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Robert Whitehead, the son of a cotton-bleacher, was born in Bolton on January 3rd, in 1823. After being educated at the local grammar school, Whitehead left at fourteen to become an apprentice engineer. For the next few years he attended Manchester's Mechanics Institute.
In 1844 Whitehead went to work in France and three years later started his own business in Milan. By the 1850s Whitehead was working for the Austrian government. Whitehead had been asked to develop a new weapon for warships and with the help of his son, Robert, produced a floating torpedo. His first torpedo lacked speed and range. However, by 1870 he had managed to increase its speed to 7 knots and could now hit a target 700 yards away. The following year the British Navy purchased Whitehead's invention.
Although a star torpedo, a charge attached to a long pole and carried by a small boat, had been used during the American Civil War, Whitehead was the first to produce a self-propelling torpedo. Whitehead's torpedo was propelled by a compressed-air engine, carried 18lbs. of dynamite. Its most important feature was a self-regulating device which kept the torpedo at a constant preset depth.
Whitehead's torpedo was very popular and by 1881 his customers included: Britain (254), Russia (250), France (218), Germany (203), Denmark (83), Italy (70), Greece (70), Portugal (50) Argentina (40) and Belgium (40). Robert Whitehead died in 1905.
A ship hit by a torpedo in 1917