In 1867 Robert Whitehead, an expatriate British engineer working in Austria-Hungary wrote to the Admiralty offering to sell them the rights to his radical new locomotive torpedo. In 1871 after extensive trials the Navy purchased a license to build and use Whitehead torpedoes, with the Director of Naval Ordnance, Astley Cooper-Key viewing the weapon as ‘one of the very highest importance to any maritime power’. Having bought the torpedo the Royal Navy struggled over the next 30 years to fully institutionalise it. Difficulties over how and where to deploy the torpedo and what was the most suitable platform to operate it from all played their role it this process. At its heart, however was the problem that the weapon did not fit easily with the Service’s strategic outlook. The power of submarine explosions to sink ships was not in dispute, but questions as to their suitability for a navy seeking to command the sea remained stubbornly difficult to answer.
This essay aims to explore the relationship between strategy and dissonant technology within an advanced military organisation. The nineteenth century Royal Navy was a technologically progressive service, with very clear ideas as to its strategic aims. The Service’s relationship with the Whitehead torpedo does however go some way to expose the problems produced by trying to institutionalise a technology which tends to operate on different strategic principles to those embodied by the organisation.
By Richard Dunley, King’s College London