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More on torpedoes

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  • carlw4514@yahoo.com
    I have been trying to find out a little more on the Hunley and related topics, and I thought I might start sharing some of this with the group. The torpedo,
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 29, 2001
      I have been trying to find out a little more on the Hunley and
      related topics, and I thought I might start sharing some of this with
      the group.
      The torpedo, called a mine today, was not a new invention. The
      further development of the submarine, not new either, was in large
      part motivated by the realization that recent improvements in the
      means of ignition for rifles and artillery were proving to be usable
      for the torpedo and clearly improving this device, spawning ideas for
      more active, mobile means of using the weapon than as a static mine.
      Actually, the first Confederate torpedoes used were drift
      torpedoes, believed to be constructed under the supervision of the
      South's premier scientist, Matthew F. Maury, set loose on July 7,
      1861, in the Potomac; these were failures, as they were intercepted
      and the 40 foot long, coiled burning fuzes, the means of exploding the
      torpedo, were simply cut or extinguished.
      Maury soon learned from this, and is credited with developing the
      Galvanic torpedo, which was exploded by passing electric current
      through platinum wire implanted into a bulb filled with fulminate of
      mercury. Fulminate of mercury was the same material used in the
      percussion cap, an invention that replaced the flintlock ignition
      system with a more reliable, easier way to ignite the powder in the
      infantry musket. Unfortunately, to make these torpedoes the
      Confederacy was in extremely short supply of the materials needed,
      including platinum wire. The insulated cable needed was secured in
      1862 only when a Union underwater cable project was found abandoned
      near Fort Monroe, and this insulated wire was believed to all be used
      for torpedoes in the James River. It is therefore likely that claims
      of galvanic torpedoes being used by the Confederacy in the West were
      flights of imagination.
      The friction primer replaced the use of a fine powder as a
      firing mechanism in the vent of the cannon; previously this powder was
      poured in and lit to fire a cannon. The new method used a serrated
      wire in a tube containing a special compound (NOT fulminate of
      mercury) that produced sparks when the wire was pulled through,
      igniting first the powder in the tube. The tube's design directed
      these burning gasses into the cannon and fired the powder there. As
      for the use of the torpedo in the west, this friction primer proved to
      be a reliable means of firing a torpedo, as illustrated in the
      Fretwell torpedo, which sunk at least two U.S. ironclads, the CAIRO
      and the BARON DE KALB. The Fretwell was a five gallon demijohn filled
      with black powder and set up to explode with one of these friction
      primers. The resourceful Isaac Brown, who manages to show up in many
      of the Confederacy's brighter naval moments, apparently was involved
      in the sinking of both vessels with Fretwells. The CAIRO's officers
      seemed to be convinced that they had been sunk by a Galvanic torpedo,
      so that is in dispute. Brown, writing after the war, describes using
      wire to suspend these torpedoes in the middle of the channel, so "...
      connected with the friction tube inside as to ignite when a vessel
      should come in contact with the wire" and says both ironclads were
      sunk this way. It is known that he was present for the sinking of the
      When Farragut invaded Mobile bay, he was able to say damn the
      torpedoes and get away with it because he had found out that the
      Confederate torpedoes had been allowed to degrade. Flag Lt. John C.
      Watson was a little known hero of that engagement; he went out in the
      middle of the night on multiple occasions to covertly examine the
      torpedoes, finding out that they had been affected by sea water and
      even sea worms, and was able to reassure Farragut about this and also
      describe how the mine field was laid out. Nonetheless, the monitor
      class ironclad TECUMSEH was sunk by one of these torpedoes, and when
      Farragut gave his famous order to go full steam ahead anyway, knowing
      in fact he was heading through the mine field, the crews of the ships
      distinctly heard the sound of primers firing otherwise inoperable
      torpedoes as they went through. Judging by this, the type of torpedo
      that sank the TECUMSEH most likely was to be ignited by a percussion
      cap inside a metal blister, another method of exploding torpedoes that
      had been found to be effective.
      There were in fact a number of inventions which employed some
      mechanical devise for striking a percussion cap and exploding a
      torpedo, not necessarily named after anyone, and some having quite the
      home-made flavor. My favorite is the drift torpedo employed on the
      Stono River in South Carolina, which consisted of a musket, wood stock
      and all, pointing down into a barrel of gunpowder and attached to
      fenders which when pushed employed a simple mechanical devise to pull
      on the trigger of the musket and ignite the works. These torpedoes are
      credited with nearly sinking the U.S.S. PAWNEE, on August 16, 1863,
      with 4 exploding near it, one under her stern, sinking a launch; no
      one seems to doubt that they were capable of sinking her with a little
      bit better luck as to where they exploded.
      On the other end of the scale as far as modern design, Galvanic
      or electric torpedoes did find some success on the James River,
      sinking the COMMODORE JONES in 1864 after a near miss nearly sank the
      COMMODORE BARNEY in 1863. The understanding of electricity was in its
      infancy, of course, and this lead to some failures when the
      Confederacy wanted to use these devices at Ft. Fisher, NC, and at
      Charleston, SC. Various problems included accidental discharge due to
      lightning strikes, cables shorting out due to heavy wagons being
      allowed to run over them, and cables which were too long for direct
      current to overcome the build up of resistance. It is disputed which
      of these last two problems were responsible for the failure to sink
      the U.S.S. NEW IRONSIDES, which sat directly over a huge Galvanic
      torpedo while its Confederate operators furiously tried to explode it
      during the failed Union assault on Ft. Sumter in April 1863.
      I have not described all the torpedoes I came across while
      researching this, but would be glad to hear from anyone who has other
      interesting accounts of devices or incidents.
      More to come on the Hunley, etc., in future.

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