In the middle of the Civil War, two brothers in Bristol, Rhode Island started a ship yard that would make their name, Herreshoff, one of the most respected engineering names in the world: the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company.
John Brown Herreshoff was completely blind at age 15. He managed his own sail-boat building company until his brother, Nathaniel, joined him in 1878. John’s blindness did not prevent him from receiving commissions for boats that were renowned for their seaworthiness, speed and beauty. He used hull models and full hull models to make suggestions to improve the performance of the vessels.
Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, John’s brother, was known as the “Wizard of Rhode Island.” Nathan had worked long at building boats, and through photographic memory, he could help his brother correct ship designs. The brothers’ clean design and efficient engines captured the attention of the U.S. Navy. They were asked to place bids for new Navy torpedo boats.
The Herreshoff steam generator boilers were a significant breakthrough in small steam powered boat design. Their extremely light boiler design enabled them to fire up to a full head of steam in minutes. Not only were these water craft light, they were also fast.
The “Lighting” a double ender craft, was ordered by the US Bureau of Naval Ordnance, to be built at a cost of $5,000.00. The entire boat was so well built and so light that it could be stopped within her own length, while moving at full speed. She was a great test bed, and just too small to be a torpedo boat.
The brothers built the high-speed motor yacht, Stiletto and included a new engine design that gave her a remarkable speed of a sustained 20 knots and top speed of 26.5 knots, which was unheard of at that time. The hull was light-weight, wooden with five watertight bulkheads, and large compartments for engine room and crew. She had a forward conning tower that would earmark the outward design of all torpedo boats for years to come.
The Stiletto was purchased by the U.S.Navy on March 3, 1887, then ordered to the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport Rhode Island and later designated by the Navy as Wooden Torpedo Boat No. 1. This ship fired a torpedo from a deck mount in 1892. Thus she was the U.S. Navy boat to launch a self-propelled torpedo.
The Herreshoff company built six torpedo boats for the U.S. Navy from 1890 to 1897: (Cushing, TB-1, Porter,TB-6, Dupont,TB-7, Morris,TB-14, Talbot,TB-15, and Gwin,TB-16). All of the boats served in the Spanish American war.
The brothers experienced great difficulty in dealing with the federal government and naval officials. They faced a constant battle to receive funds and complained about hundreds of hours negotiating with clerks. Like many, the brothers actually lost money on government orders. After the Gwin was completed, they turned their talents to building racing and pleasure yachts.
These two remarkable men left their mark on American and world maritime history. The Navy was wise to recognize these American innovators at a time of rapid naval development. The problem of government machinery, however, has always been with us.