Whitehead & Company

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Whitehead & Company was an early innovator in and manufacturer of torpedoes. Founded by Robert Whitehead, the company invented the automotive torpedo in its ultimate form and derived an important competitive advantage by its invention of the first practical depth-keeping mechanism. The value of this invention was so great that it was portentously dubbed "The Secret".

Early Work and Innovations

Robert Whitehead produced the first automotive torpedo in 1866. Its performance was humble, improving to a speed of 7 knots and a range of 700 yards by 1870.

The torpedoes were much better able to seek and keep a uniform depth by combined use of a hydrostat and a pendulum which delivered a control system based not only on the present depth but also on its derivative, respectively. The practice of incorporating derivatives of the controlled value was to become the common basis for stable control systems.

Additionally, Whitehead was the first to incorporate use of gyroscopes to control the yaw of the torpedo and keep it on course.

Company History

After early business missteps, Whitehead reformed his efforts as Whitehead & Co. The company maintained a factory at Fiume, fulfilling orders for a variety of foreign governments; most notably Austria-Hungary. When Whitehead retired, he sold to Vickers and Armstrong-Whitworth and the company thus became a British one.

By 1892, the company had works at Weymouth, located on an old coast guard station, accessible by its own siding from the Weymouth and Portland railway. The shops, 400 by 40 feet in size with 23 large and 20 small lathes, were said to be "really magnificent", "lofty" and "well lighted". A 2,000 yard torpedo range ran from the end of a very long pier. It was estimated to be working up to employ 500 men and build up to 300 torpedoes annually.[1]


Shipbuilding was sort of a side job, but some submarines were built at Fiume.

Ship Type Launched Fate
S.M.S. U5 submarine 10 Feb, 1909 Broken up 1920
S.M.S. U6 submarine 12 Sep, 1909 Sunk 12 miles off Cape Otranto 10 May, 1916
S.M.S. U12 submarine 14 Mar, 1911 Sunk off Venice 12 Sep, 1915


The torpedoes featured distinctive tails called "Fiume type", with their rudders behind the propellor(s) rather than in front of them as in the British design. They were stamped with serial numbers, an ornately scripted "R. W" and a code indicating the country for which the torpedo was ordered above a second number indicating the order for that country to which it belonged. The country abbreviations were:[2]

  • BR. for Brazil
  • C. for Chile
  • CH. for China
  • D. for Denmark
  • F. for France
  • G. for Germany
  • IT. for Italy
  • J. for Japan
  • O. for Holland
  • P. for Portugal


  1. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1892. p. 185.
  2. Annual Report of the Torpedo School, 1916. p. 119.


  • Gray, Edwyn. The Devil's Device: Robert Whitehead and the History of the Torpedo, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991

See Also