In 1883 the United States Navy held a public contest to find new design concepts for torpedoes. After reviewing several proposals, the Navy Torpedo Board selected a design submitted by the head of the Department of Astronomy and Navigation for the U.S. Naval Academy, Lieutenant Commander John A. Howell.
The Howell torpedo was initially conceived in 1870 and was an improvement to older torpedo models. A key enhancement to the weapon was the addition of a flywheel, which acted as both a means of propulsion and provided additional stability to the torpedo. The Howell torpedo was 11 feet long with a diameter of 14 inches and weighed 580 pounds. Howell torpedoes could reach a speed of 26 knots and a range of 400 yards, and would become the first self-propelled torpedo developed by the United States.
In 1888 the Navy ordered 50 Howell torpedoes, manufactured by the Hotchkiss Ordnance Company, which were used on USN battleships and torpedo boats for about 10 years. In 1898 there were 35 torpedo boats that were able to transport fire and Howell torpedoes. Ships could launch this torpedo from either above water or torpedo tubes that were submerged beneath the water.
Until recently it was believed that only two torpedoes of this design existed, located at the Naval Undersea Museum and Naval War College Museum; however, another specimen was recently discovered off the coast of San Diego. During a training exercise, Navy Marine Mammal Program dolphins indicated the existence of an object submerged in the ocean floors. Divers then investigated, and the tail and mid-section of a Howell torpedo emerged. Both sections of this composite artifact have been well preserved while buried due to the favorable underwater environment.
After being evaluated for factors such as safety, condition, and material composition, the two torpedo sections were transported to the Naval History and Heritage Command‘s Archaeology & Conservation Lab. After the torpedo has been treated, conserved, and preserved in the lab it will be placed on display. For more information on the conservation of Howell torpedo no. 24 please see the fact sheet.