May 11, 2021

The Herreshoff Brothers and their Torpedo Boats, Part III: LIGHTNING – a win for the Herreshoff System

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

LIGHTNING (HMCo. #20), the United States Navy’s first torpedo boat in Newport waters, 1876. Sepia tone photograph. Workshop buildings in the background. Torpedo boat in the foreground. Portside View of boat.
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by John Palmieri


Our story begins with the election of President Grant in November 1868 and covers the ascendancy of Vice Admiral Porter to leadership of the Navy, the establishment of the Torpedo Station in Newport Rhode Island, development of the Herreshoff safety coil boiler, the acquisition of LIGHTNING and the recognition of the superiority of the Herreshoff System.

See on-line THE HERRESHOFF CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ for detailed information on HMCo. # vessels including photos, half model images and descriptive documents

LIGHTNING (HMCo. #20), the United States Navy’s first torpedo boat in Newport waters, 1876. Sepia tone photograph. Workshop buildings in the background. Torpedo boat in the foreground. Portside View of boat.

Figure 1- LIGHTNING the 20th steam vessel built by John Brown Herreshoff and the U.S. Navy’s first purpose-built, high-speed spar torpedo boat (US Navy Photo)

Vice Admiral David Dixon Porter in Charge

Dealing with Isherwood

Ulysses S. Grant was elected President in November 1868. In January 1869 Grant advised Congress that it was his intention to appoint Porter, an active-duty Navy officer, as his Secretary of the Navy. Congress objected to this challenge to civilian control, therefore following his inauguration on March 4, 1869 Grant installed a figurehead Secretary, Adolph E. Borie, and five days later ordered Porter to Wash. DC by special train to take effective charge of the Navy. Outgoing Secretary Welles commented Borie “was a passive tool. He is now a mere clerk to Vice Admiral Porter.”[1]

[1] Richard S. West Jr. The Second Admiral: A Life of David Dixon Porter. (New York: Coward McCann, Inc. 1937) Pgs. 315-18.

On his first day in office, March 10, Porter issued a pile of general orders enhancing line officer control of the Navy,[2] including the nomination to Congress of James W. King to be Chief of the Bureau Steam Engineering (BuSteam). Six days later he removed Isherwood, then 47, reduced his rank to commander and ordered him to the Mare Island Navy Yard located at the northern end of San Francisco Bay - as far from Washington as it was possible to send an Engineering staff officer. Porter then established a line board to examine “all steam machinery afloat.” The majority report submitted September 1869 was a sweeping condemnation of all steam engines built under Isherwood’s direction. (A direct repudiation of the 1864 House Committee on Naval Affairs positive report of Isherwood’s engines discussed in Part 2 Civil War and its Aftermath.)

[2] New York Herald reported in first 48 hours more general orders were issued then in the previous two years. Paul Lewis, Yankee Admiral (A Biography of David Dixon Porter). (McKay Co. New York 1968). Pg. 183.

Isherwood served out his career as one of many chief engineers, but one with special technical influence. In Nov. 1871 he escaped Mare Island returning to his home in New York City where he began serving as the senior member of various naval engineering boards and investigations. He retired from the Navy in Oct. 1884, at age 62, and in recognition of his accomplishments in over 40 years of service was promoted to a Rear Admiral.[3] (Figure 2)

[3] Sloan, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood Naval Engineer. Pgs. 228-41.

Commodore B. Franklin Isherwood USN - Black and white photo of a man with curly hair in navy uniform, photo is taken torso-up and the edges are faded

Figure 2- “Commodore B. Franklin Isherwood USN (A fine picture)” Caption on reverse of photo in Nat Herreshoff’s hand. Source Nathanael G. Herreshoff Collection. Access courtesy Halsey C. Herreshoff.

