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in naval warfare, a self-propelled submarine projectile loaded with explosives, used for the destruction of enemy ships. Although there were attempts at subsurface warfare in the 16th and 17th cent., the modern torpedo had its origin in the efforts of David Bushnell, who, during the American Revolution, experimented with a submarinesubmarine,
naval craft capable of operating for an extended period of time underwater. Submarines are almost always warships, although a few are used for scientific, business, or other purposes (see also submersible).
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 for attaching underwater explosives to British ships. His attempts failed, but later Robert Fulton experimented with similar ideas. In the 19th cent. torpedoes developed at first as stationary mines placed in the water; these were used extensively by the Russians in the Crimean War and by the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War. The first truly self-propelled torpedo was designed and built at Fiume in 1866 by Robert Whitehead, an Englishman. It was driven by a small reciprocating engine run by compressed air; a hydrostatic valve and pendulum balance, connected to a horizontal rudder, controlled the depth at which it ran. Directional accuracy was achieved in 1885 when John Adams Howell developed the gyroscope to control the vertical rudder. Torpedoes were used by Japan in the Russo-Japanese War and were widely employed in World War I. The torpedoes used in World War II were usually 20 to 24 ft (6.1–7.3 m) long, carrying up to 600 lb (272 kg) of explosives at a speed of 50 knots for more than 10,000 yd (9,144 m). The type of torpedo used in World War II has been largely superseded by the homing torpedo. In contrast to the older type, which traveled in a straight line on a preset course, the homing torpedo automatically changes its course to seek out its target. Most homing torpedoes are activated by sounds coming from the target (e.g., propeller or machinery noises), and they follow the sounds until making contact with the target. A homing torpedo runs through three phases: the enabling run, which takes it to the vicinity of the target; the search pattern, in which it maneuvers to find the target; and the homing, in which it pursues the target. The modern torpedo is generally propelled by an electric motor, but some of the newer, faster, high-diving torpedoes, designed for effectiveness against nuclear submarines, have solid-propellant-driven turbines. Some also may be equipped with nuclear warheads. Torpedoes can be fired from shore stations, surface vessels, and aircraft, as well as from submarines.


See Bureau of Naval Personnel, Principles of Naval Ordnance and Gunnery (1959); R. Fulton, Torpedo War and Submarine Explosions (1810, repr. 1971).


fish: see rayray,
extremely flat-bodied cartilaginous marine fish, related to the shark. The pectoral fins of most rays are developed into broad, flat, winglike appendages, attached all along the sides of the head; the animal swims by rippling movements of these wings.
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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a weapon consisting of a self-propelled, self-guided, cigar-shaped underwater projectile that carries a conventional or nuclear warhead. Torpedoes are designed to disable submarines and surface ships and destroy moorings, docks and other shoreline targets. They are included in the armament of submarines, antisubmarine vessels, destroyers, and torpedo boats, as well as airplanes and helicopters. On ships, torpedoes are launched from torpedo tubes.

The first model of a torpedo was built in 1866 by the British engineer R. Whitehead on the basis of a proposal by the Austrian naval officer G. Luppis. Whitehead’s torpedo resembled a spindle. It had a length of 3.5 m, a total weight of 140 kg (the weight of the explosive was about 8 kg), and a maximum range of 800 m at a speed of 6–8 knots (11–15 km/hour). (See Figure 1 for a diagram of a torpedo.)

Figure 1. Schematic of a torpedo

Beginning in the 1870’s, torpedoes were rapidly introduced into the navies of many states and soon became the primary weapon of destroyers, submarines, and torpedo boats; cruisers and ships of the line of that period were also armed with torpedoes. Torpedoes were first used by Russian vessels in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. They were also used in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, in which 263 torpedoes were launched, and in World War I, in which 1,500 torpedoes were launched.

Prior to World War II, torpedoes were powered by a piston engine running on a mixture of steam and gases; the turbine engine was introduced during the war. Torpedo aircraft were developed in the early 1930’s. During World War II the submarines, surface ships, and torpedo aircraft of the USA and Great Britain alone launched about 30,000 torpedoes. The Japanese armed forces used torpedoes piloted by suicide volunteers (seeKAICHEN).

Depending on the type of engine installed, the torpedoes used by modern navies are classified as steam, electric, or rocket-propelled. The length of a torpedo ranges from 2.6 m to more than 9 m. Torpedoes have either a contact fuze, which operates on impact with a ship’s hull, or a proximity fuze, which is activated at a given distance from the target vessel by one of the vessel’s physical fields and inflicts damage by detonating the charge beneath the vessel’s hull.

Torpedoes contain complex equipment that automatically controls their motion with respect to direction and depth. Torpedoes may be homing, or they may follow a straight course or a preset pattern. Some torpedoes are designed for use against both submarines and surface ships.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


An encased explosive charge slid, lowered, or dropped into a borehole and exploded to clear the hole of obstructions or to open communications with an oil or water supply. Also known as bullet.
A missile designed to contain an explosive charge and to be launched into water, where it is self-propelling and usually directable; used against ships or other targets in the water.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. US and Canadian a detonator placed on a railway line as a danger signal
2. any of various electric rays of the genus Torpedo
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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