August 18, 2021

The Herreshoff Brothers and their Torpedo Boats, Part IV: Preparing for a STILETTO

A series of papers on bringing innovation to the “New Navy”

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by John Palmieri

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


STILETTO was born out of the quest for torpedo warfare technological parity with Europe that engaged both Herreshoff and the US Navy- each for their own purposes and in their own way.

There was much to be done before the Herreshoff brothers were prepared to design and build a STILETTO and before the US Navy had the Congressionally supported institutional plans to develop the need for such a high-speed vessel. Those preparations are the subject of Part 4.

For the Herreshoff Brothers this meant building upon the widely publicized successes of VISION and LIGHTNING by-

• Leveraging the increased orders they fostered to establish the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. (HMCo) structured upon a continuing set of business principles.

• Testing their latest designs in Europe, while simultaneously assessing by examination the latest English steam and torpedo boat technology.

• Obtaining and applying Froude’s latest model testing theories in an unprecedented experimental model test program influencing HMCo steam vessel hull designs for the next 10 years.

• Continuing development of their boiler and engine designs supporting an aggressive marketing strategy for civilian yachts and launches as well as specific segments of US Navy torpedo boats and their machinery.

For the US Navy this meant

• Reversing 15 years of zero technology development, save for the little done by the Torpedo Corps at the Newport Torpedo Station, by creating a credible (in the view of Congress) naval advisory system to develop the plans for a modern steel navy; where torpedo boats and automobile torpedoes were a small, but technically advanced segment pushed hard by Admiral Porter and the Torpedo Corps.

• Supporting the process by fostering the development of a domestic steel industry and conducting individual European naval assessments and the purchase of ship and machinery designs.

These efforts took place during a time of significant change in shipbuilding, and we start our story with as overview of that time and where the leading torpedo boat builders including Herreshoff fit in the shipbuilding universe.

Figure 1– The 94-foot STILETTO (WTB-1)- the 118th steam vessel built by the Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. as converted for torpedo boat service. Launching a Howell automobile torpedo from the bow tube c. 1890. (US Navy Photo)

Background- Shipbuilding 1880-1900[1]

The HMCo was founded during a transformative 20-year period where marine technology changed from design by “rule of thumb” accomplished by draftsman possessing only drawing skills, to a systematic, scientific design approach requiring trained engineers. Pushing this change were customers with “increasingly prescriptive” contracts and specifications including performance guarantees. At the same time small family-owned shipyards were being replaced by larger vertically integrated businesses directed by professional managers where products were built through standardized processes.

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

Leading the transformation were the large shipyards on the River Clyde in Scotland (William Denny, J & G Thomson and Robert Napier & Sons) followed by those in the Philadelphia region of the Delaware River. The Delaware River shipyards “were a distant second place” to the Clyde because-

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

1.  The overall American industrial revolution was behind that of Britain.

2.  The abundant American wood supply delayed the transition to iron and steel hulls.

3.  In Britain scientifically based naval architecture was fostered by the establishment of the Institution of Naval Architects (INA) (today the RINA) in 1860 and the opening of the first school of naval architecture and marine engineering in 1864. While in America the American Society of Naval Engineers (ASNE) was not founded until 1888 by steam engineers in the Bureau of Steam Engineering (BuSteam) followed by the larger Society of Naval Architects & Marine Engineers (SNAME) in 1893 (with Nat Herreshoff as one of the 22 members of the governing Council).[2] American education in naval architecture and marine engineering did not start until 1894.  

The leading Delaware River shipyards were William Cramp & Sons founded in 1825, Harlan and Hollingsworth founded in 1837 and John Roach & Sons founded in 1864. In 1870 John Roach toured the Clyde yards to understand their techniques and organization. Returning home he changed his yard to a vertically integrated plant, adding the production of steel plate, frames, boilers, and piping, and increasing its staff by 50% to 1500 employees.  Aided by the US Navy’s transfer of British technology in the form of detail drawings of cruisers and compound steam engines, Roach in 1883 won contracts for the first ships of the New American Steel Navy- known as the ABCD ships. (Figure 2 and Figure 3).

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

Figure 2 Protected Cruiser CHICAGO. Port bow 1891 National Archives 512894

Figures 3 dispatch vessel DOLPHIN. Undated National Archives 512895

Below the large shipyards but no less advanced were the developing Herreshoff Manufacturing Co. (HMCo) in America, Thornycroft and Yarrow, the two leading British torpedo boat builders located on the river Thames, and Normand in Le Havre, France. (Figure 4). The British publication IRON, summarized in 1883, “The torpedo-boats of Thorneycroft and Yarrow in England, and of Herreshoff in the-United States, illustrate the most successful practice of today, and their attainment of speeds exceeding twenty miles an hour may be accepted as the most remarkable triumphs of recent mechanical engineering.”[3]  (Not out of character for the Brits not to recognize the French Company Normand.) All were vertically integrated, designing and manufacturing their own boilers and engines.  Thornycroft, Yarrow and Normand were active in the Transactions of the INA; Thornycroft and Yarrow both engaged in experimental and theoretical studies of ship resistance.[4]

Herreshoff we will explore in more detail. Suffice it to say for now that while family managed, Herreshoff engineered its products in a “systematic, scientific approach” at the direction of an educated and well-experienced engineer, excelled at manufacturing standards/process improvement, and was vertically integrated because of the brothers’ decision to build everything that they designed.

