded so as to render it impossible for the, enemy's ships to enter either of them, unless they had strength first to take possession of the land and forts, and then time to deliberately search for the torpedoes; yet one ship of 54 guns cannot guard one port against one 74 gun ship, although her first cost in anchored torpedoes would guard at least three ports against ten ships of 74 guns. In this estimate, it may be also stated that a 54 gun ship, in commission, costs the nation one hundred thousand dollars a year; this, at five per cent., is interest to raise a loan of two millions to build the forts or batteries in barbette, between which the torpedoes should be placed. While I thus compare the expense of torpedoes with that of a ship of 54 guns, I do not mean to object to such ships to protect our coast; but, when considered for harbor defence, or aiding forts or batteries to defend harbors, the money can be better expended in torpedoes.
In the report of the committee it is also admitted that I cut a fourteen inch cable at the depth of six feet under water, (it was in fact twelve feet under water.) In this experiment it is true I was five or six minutes within pistol shot of the vessel—the reason is it was only the fourth time a cable cutting machine was ever tried; with so little experience, I did not attempt to cut at a greater distance; the object at the time being to prove that a cable could be hooked and cut without injuring the machine. New invented instruments must be unskilfully used for a
* in the year 1776 I was captain in the service of the United States, and, at the same time, attached to General Green's brigade, then stationed on Long Island. At this time, General Washington sent for me, requesting that I would take command of a brig which was prepared as a fire ship or vessel. I consented, and, in the latter part of the year, lying in the river Hudson, nearly opposite the small river which separates the island of New York from the main land, I took advantage of a fair wind, ran down the river to two British ships of war, which lay at anchor about seven miles above New York, and grappled a two decker, and, perhaps strange to say, I lay under her side until I got out of the water, where I was forced by the violence of the fire; after which I took up a brave man by the name of Priestly, who was also forced into the river by the flame; myself and all my men escaped in my boat to the Jersey shore, under a fire from the broadside and musketry of the ship not grappled, without the loss of a life. I was, however, so much burnt that I could not see the light for twenty days. This enterprise took place about 4 o'clock in the morning, and the battle of Harlem, on York Island, commenced at day light; on which occasion, the American arms were probably much aided by the attack with this one fire ship: for I drove every ship of war out of the Hudson river down to the watering place at Staten Island, and cleared the river, for some time, of ships of war, which it was evident were sent up the river to cover the left wing of the British army.
October 15, 1810.
+ Mr. Colden has very properly remarked, "that, if an enemy be driven to the necessity to protect herself, with nets from above her water line, to the bottom of the water in which she may be anchored, and which will sometimes be fifty or more feet deep; if she must place round her booms; spars, kentledge, and grapnels, and thus trammel herself so as to be unfit for active service, that alone is a sufficient reason for adopting torpedoes." But, on the plan I now propose, to break through nets with merchant ships armed with torpedoes, I will venture to predict that I will compel the vessel attacked to be so much embarrassed by nets, booms, or spars, to fend off, as to make her totally unfit for action; or I will blow her up; or, should I fail to blow her up, I will prove that I can cut her cables or chains, and set her adrift, with all her encumbrance of nets to the bottom, booms, spars, &c. &c. with which she must either be driven on shore or go to sea.
time, but, with the practice of only one month, and one good boat's crew, I will undertake to cut the cable of a ship at any given depth under water, without approaching nearer to her than eight hundred yards. I will also undertake to place myself at the distance of eight hundred yards from a ship having an unguarded cable, and at that distance I will put an improved cable-cutting machine in the water; I will there abandon it, and it shall go to the cable, cut it off, and set the ship adrift, without any further aid on my part than placing it in the water. Such is the unforeseen and incalculable results of mechanical combinations.* It may be said, if one cable be cut and anchor lost, the enemy could put out a second, third, fourth, or fifth anchor and cable; but as a provident Government would not undertake to defend a port with one cannon, so there should be in the magazine fifteen or twenty machines for cutting cables, and there should be a marine militia practised in the use of them. In such case, an enemy could not afford to exchange an anchor and cable, worth five thousand dollars, against three ounces of gunpowder, and, at the same time, run the risk of being driven on shore in a calm or by a lee tide: hence, in our calculations on harbor defence, this instrument alone will always be an embarrassing consideration for an enemy.
