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