Whitehead, Robert

Whitehead, Robert
SUBJECT AREA: Weapons and armour
b. 3 January 1823 Bolton-le-Moors, Lancashire, England
d. 19 November 1903 Shrivenham, Wiltshire, England
English inventor of the torpedo.
At the age of 14 Whitehead was apprenticed by his father, who ran a cotton-bleaching business, to an engineering firm in Manchester. He moved in 1847 to join his uncle, who was the Manager of another engineering firm, and three years later Whitehead set up on his own in Milan, where he made mechanical improvements to the silk-weaving industry and designed drainage machines for the Lombardy marshes.
In 1848 he was forced to move from Italy because of the revolution and settled in Fiume, which was then part of Austria. There he concen-. trated on designing and building engines for warships, and in 1864 the Austrians invited him to participate in a project to develop a "floating torpedo". In those days the torpedo was synonymous with the underwater mine, and Whitehead believed that he could do better than this proposal and produce an explosive weapon that could propel itself through the water. He set to work with his son John and a mechanic, producing the first version of his torpedo in 1866. It had a range of only 700 yd (640 m) and a speed of just 7 knots (13 km/h), as well as depth-keeping problems, but even so, especially after he had reduced the last problem by the use of a "balance chamber", the Austrian authorities were sufficiently impressed to buy construction rights and to decorate him. Other navies quickly followed suit and within twenty years almost every navy in the world was equipped with the Whitehead torpedo, its main attraction being that no warship, however large, was safe from it. During this time Whitehead continued to improve on his design, introducing a servo-motor and gyroscope, thereby radically improving range, speed and accuracy.
Principal Honours and Distinctions
Order of Max Joseph (Austria) 1868. Légion d'honneur 1884. Whitehead also received decorations from Prussia, Denmark, Portugal, Italy and Greece.
Further Reading
Dictionary of National Biography, 1912, Vol. 3, Suppl. 2, London: Smith, Elder.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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