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This is part one of an extensive history being developed by Tin Can Sailors.
Additional text and photos will be added later.

PART I: 130 Years of Evolution


A successful warship design must blend a suite of military systems (sensors, weapons, and fire control) with good ship characteristics (habitability, speed, range, and seakeeping) into a package that can be produced in the needed quantity at an acceptable cost. All warships are compromises as designers try to balance these factors.

Compromises are necessary because an improvement in one area typically comes at the expense of others. The addition of a weapons system, for example, may improve a ship’s military value but it generally increases topside weight which is detrimental to stability. The added system will undoubtedly increase the vessel’s cost. More crew may be needed. Support requirements such as training and spare parts are affected. And the construction schedule will probably be delayed.

The warship planner is faced with an array of factors that define his objectives and affect his ability to develop solutions. The basic outline of the design is determined by the missions the vessel is expected to carry out. This generally translates directly into specifications for weapons systems, some level of survivability, and the capability of operating in certain sea conditions.

The designer designs for a world over which he has little control. The laws of physics, of course, present a set of permanent constraints. No naval architect can change the way gravity, wind, and water behave. Some factors are less permanent but may be fairly stable at any point in time; the types of steel available, treaties in force, the capacities of the shipyards, and the list of likely adversaries being examples. Other forces are highly variable such as the budget funds available, technological breakthroughs, the activities of potential adversaries, and the willingness of various interests within the navy to agree on what capabilities a given ship should possess.

The U.S. Navy’s destroyers, therefore, have been the products of many diverse factors. The availability of a new piece of electronic equipment, the opinions of an influential admiral that the next destroyer built should have two additional anti-aircraft guns, or the discovery that the new submarines of some foreign nation can go five knots faster than previously thought; all can change the parameters within which the planner must find solutions.

As resources and requirements changed over time so did the destroyer. What began as a small and simple short range platform for delivering a specific weapon became a fairly large, rugged, highly capable, and especially versatile vessel capable of operating under a wide range of conditions. Over time they became truly remarkable ships.

Destroyer Origins

By the time of the American Civil War the use of underwater mines, then commonly called “torpedoes,” was widespread. These were effective weapons and a total of 31 Union vessels were sunk by them. They were deployed where enemy vessels were likely to pass. They waited for their targets to come to them.

A major new development occurred when a mine was connected to a long spar attached to the bow of a small vessel. If that vessel could get close to an enemy ship, the explosive device could be planted under the enemy hull. Now the mine, called a spar torpedo in this configuration, could be taken directly to its target.

In October 1864, W. B. Cushing, a Union Navy lieutenant, used a 30′ steam-powered launch fitted with spar torpedo to attack the Confederate ironclad Ablemarle on the Roanoke River. The ironclad was sunk but Cushing’s launch was swamped by the blast. Only Cushing and one other man escaped, while two were killed and 19 taken prisoner But the objective had been achieved and naval planners took notice.

There were obvious problems with the spar torpedo. First, the torpedo boat had to get very close to the enemy to use the device. Second, the resulting blast could be as lethal to the torpedo boat as to its intended victim. A major advance came within a few years in the development of the self-propelled torpedo. By 1870, Englishman Robert Whitehead had built a weapon that could travel several hundred yards at a speed of 8 knots.

Navies throughout the world developed vessels to make use of the Whitehead torpedo. The Russians used them against the Turks in their war of 1877-78. They also played a role in the Chilean Civil War of 1891.

The United States Navy, however, lagged in the development of torpedo boats. A Dutch vessel was purchased in 1865. Two boats were authorized in 1870; named Alarm and Intrepid, but neither carried the self-propelled Whitehead torpedoes.

In 1886, the Herreshoff Manufacturing Company of Bristol, Rhode Island, built a wooden torpedo boat named Stiletto. She was 94 feet long, displaced 31 tons, had no armament, and could make 18 knots. The Navy was impressed and purchased the boat for experimental use in 1887. She served primarily as a training vessel. One bow mounted torpedo tube was added for part of her career.

Congressional authorization for the Navy to have a steel torpedo boat built came in 1886 with the passage of legislation stating that:

“…The President is hereby authorized to have constructed, one first class torpedo boat costing in the aggregate not more than one hundred thousand dollars…”

Her keel was laid at Herreshoff Manufacturing Company in 1888, and she was commissioned in 1890. She was 140 feet in length, displaced 116 tons, carried 3 torpedo tubes, and could attain 23 knots. She was appropriately named U.S.S. Cushing.

Between 1890 and 1902 a total of 34 torpedo boats were commissioned into the United States Navy. They were built to a variety of designs by a variety of shipyards. Lengths ranged from 100 feet to 228 feet.

Early U.S. Navy Destroyers

The same Act of Congress (May 1898) that authorized construction of the last 12 torpedo boats authorized construction of 16 torpedo boat destroyers. Two primary reasons were behind this desire for a new class of ships. First, there was a need for a ship able to defend against an enemy force of torpedo boats. Second, the U.S. Navy’s torpedo boats lacked the size, speed, fire-power, stamina, and seakeeping needed to accompany the battle fleet away from U.S. coastal waters. Other navies had been building similar vessels and now the U.S. Navy would develop its own.

The keel for Torpedo Boat Destroyer 1 was laid at the Neafie & Levy shipyard in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 15 August 1899. Commissioning was held on 24 November 1902. She was 250 feet long, displaced 420 tons, carried two torpedo tubes and two 3″ guns, and could make 28 knots. Her name was U.S.S. Bainbridge.