It must be admitted that the whole of the experiments at New York were badly executed, but they could not be otherwise. I had not a man practised, nor am I experienced in the use of my own machines. I consequently was necessitated to explain my theory by such imperfect means as I had in my power; yet, under all these disadvantages I have, to my satisfaction, gained much useful experience, and evidently convinced some of the committee of the great importance of persevering, and particularly with a view to harbor defence. By the experiments, I have discovered much of the strength and resources of my opponents, and I am satisfied I can defeat every obstruction which has hitherto been presented; this I hope to prove after some practice. But, having witnessed the activity and resources of mind which Commodore Rodgers and Captain Chauncey possess, I look forward to contend with new and difficult combinations which they may produce for defence. In this manner it is probable we shall discover the principal means of defence against torpedoes, and modes of attack with them, until, like the attack and defence of fortified places, the measures to be pursued on each side, in all cases, will, become familiar, and a fair calculation may be made on the mode of attacking a ship.
But, sir, to do this, it is indispensable that I should have twenty or thirty men under my command, to be practised to the use of my engines in my own way. Well as gunnery is understood, no one can hope that young recruits should fire a cannon with skill and effect, until they have some months' practice. It is, therefore, demanding of me to perform a miracle, to apply torpedoes to advantage, break through nets, harpoon ships, and cut cables, with an outfit of one thousand dollars, and not one man practised to assist me. Compare my situation with that of my opponents--men of talents and sound nautical knowledge, working on their own element, the commodore commanding more than four hundred men, in a ship of 54 guns, which ship, with all her various apparatus, as fitted for efficient service is an engine produced by the combined talents of some thousands of ingenious men, who have directed their attention to the improvement of vessels of war since the invention of gun-powder: thus the commodore, added to his own talents, has the advantage of the experience and talents of all nautical men who have lived before him; yet he would not be so imprudent as to face an enemy of equal force, if his men were raw recruits, unpractised to the guns or working of the ship; and it is to familiarize his men to their duty in each department that he is in a state of constant practice. A succession of experiments on his men, which costs the nation one hundred thousand dollars a year which experiments, when followed from one to ten or twenty years, at the expense of from one hundred thousand to two millions of dollars, is to enable him to do no more than fight one ship of equal force, in which contest the chances would be equal that he would not take or destroy the enemy: with all this expensive experiment for years of peace, to be prepared in case of war, it is, not expected that he should contend with a ship of 74 guns. But if experiments, which are inconsiderable in their expense compared to that of a 54 gun ship, should prove that attacks with torpedoes can be rendered practicable and efficient, (and every reflection teaches me that they can) it will be immaterial whether the enemy's vessel be a 40 or an 80 gun ship—two hundred pounds of powder exploded under the bottom of either will produce certain destruction.
Thus, sir, considering this subject in these various points of view, its infancy, its prospect of success, and, if successful, its immense importance to these States and to mankind, the small establishment, and inconsiderable sum required to practise and prove its utility, compared with the expense of other nautical establishments which promise only common and imperfect results, I conceive it highly merits a patient and candid succession of experiments: for which purpose, I feel the necessity of taking time, that I may have the ensuing summer to practise a few men on nets, and such other obstructions as may be presented; which I hope, sir, will meet with your approbation and that of every friend to science.
I unite with the committee in opinion that Government should not rely on this; or any new invention, for defence, until its utility be fully proved. It never has been my wish that such confidence should be placed in torpedoes, until fair experiment had proved their value beyond a doubt.
I have the honor to be, sir, with great respect, your most obedient,
The Honorable Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy.
* This discovery has been produced by my other experiments.