Thursday, July 5, 2012

Spanish-American War Torpedo

In the museum's Steel Navy gallery is a German-made torpedo recovered from the Spanish armored cruiser Vizcaya during the Spanish-American War.  Called a Schwarzkopf torpedo, it was named after its manufacturer, the L. Schwarzkopf Company of Berlin. (Note: It should not be confused with the  Schwarzkopf-Henkel Company, which makes personal hair care products for women).

The Spanish armored cruiser Vizcaya

The weapon used air compressed to 700 pounds per square inch as fuel.  This highly compressed air would then move the machinery necessary to move the propeller shaft.  Other equipment kept the torpedo running in a straight line and at a fixed depth.    Inside the warhead was 200 pounds of the powerful explosive nitro-cellulose.  This gave any small warship, such as a torpedo boat, the ability to sink the largest battleship in the enemy fleet. 

Because of its propulsion system, the weapon is called an "automobile," "locomotive," or "self-propelled " torpedo.  A "fixed" torpedo refers to what we now call submarine mines (see the 1864 expression "Damn the Torpedoes").    The invention of a self-propelled torpedo was one of the most sought-after discoveries of the mid to late 19th century.  Many inventors around the world spent their life savings and professional reputations attempting to create what many thought was the ultimate ship killer.  There were many prototypes, but it was British inventor Robert Whitehead who succeeded.   The Royal Navy and U.S. Navy both quickly adopted his design. 

Ironically, L. Schwarzkopf's primary business was the manufacturing of steam locomotives.  This company went into the weapons business by copying the Whitehead torpedo (possibly with the blessings of the British government).  The only difference was that Schwarzkopf torpedo casings were made out of copper, while Whitehead torpedoes were made out of steel.  The company sold the torpedo bearing its name to the German Navy as well as to the Italians, Japanese, and Spanish.  

This torpedo was just one of many different types of weapons the German Empire sold to the Spanish military.  It also provided Mauser rifles,  Mauser C96 pistols, and Maxim machine guns.  The German Empire also provided several hundred advisers to the Spanish military.  A U.S. Navy squadron off the coast of Cuba sank Vizcaya during the 1898 Battle of Santiago. 

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