Torpedo Corps and the Newport Torpedo Station

In July 1869 Porter took the first steps to correct the Navy’s deficiency in torpedo warfare. He directed the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance (BuOrd) to organize a Torpedo Corps manned by line officers and to establish a torpedo station to be located on former army land on Coasters Harbor Island Newport, RI., where the engineering, development, experimentation and training were to be conducted. The Torpedo Corps was assigned total system responsibility to develop the torpedo as a weapon- the explosives, torpedoes, electric generators, batteries and torpedo boats. No staff officer- constructor, steam engineer or their Bureaus had authority- they participated only at the behest of the Torpedo Corps.[4]

[4] Thomas Wildenberg and Norman Polmar. Ship Killers: A History of the American Torpedo. (Annapolis, MD, USNI Press, 2010) pgs. 16-17.

The Torpedo Corps was initially led by “Porter’s boys” who carefully selected high performing junior officers to staff the Corps. As evidence of this:

  • • The first commander of the Torpedo Corps, LCDR Edmond O. Matthews, had been Gunnery Dept. Head at the Naval Academy, where he had conducted torpedo experiments under Porter’s direction. [5]
  • • Capt. K. R. Breese commanding the Torpedo Station 1875-78 had been one of Porter’s Mortar Flotilla Division Commander’s, Fleet Captain of Porter’s Northern Blockading Squadron and his number two at the Naval Academy.
  • • Among the young officers selected for the Corps, George Converse, and early commanding officers of the first sea-going torpedo boat, Herreshoff’s CUSHING (TB-1)- Cameron Winslow, Frank Fletcher and Albert Gleaves- all made flag rank.

The Torpedo Corps and torpedo development was the one new experimental/developmental initiative in the Secretary’s Annual Report of 1869. Otherwise, the watch words, in the Navy continuing through the 1870s, were economy and efficiency of a small fleet designed for overseas commerce protection, together with coastal and harbor defense.[6]

[6] “Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, George M. Robison, Dec. 3, 1869.” House of Representatives 41st Congress 2nd Session; Message of the President of the United States with Reports of The Postmaster General and of The Secretary of the Navy, (Washington GPO 1869) Pgs. 14-15

The Newport location was significant in facilitating John Brown Herreshoff’s ability to introduce his technology to the officers of the Torpedo Corps. In August 1870, with his newly launched 38-foot open steam yacht ANEMONE (HMCo #4), John began the practice of making high-speed turns about Newport harbor in his newest boat for all to see, offering rides, disclosing particulars of each vessel, and hosting visits of his building yard.[7]

[7] Providence Evening News Aug. 24, 1870. Recounts a reporter’s ride in ANEMONE. This is not to imply that John did not advertise his vessels along much of the Atlantic coast. He conducted publicized demonstrations in New York City, Norfolk Navy Yard, Savannah, and the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. See “Advertising the Herreshoff Way”, Curator Log, October 2013.

While providing John with a unique opportunity there was a downside that became apparent in 1889 when BuOrd’s Torpedo Corps lost its system responsibility for the torpedo boat. Thereafter, torpedo boat competitors, who had been working closely with the Bureaus of C&R, and Steam on other vessel types, gained a leg up on Herreshoff.

Admiral of the Navy Porter

[4] Thomas Wildenberg and Norman Polmar. Ship Killers: A History of the American Torpedo. (Annapolis, MD, USNI Press, 2010) pgs. 16-17.

After three months of humiliation, Borie resigned. The new Secretary, George Robison, slowly worked to ease Porter out of his position of control, aided by Porter’s declining health. In a year Porter was out. Following Admiral Farragut’s death, Porter was confirmed by the Senate in January 1871, as the Admiral of the Navy; a lifetime appointment as the senior officer of the Navy; a job without fleet command, but the responsibility “to lay before the Secretary of the Navy a report on the present condition of the Navy and offer such professional suggestions as may further promote its discipline and efficiency”. This included the responsibility to oversee material inspections of the fleet. Porter took full opportunity of his position to influence policy with lengthy annual reports and engaged in correspondence with and testimony before Congress. His reports often included details on developing naval technology that one might expect from the Bureaus. Over time his influence waned. The Secretary Robeson included Porter’s report in his annual reports of 1870-75; then stopped without comment. Porter undeterred wrote them every year.[8] [9] In 1881 incoming Secretary of the Navy, William Hunt, brought a new energy, “to see to it that the Navy of the United States should not be left to perish through inaction, but should be restored to a condition of usefulness.” He sought new ideas from a Naval Advisory Board as well as Admiral Porter, publishing again the latter’s annual report from 1881-1889. (We explore this subject later in this paper.)[10]