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

Figure 4: The Torpedo Boatbuilders

John Thornycroft (1843- 1928)

1866 steam boats, fast yachts;


Alfred Yarrow (1842-1932)

1865 steam river launches; Early 1870s TBs

Jacques-Augustin Normand (1839-1906)

1871 6th generation shipbuilder; 1877 TBs

Torpedo boats required the most detail engineering and economy of material of any type of warship, save for maybe the submarine. Light hulls were highly stressed. Fittings and machinery were of the lightest weight and compact design. Use of the water tube boiler (a Herreshoff innovation see later comments by Nathaniel Barnaby former Director of Naval Construction, British Admiralty) and high RPM triple/quadruple expansion engines drove machinery weight to as low as 50 lbs./ihp vs. 200-300 lbs./ihp for the best large contemporary warships.[5]

Thornycroft, Yarrow and Normand were the same age as John Brown Herreshoff. John Thornycroft started building steamboats in 1866 at age 23, Alfred Yarrow started at the same time. Normand, from a shipbuilding family, took over the family firm in 1871. Nat may have visited the Thornycroft Cheswick (Chiswick) yard during his 1874 cruise in RIVIERA.[6] The three had a friendly rivalry, writing and commenting upon each other’s technical papers. They were well supported by their governments. Early on the Admiralty had decided to depend fully on private industry for the design and construction of its torpedo boats and their machinery. They also encouraged the design and construction of torpedo boats for foreign navies as well as the foreign sale of drawings- including to the US Navy. The French Navy had similar policies.

At about the time Herreshoff was building the one-offs STILETTO and CUSHING with a workforce 100-200, both Thornycroft and Yarrow employed 1000-1200 men and were building tens of torpedo boats per year.[7]

Founding the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company (HMCo)

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

As 1877 dawned, the 36-year-old John Brown Herreshoff, supported by Nat’s design talents, had been directing the building of boats, marketing and negotiating their sales for 14 years, both on his own and in partnership, exhibiting an “invincible determination and persistence” for success.[8] The catalysts for the next step, the creation of a lasting partnership in the form of the HMCo, were the expansion of the business brought on by the success of the coil boiler, mother Julia’s desire for Nat to work with and support John as he had since the age of eight, and most importantly Nat’s development as an engineer.

For a full understanding of Nat Herreshoff’s development as an engineer and the person he had become by 1877 the reader is referred to Jim Giblin’s, “Nathaniel Greene Herreshoff Steam Engineer: the Corliss Years”, Herreshoff Marine Museum Code Flag Lima #63. In this well researched paper Jim answers the important questions as to how Nat’s MIT education as a mechanical engineer, his European trip of 1874, and career at the Corliss Steam Engine Company developed him as a steam engineer and prepared him to be the designer and superintendent of the works of the HMCo. Nothing can be more important to understanding Nat Herreshoff, for as he himself wrote in his draft autobiography he was first a “marine engineer” and then a “yacht designer”.[9]

A “marine engineer” of the time encompassed both mechanical engineering and steam engineering.  For me, Benjamin Isherwood was the most accurate in characterizing Nat Herreshoff. On COLUMBIA’s 1899 Americas Cup win he wrote to Nat, “The real great men of a country are its great Engineers and Constructors, and you stand at the head of both professions.”[10]

The “Brother’s Agreement” of founding principles for the HMCo with John as President and Treasurer, and Nat, at first as Designer, and shortly both Designer and Superintendent of the Works, is simply stated as follows-

  • • Borrow no money – John was to pay off debts accumulated in the lean years before the coil boiler. Going forward, there was to be no borrowing, rather prudent investment of profits into the business.
  • Best workers & material – No compromise to the elements that assure quality products.
  • Build only to our designs – A commitment to design superiority and continuing improvement.
  • Sell our designs to no one – The Herreshoff name has meaning. It is a guarantee of design and manufacture excellence..
  • Products advertise themselves – We are committed to excellence; every day, in everything we produce. Product performance, not words, underwrite our guarantees.
  • Contract only with those willing to pay the price – We sell and compete on performance.

It was an optimistic and aggressive posture. Optimistic– they believed that in any field they entered they could both develop competitive designs and manufacture them at a profit. Aggressive- in every field they entered they meant to compete at the top level.

