December 13, 2021

The Herreshoff Brothers and their Torpedo Boats, Part V: HMCo. #118, STILETTO and the Torpedo Cruiser, 1883 – 1885

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


Part 4 developed the model test basis for the hull design of STILETTO (HMCo. #118) and identified the torpedo machinery and vessel business opportunities opening to Herreshoff. Part 5 covers the years 1883-1885, exploring how Capt. Nat Herreshoff’s torpedo boat hull HMCo. #118 came to be built as the yacht STILETTO, the torpedo cruiser collaboration with Admiral of the Navy David Dixon Porter and ends with a view to the opportunities and risks facing the Herreshoff’s in the following years. In telling the story of STILETTO we cannot be 100% sure we have it right. Neither John or Nat explained directly and completely the thinking and process that brought them to design and build STILETTO. They never wrote on the subject, save for comments by Nat in 1893 regarding the company’s experience combining in one vessel, most probably STILETTO, the characteristics of a torpedo boat and a high-speed yacht. Starting from that point in 1893 the story is developed from the latest research of Herreshoff and HMCo. records, correspondence from various sources, official US Navy records and contemporary newspaper accounts.

We are also near the time when Nathanael G. Herreshoff, came to be addressed as “Capt. Nat.” We certainly owe him that respect, and so address him going forward.

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)

Combining the Torpedo Boat and the Yacht

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

[1] Stewart A. McKenna & Larrie D. Ferreiro, “The Scientific and Management Revolution and Shipbuilding on the ‘Two Clydes’ 1880-1900.” Nautical Research Journal Vol.58, No. 2 Summer 2013. Pages 105-128. All information about the shipyards on the Clyde and the Delaware, their technology, and dates of the technology are taken from this research paper.

On November 16 & 17, 1893, the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME) held its inaugural meeting in New York City.  Naval architect William Gardner presented a paper titled. “The Steam Yacht as a Naval Auxiliary”. [1]

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

[1] All quotes from Gardner’s paper and Capt. Nat’s written critique are taken from Transactions of the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers 1893. Pages 219-225. Note: The printed critique has editorial changes from his pencil draft referenced in endnote (3). Below.  All important changes are noted.

William Gardner (1858-1934) entered Cornell University at age 15 and following graduation acquired a practical knowledge of shipbuilding working in the plate shop and foundry of John Roach’s Delaware River yard.  Inspired by two US Navy Constructors he entered US Government service and obtained entrance to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich England where he studied the design and construction of warships including torpedo boats, followed by two years practical work in the Clyde and Tyne River shipyards. Returning to the US in 1888, he established a successful naval architect firm in New York with many famous (mostly sail) yachts to his credit.[2]

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

In his paper Gardner noted, “The weakest branch of our naval service at the present time is unquestionably the torpedo-boat division. We have only two in service, with a third about completed.” (In service were Herreshoff’s conversion the wooden torpedo boat STILETTO (WTB-1) and their 138-foot steel sea-going torpedo boat CUSHING (TB-1); under construction at the Iowa Iron Works was the 150-foot ERICSSON (TB-2).) He postulated that a “type of steam yacht now being developed, is a vessel having good accommodations below, large deck-houses, high speed, light draft, the ability to turn quickly, and to get up steam and get underway at short notice. These characteristics, as far as they go are all in keeping with torpedo-boats.” He proposed an economical way to acquire a large fleet of torpedo boats was for the Government to offer “an inducement for men to build yachts adapted to this purpose”.

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

Under Gardener’s plan an owner would submit to the Navy “complete drawings of the vessel as a yacht and as a torpedo boat with specifications of the changes and additions to make the change.” Upon agreement by the Navy, the owner would be paid a subsidy towards building the vessel and to provide for any structural enhancements necessary to allow rapid conversion at a future date. 

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

Because the paper was late in submission there was no discussion, rather comments were solicited to be published later in the Transactions. Capt. Nat, one of the 22-member Council of the Society was requested by W. L. Capps of the Executive Committee, to submit a written critique of the paper. He was uniquely qualified for this task. He had done with STILETTO almost exactly what Gardner was proposing; created an efficient, low resistance, high speed hull for torpedo boat service, fitted it out as a yacht, and later reconfigured for torpedo boat service.   In his critique, Capt. Nat, strongly disagreed with Gardner and from that we can infer his thinking, and experience at that time, about the Herreshoff’s approach to torpedo boat design and construction.[3]

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

“The subject is one that has already come under the attention of our Company as builders of steam yachts and torpedo-boat for many years, and I am quite free to confess, after trying to combine the two, that the torpedo type for a yacht is not popular, and I think will never be with yachtsmen. The reasons are:

First. To obtain the very highest speeds the vessel and machinery have to be very lightly but strongly built, entailing great cost to construct. (In his pencil draft he wrote “double the cost to construct.”)

Second. In being so light the life is very much shortened, and the expense of repairs and up-keep is much greater. 

Third. On account of the machinery having to be designed with a smaller coefficient of safety, there is always a much greater risk of break-down, resulting in injuries or loss of life to the attendants.

 A passage in one of these high-speed boats is very exciting and exhilarating, but to the owner or any one responsible for the welfare of the crew, and who is going on the boat often, the exhilaration soon wears away, and the strain on the nerves, together with the bodily fatigue from the constant vibration will soon disgust any real yachtsman with a steamer that approaches anywhere near that of a torpedo-boat in speed. 

To get any comfort and pleasure in a steam yacht, about one-third of the torpedo boat’s speed has to be sacrificed, and such a craft would be utterly useless in place of a true torpedo-boat in actual serv