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Whitehead faced competition from the American Lieutenant Commander John A.

Howell, whose own design, driven by a flywheel, was simpler and cheaper.

USS Cairo was the first warship to be sunk in 1862 by an electrically detonated mine. Hunley to sink USS Housatonic although the weapon was apt to cause as much harm to its user as to its target. The largest Whitehead torpedo was 18 in (46 cm) in diameter and 19 ft (5.8 m) long, made of polished steel or phosphor bronze, with a 200-pound (91 kg) gun-cotton warhead.

Spar torpedoes were also used; an explosive device was mounted at the end of a spar up to 30 feet (9.1 m) long projecting forward underwater from the bow of the attacking vessel, which would then ram the opponent with the explosives. Rear Admiral David Farragut's famous/apocryphal command during the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead! It was propelled by a three-cylinder Brotherhood engine, using compressed air at around 1,300 psi (9.0 MPa) and driving two contra-rotating propellers, and was designed to self-regulate its course and depth as far as possible. Whitehead also opened a factory at St Tropez in 1890 that exported torpedoes to Brazil, Holland, Turkey and Greece.

The Howell torpedo was the only United States Navy model until Whitehead torpedoes produced by Bliss and Williams entered service in 1894.

Five varieties were produced, all 18 in (46 cm) diameter. Ships of the line were superseded by ironclads, large steam powered ships with heavy gun armament and heavy armour, in the mid 19th century.

In the early 1800s, the American inventor Robert Fulton, while in France, "conceived the idea of destroying ships by introducing floating mines under their bottoms in submarine boats." He coined the term "torpedo" in reference to the explosive charges he outfitted his submarine Nautilus. After the Austrian government decided to invest in the invention, Whitehead started the first torpedo factory in Fiume.

However, both the French and the Dutch governments were uninterested in the submarine. In 1870, he improved the devices to travel up to approximately 1,000 yd (910 m) at a speed of up to 6 kn (11 km/h), and by 1881 the factory was exporting torpedoes to ten other countries.

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From about 1900, torpedo has been used strictly to designate an underwater self-propelled weapon. By 1900, the term no longer included mines and booby-traps as the navies of the world added submarines, torpedo boats and torpedo boat destroyers to their fleets.Early spar torpedoes were created by the Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel in the employ of King James I of England; he attached explosives to the end of a beam affixed to one of his own submarines and they were used (to little effect) during the English expeditions to La Rochelle in 1626. After much work, Whitehead introduced his "secret" in 1868 which overcame this.An early submarine, the Turtle, attempted to lay a bomb with a timed fuse on the hull of HMS Eagle during the American Revolutionary War, but failed in the attempt. It was a mechanism consisting of a hydrostatic valve and pendulum that caused the torpedo's hydroplanes to be adjusted so as to maintain a preset depth.Fulton then concentrated on developing the torpedo independent of a submarine deployment. The torpedo was powered by compressed air and had an explosive charge of gun-cotton.On 15 October 1805, while in England, Fulton put on a public display of his "infernal machine", sinking the brig Dorothea with a submerged bomb filled with 180 lb (82 kg) of gunpowder and a clock set to explode in 18 minutes. Whitehead went on to develop more efficient devices, demonstrating torpedoes capable of 18 kn (33 km/h) in 1876, 24 kn (44 km/h) in 1886, and, finally, 30 kn (56 km/h) in 1890.

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