February 18, 2021

Introducing “The Herreshoff Brothers and their Torpedo Boats”

A series of papers on bringing innovation to the "New Navy"


On December 21, 1896 the Naval Torpedo Station honored Capt. Nat Herreshoff by inviting him to Newport for maneuvers and a photoshoot of three generations of Herreshoff torpedo boats. From left to right in the above photo, Capt. Nat arrived aboard his latest design PORTER (TB-6), just her second day underway after launching and installation of machinery. He is joined by the 1887 STILETTO (WTB-1) and the Navy’s first sea-going torpedo boat the 1890 CUSHING (TB-1).  It was a well-deserved recognition, because it was upon the first two Herreshoff hulls that the Navy developed a basic torpedo warfare capability- a weapon and the vehicle to deliver it. [1]


This is the story of the Herreshoff brothers experience in introducing new technology into the competitive U.S. Navy torpedo boat market. It is developed from the latest information available from research of Herreshoff family papers, the records of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. (HMCo.) and the Navy, personal papers and biographies of the important individuals, and newspaper archives. The story is told primarily in a chronological series of papers, each centered on a specific torpedo boat, built or proposed for the U.S. Navy over a period of 22 years from 1875-1897. Each story places the vessel in the environment of the day. Because the events of 1860 and the Civil War to follow were so transformative for the Herreshoff brothers and especially the U.S. Navy that is where the story begins. On the back end the Postscript extends to U.S. Navy plans for destroyers in 1904.

The papers in the series are:

1. The Players- 1860
2. War and its Aftermath
3. LIGHTNING: A Win for the Herreshoff System
4. Preparing for STILETTO
5. HMCo. #118 STILETTO and the Torpedo Cruiser, 1883-1885.
6. Herreshoff Success: US Navy Purchase of STILETTO, 1886-1895
7. Admiral Porter & Herreshoff: Surprising End to the Torpedo Cruiser Story
8. US Navy's First Sea-Going Torpedo Boat CUSHING; Herreshoff Success & Frustration
9. Herreshoff Failed Bids and Frustration: Torpedo Boats 2, 3, 4 & 5 | 1890-1895
10. Success: Torpedo Boats 6 & 7 | 1895-1897
11. HMCo's 30-Knot Torpedo Boat Loss | 1896
12. The Postscript will address questions and comments received through the series.


Above all, these papers are a search for the facts. An attempt to satisfy the caution Capt. Nat expressed in a letter to W. P. Stephens, “Do not you think it is better… not to make statements until you know the facts?”[2]

When I started as a volunteer in 1997 the torpedo boat “facts” told to visitors were: While today HMCo. is remembered for America’s Cup victories, great racing schooners, and successful racing and cruising one-designs, from 1868-1897 Herreshoff built 180 steam vessels, twice the number of sail; 70% of the these were high-speed launches and yachts; 30% were vessels for government service, and eight of those were torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy. New technology was developed in the private sector and then applied to Navy work. Herreshoff built the first U.S. Navy torpedo boat, USS LIGHTNING. Herreshoff torpedo boats were the best; each new design providing better performance and speed. Herreshoff chafed under the direction of local Navy inspectors, who they saw as interfering and less competent than themselves. This came to a head with an incident on USS DUPONT (TB-7). Herreshoff was directed by inspectors to change the material for an engine slide resulting in a failure during trials. That was the last straw and they precipitously left Navy work. Who needed that grief when they had America’s Cup boats to build for customers who accepted their designs without question and paid what was asked?

However, research has proven this narrative to be overly simplistic and plain wrong on a number of counts. To cite just two: it is problematic to claim Herreshoff built the first torpedo boat, and the primary Navy inspector throughout the building of all the torpedo boats was a collaborator and supporter who risked his career in that effort.  Additionally, like some other HMCo. stories it is presented as if the company existed in a vacuum devoid of a complex customer, competitors, and other outside forces, institutions and personalities. This series of papers aims to take these factors into account alongside a more thorough examination and analysis of the historical record. The papers will be published at intervals throughout the remainder of 2021.


Much has been learned since 1997 and we have many people to thank for the progress.

In 2001 the late Bristol historian Richard Simpson published Building the Mosquito Fleet: The U.S. Navy’s First Torpedo Boats and followed up in 2016 with Goat Island and the U.S. Naval Torpedo Station: Gun Cotton, Smokeless Powder and Torpedoes. These contained new information on the Herreshoff torpedo boats that he was wise enough to rescue from the trash heap during changing administrations and downsizing of the Newport Torpedo Station. A good friend, he donated much of his archive to the Museum.