The plan in practice was this- tell us what you want it to do, but not how. We will design and build it for you, and we will guarantee its performance. A good example is William Randolph Hearst. He wanted the fastest boat on the West Coast. It was agreed that 25 knots would do it. So Herreshoff designed and built the 112-ft. VAMOOSE (HMCo #168) to do 25 knots. The contract stipulated that Hearst would not accept delivery if it failed to meet that speed. It did and delivery was accepted.[11]

Nat was justly proud of the company’s results in the high-performance sector of the steam market, noting in his 1930s draft biography in a non-bragging, matter of fact manner, “in no case did either the yachts or torpedo boats fall short of contract requirements as to speed or general conditions.”[12] [13]

At the founding of the expanding company there was much to be done. In addition to designing the new vessels, continually improving upon, and standardizing the designs of the coil boiler, steam engines, and all manner of vessel and machinery fittings, Nat was responsible for the factory expansion including design of new buildings, marine railways and docks as well as designing or selecting the shop machinery.

Nat Herreshoff the Engineer

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

L. Francis had a keen understanding of Nat’s work and habits. In a 1935 letter he offered insights to help paint a “word picture” of his father- [14]

[40] Annual Report of The Secretary of the Navy November 28, 1881. Washington GPO 1881 Pgs. 3, 5, 6.

  • • Nat “kept his eye on the ball” and devoted “many hours each day to his work… started very early (several hours before breakfast) and continued until three or more hours after supper.”
  • • He “undoubtedly modeled more boats than any other man. He also probably designed more models and sizes of steam engines than any one man.”
  • • He had an advantage over other designers whose products were built in different yards since all of his work was done in the HMCo shops with which he was completely familiar and therefore able to keep the work at a high standard and true to the design.
  • • He was “relieved from much business and financial worry by his brother John.”
  • • “Like any one who beats others in their profession, (he) did a great deal of original thinking. He developed his own formulas and made his own tests of material, etc. He had the ability to make simple tests which showed the truth so that his mathematical calculations were based on something definite.”

Over his career Nat was responsible for several significant developments/accomplishments documented in listings as follows-

[40] Annual Report of The Secretary of the Navy November 28, 1881. Washington GPO 1881 Pgs. 3, 5, 6.

  • • “Developments of Nathanael G. Herreshoff” by his son A. Griswold Herreshoff, Herreshoff Marine Museum Chronicle Spring 1981. Page 2.  This listing of 32 “Developments” is the most extensive of the three.
  • • “Some of Captain Nat’s Accomplishments” Captain Nat: The Wizard of Bristol, Chap. 15. By L. Francis Herreshoff (Sheridan House, New York) 1953. Pages 323-4. A 15-item list of “Accomplishments”.
  • • A listing of 9 items that Nat “developed to a useful state”, which L. Francis Herreshoff provided to English boat designer Uffa Fox in 1935. [15] (Click Here to view Attachment A). This list is of interest because there is a record of Nat’s comments about the list.[16]
  • ◦ #1 – The light steam engine; and first fast steam torpedo boats. Nat responds- “#1 light steam engine I cannot claim to be first for I was after Thornycroft.” Nat knew this because he had followed Thornycroft’s work in the Institution of Naval Architects (INA) Proceedings and had himself inspected Thornycroft’s HMS LIGHTNING in 1879.
  • ◦ #2 – Nearly all of the methods of constructing light wooden hulls we use today. Nat responds- “#2, – Light construction This interesting study began in earnest in 1874”. That is “light construction” began with VISION’s hull carrying the coil boiler and associated light steam machinery and as a “study” it continued throughout his career for both wood and metal hulls. It was a continuing process and achievement. It is no wonder that Nat took great offense when in 1897 the Navy Bureau of Construction & Repair (BuC&R) declared PORTER (TB-6) a “lesser product” partly because it was lighter weight than the Bureau design. It was lighter because Nat engineered it that way without compromise of hull strength.

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The Developing Herreshoff Manufacturing Company (HMCo)

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

In April 1878 father, Charles F. Herreshoff, led a reporter on a tour of the company, then employing 70 skilled craftsmen, and consisting of three main buildings, plus the lengthened 100 feet Old Tannery, a waterfront building yard and wharf. Expansion was evident everywhere. The blacksmith shop featured a new steam trip hammer, the machine shop was fitting up coil boilers and building steam engines. The two-story main building featured a new pattern shop, a sheet iron and brass shop for engine and boiler casings, as well as a blast furnace for heating iron frames and a frame bending machine “of novel construction” invented by Nat. Vessels under construction numbered about eight including the 45-foot yacht PUCK (HMCo #38), a 60-foot shoal draft side wheeler, KITTATINNY (HMCo #41) for US Mail service on the upper Delaware river, and the 135-foot wl. gunboat CLARA (HMCo #39) for the Spanish Government. CLARA featured a composite wooden hull with Iron frames, large 8 ft. 3 in. x 12 ft. coil boiler and a vertical compound (double expansion) condensing 300 hp engine.[17]

The article listed the company officials with John at the