[8] Tamara Moser Melia “David Dixon Porter: Fighting Sailor” from James C. Bradford, Editor, Captains of the Old Steam Navy: Makers of the American Naval Tradition 1840-1880. (Annapolis, MD; Naval Institute Press 1986). Pg. 242.

[9] The David Porter and David Dixon Porter Papers, 1803-1889 are housed in the Manuscript Division, William L. Clements Library, Univ. Of Michigan. ( In the collection is a 200+ Page document titled “My Career in the Navy Department”. It is bound with string & is too fragile to photocopy or scan. It has not been indexed. What that may add to the story we do not know.

[10] Annual Report of The Secretary of the Navy November 28, 1881. (Washington GPO 1881) Pg.5.

Porter Endorses an Expensive Distraction

[4] Thomas Wildenberg and Norman Polmar. Ship Killers: A History of the American Torpedo. (Annapolis, MD, USNI Press, 2010) pgs. 16-17.

In January 1871 Congress, acting largely on the recommendations of Admiral Porter, authorized $600,000 for construction of two iron-plated, spar torpedo equipped rams. The 158-foot, 340-ton ALARM, built by the New York Navy Yard “entirely from designs by Admiral Porter“ and the BuC&R /BuSteam designed, Boston Navy Yard built, 170-foot, 450 ton INTREPID. ALARM, armed with a 15-inch gun achieved a speed of 10 knots, powered by four 80 psi boilers and a pair of compound engines driving a single propeller. ALARM was used experimentally for about 10 years. INTREPID proved unsatisfactory and served for less time.[11] These large vessels were a distraction, wasting limited funds at a time when other navies were beginning to explore the “movable” automobile torpedo.

[11] “Navy Appropriation Bill” Army and Navy Journal, January 28, 1871. “The Torpedo Boat (ALARM) Launched”. New York Herald November 13, 1873. “INTREPID recently launched.” Army and Navy Journal, July 18, 1874. “Torpedo Boats ALARM & INTREPID”, Report of Adm Porter Wash. Nov. 7, 1874 contained in 43rd Congress Beginning of Second Session; Report of The Secretary of the Navy, (Washington GPO 1874) pgs. 204-20.

The Newport Years

[4] Thomas Wildenberg and Norman Polmar. Ship Killers: A History of the American Torpedo. (Annapolis, MD, USNI Press, 2010) pgs. 16-17.

Throughout his time as Admiral of the Navy, Porter maintained his residence in Washington DC and a Rhode Island summer home; first in Narragansett and in 1888 a “pretty cottage” in Jamestown. It is apparent from the “Newport (RI) Jottings” column of the US Army and Navy Journal and Gazette and the archives of the Newport Daily News that during these years Porter visited Newport for days at a time. Porter died in 1891.[12] [13]

[13] “Admiral Porter’s Big D”. Newport Aug. 5. Army and Navy Journal, Aug. 11, 1888.

[12] West, The Second Admiral, Pgs. 325-336.

Herreshoff VISION (HMCo #14) & the Safety Coil Boiler

[4] Thomas Wildenberg and Norman Polmar. Ship Killers: A History of the American Torpedo. (Annapolis, MD, USNI Press, 2010) pgs. 16-17.

Admiral Porter Shakes Things Up- Newport Summer 1873 [14]

[4] Thomas Wildenberg and Norman Polmar. Ship Killers: A History of the American Torpedo. (Annapolis, MD, USNI Press, 2010) pgs. 16-17.