New research by the Museum supported an updated torpedo boat story for the 2002 exhibit, In Defense of the Nation: The Herreshoff Story 1875 to 1945. In 2007 the late David W. McComb, author and lecturer on the history of U.S. Navy destroyers and enthusiastic founder of the Destroyer History Foundation (www.destroyerhistory.org.), collaborated with us to achieve an understanding of the nexus between the Herreshoff torpedo boats and the U.S. Navy’s first destroyers- a larger type known as the “torpedo boat destroyer”.  Dave was the first to postulate the importance of the “Narragansett Bay Connection” (Newport Naval Torpedo Station founded 1869, John Brown Herreshoff first with steam vessels in 1868 and continuing with HMCo. founded 1878, and the Naval War College founded 1884).

Dave was also the first to highlight the importance of George Albert Converse, who was the Navy representative at HMCo. throughout the torpedo boat years.  Both Dave and I separately researched the Converse Collection preserved at the DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University. (Who would have thought the answers to many Herreshoff torpedo boat questions resided in Dallas, TX?) Fortunately, the Library, with encouragement from John Hattendorf, former E.J. King Professor of Naval History, Naval War College, has placed much of the Converse material online. 

The majority of the Nathanael G. Herreshoff Collection housed in the museum has received at least a preliminary inventory and is safely preserved in archival boxes. Our major collection of Capt. Nat’s letters was rescued from a large Tupperware box found in Museum storage and is now carefully preserved and cataloged. Donors have contributed important materials; the PORTER/DUPONT construction contracts come from Capt. Richard Hamly USN (Ret) and the proposed Edward Burgess/Nat Herreshoff cooperation to design the first sea-going torpedo boat from Burgess family papers. The 1986 bequest of Louise DeWolf, John Brown Herreshoff’s granddaughter, included original HMCo. materials as well as an extensive collection of Herreshoff Family letters and papers. The Museum’s Archives contains these manuscript collections and additional collections related to HMCo., the Herreshoff Family and the America’s Cup. They are preserved and cataloged. Thanks to the work of Norene Rickson and Evelyn Ansel and their volunteers progress continues to be made on the collection each and every day. The loose papers filling the drawers of the Model Room drawing table and many handwritten design notes by Capt. Nat have been scanned and prepared for indexing. Halsey Herreshoff provided access to Capt. Nat’s diaries and Naval Architecture and Engineering Notes for the torpedo boats, and the open-water model testing of their hull designs. Further he commissioned his alma mater Webb Institute to conduct a modern test and analysis of Capt. Nat’s PORTER/DUPONTmodel. 

More knowledge came from the Museum’s new Steam exhibit generously funded by the Van Beuren Charitable Foundation and the Norman Foundation.  Bill Lynn, Mike Rossi, Dave Spencer and Sandy Lee did the research and exhibit development and Evelyn Ansel led the installation. 

Sandy Lee volunteered the journals and materials of RADM Tattnall Nichols; first-hand accounts of the U.S. Navy during the doldrums following the Civil War. Sandy’s RELIANCE modeland Steam Launch HMCo. 199 Projects have led to a better understanding of what HMCo., its foremen and craftsmen did, and how they did it.  

Kurt Hasselbalch, former Curator Hart Nautical Collections MIT Museum, produced Lighter, Stronger, Faster: The Herreshoff Legacy Exhibit and oversaw the digitization of the HMCo. plans collection, previously loaned and then donated to MIT by Rudolph Haffenreffer. 

Claas van der Linde, Herreshoff researcher extraordinaire, has put it all together with the Herreshoff Catalogue Raisonnèthe place to start any research into things Herreshoff.

And on the Navy side of things, the Hathiway Trust has made available online the Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Navy.  These documents not only include the Secretary’s report but the reports to him from the Navy Bureaus; the latter often including reports from subordinate Navy commands such as U.S. Naval Torpedo Station Newport.

[1] Nathanael G. Herreshoff diary entry Dec 21, 1896. Diary access courtesy Halsey C. Herreshoff. PORTER shows a high freeboard because she is not fully outfitted nor loaded with stores and consumables.

[2] John W. Streeter (annotated). Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, William Piccard Stephens: Their Last Letters 1930-1938 (Bristol, RI: Herreshoff Marine Museum, 1988). Letter #3 NGH to WPS, June 12, 1930, pg. 19.