On January 25, 1878, in the heat of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the two Russian steam cutters “Chesma” and “Sinop” performed the first torpedo attack in world history, successfully sinking the Turkish “Intibach” vessel.
The steam cutters belonged to the steamboat “Grand Prince Konstantin”, the fastest Russian ship of the Black Sea Fleet. The commander of the steamboat, Lieutenant Stepan Makarov, was genuinely interested in new technologies and new weapons, having already completed a number of operations against the Turkish fleet. As such, he designed and built the platform for the steam cutters on the ship, and did his best to arm the Grand Prince Konstantin with torpedoes.
It was very hard for Makarov to get torpedoes. The Russian fleet had added mines to the armory long before, but torpedoes were a new and expensive type of armament. The commander of the Black Sea Fleet thought that Makarov was not experienced enough to use them, and turned down Makarov’s request. However, Makarov sent a telegram to the Admiralty, begging for torpedoes, and the Admiralty fulfilled his request, allocating him four torpedoes for his vessel.
In December, 1877, the torpedoes were launched for the first time. The same two cutters attacked the Turkish battleship “Mahmudie”, but they missed. Makarov was upset with this failure, as it not only stole half of his torpedoes from him, but also left no room for error.
On January 25, 1878, things changed. The destruction of the Intibach frightened Turkish mariners. Soon after the attack, Russia, with the help of Grand Prince Konstantin seized control of the Black Sea, and on February 19, 1878, Russia and Turkey signed a peace treaty.
A torpedo is one of the things that is said to have been invented twice. The first inventor of the torpedo was Russian artist, photographer and self-taught engineer Ivan Aleksandrovsky. He thought of the torpedo as of an armament for his other invention – a submarine. In 1865, he demonstrated a torpedo to Admiral Nicolay Krabbe, but the admiral said that the demonstration was premature – the submarine had not yet been built.
A year later, English engineer Robert Whitehead, who had nothing to do with Aleksandrovsky, also invented a torpedo. Whitehead lived in Austria, and owned a machine shop. His 12-year-old son helped him to conduct the initial experiments, and in 1868, Whitehead’s torpedo efficiently passed the test. In 1869, the British Navy added them to their armories.
The Russian torpedo was first tested only in 1874. According to reports, torpedoes were “too heavy, bulky and had a mediocre run”. They were inferior to English torpedoes and needed modification. Aleksandrovsky modified the torpedoes in 1875, though the Russian Navy did not include them in the inventory.
In 1876, the Russian government sent a commission to one of the Austrian factories which produced Whitehead’s torpedoes with Aleksandrovsky joining it. After the examination of the factory, he wrote that the differences between his and Whitehead’s torpedoes was only a matter of financing – Whitehead owned a special plant, while Aleksandrovsky had to order the parts for his inventions from regular locksmith’s workshops. The commission suggested that the government take Whitehead’s torpedoes into service. Aleksandrovsky accepted the suggestions, but was dismayed.
The Russian government bought Whitehead’s technology and placed an order for about a hundred torpedoes from the plant in Fium, Austria. The Intibach was sunk by a Whitehead torpedo.