[14] Report of Adm Porter Oct 22, 1873. Contained in 43rd Congress Beginning of First Session; Report of The Secretary of the Navy, (Washington GPO 1873) Pg. 276.

Porter spent a “two-month sojourn” in Newport concerned with what he perceived as a lack of interest in torpedo development. He was not happy with what he found.

“Among the officers who have studied at the torpedo station, I have met with no one who had invented anything or proposed any improvement on what has been done before. I think this is because they are not sufficiently interested.”

There was too much theoretical, and insufficient practice. There were no high-speed launches suitable for torpedo work. He also strongly advocated for the Navy to immediately publish the torpedo testing activities at Newport to better inform our own officers- “We are not so much in advance of the rest of the world that we need to keep the torpedo matters secret.”[15]

[15] Quote on publicizing torpedo developments from Report of Adm Porter Wash. Nov. 7, 1874 contained in 43rd Congress Beginning of Second Session; Report of The Secretary of the Navy, (Washington GPO 1874) Pg. 216.

Porter’s comments reinforced a July 1872 “Report of Examination of Officers Under Instructions in Torpedo- Service; US Naval Torpedo Station Newport” by a board headed by RADM John Rodgers. It recommended as “indispensable” the need for “a vessel of such speed, steering qualities, and dimensions, as will render her fit for making experiments in harbor-water and at sea with all classes of spar and towing torpedoes”.[16]

[16] “BuOrd Annual Report Oct. 17, 1872”. Contained in 42nd Congress Beginning of Third Session; Report of The Secretary of the Navy, (Wash. DC GPO 1872). Pg. 54.

Herreshoff - Creating the Technology for Speed

[4] Thomas Wildenberg and Norman Polmar. Ship Killers: A History of the American Torpedo. (Annapolis, MD, USNI Press, 2010) pgs. 16-17.

John Brown Herreshoff employed about 20 workers at his works in Bristol. He had been building steam vessels since 1868. Twenty-five-year-old Nat works for the Corliss Steam Engine Company in Providence as a draftsman and designs for John at night and on the weekends.  In 1873 John has few orders. He has had to let go some workers and is looking for technology to grow the business. Increased boat speed is on his agenda.

In 1874, a physically run-down Nat takes leave from Corliss and goes to Europe where he receives two letters. In April older brother James provides the details of the “worm boiler” he has invented, and John has back fit into the 30-foot yacht CREST (HMCo #12). He relates John’s plans to install it “fast” into a bigger boat.[17]

[17] James B. Herreshoff letter to Nathanael G. Herreshoff dated April 19, 1874. Nathanael G. Herreshoff Correspondence Folder 25; Herreshoff Model Room Archive Boxes. Access courtesy Halsey C. Herreshoff.

James B. Herreshoff (1834-1930), the elder brother of the family, studied chemistry at Brown University and was subsequently employed as a manufacturing chemist. He left industry in 1870, to become a prolific inventor, spending extended periods of time abroad, primarily in England. Although James had no formal or substantive connection with the boat building business that John started and continued in partnership with Nat, he often offered unsolicited design ideas from his fertile brain. For example, the “sheets with sketches of boats and engines” he mailed to Nat during Nat’s time at Corliss.[18] After the success of LIGHTNING James represented HMCo in England and Europe, and it was through James that Englishman George R. Dunell became acquainted with Herreshoff, selling HMCo launches and torpedo boats to both the British Admiralty and the Russian Navy.

[18] Jeannette Brown Herreshoff, The Early Founding and Development of the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company. Rinaldi Printing Co. Tampa FL, 1949. Pages are not numbered. (Available Herreshoff Marine Museum archives) Quote is from an 1872 letter from Nat to James thanking him for the material.

In a May 1874 letter John, recognizing the advantage the new boiler brings to his business, encourages Nat to work with James upon his return to make something of the new invention. There is obvious tension between the two innovative brothers - Nat and James. John hopefully writes to Nat there is “room for both”. In a smart marketing move he has changed the boiler’s name to “coil”, which certainly should sell better than “worm.”[19]