Croatia / History / fiction

Torpedo Town

The world’s first fully-operational torpedo was developed in Rijeka by Bolton-born engineer Robert Whitehead

The earliest surviving example of a Whitehead torpedo, currently on display in the Croatian Maritime Museum in Split.

“Whitehead belongs to a race of silent thinkers and great inventors, listening only to the ocean of thoughts seething incessantly in his head.“

“It came out of the launching tube with the speed of a cannon ball, plunging into the sea at a depth of five or six metres, and off it swam, producing a light bubbling effect as it went.”

So wrote Swiss journalist and travel-writer Victor Tissot in 1883*, having just observed a test-launch of the torpedo, the revolutionary new weapon for which the Austro-Hungarian port city of Rijeka was fast becoming famous.

First demonstrated to Austrian naval officials in 1866, the torpedo had been developed by Bolton-born engineer Robert Whitehead, who had arrived in Rijeka to take charge of the naval yards eight years earlier. Whitehead had been tasked with improving a nautical bomb designed by local inventor Blaž Luppis; Luppis’s projectile was intended to float on the surface; it was Whitehead who had the bright idea of putting it under water.

Arguably the greatest English engineer you’ve never heard of, Robert Whitehead was born into a mill-owning family in northern England’s cotton belt in 1823. Leaving England aged 23 to work for an uncle in Marseilles, he went on to enjoy a successful career as a roving engineer, moving first to Milan, then to Trieste, where he rose to becoming technical director of the Muggia shipyards.

Steel Fish

Whitehead headed to Rijeka (then known by its Italian name of Fiume) in 1857, where he was appointed director of the Stabilimento Tecnico Fiumano, one of the main engineering firms serving the Austro-Hungarian navy. At around the same time, local naval officer Giovanni Biagio Luppis (1813-1874) began working on the idea of a small clockwork-powered boat, packed with explosives, that could be directed at enemy ships – he called it the Kustenretter or Coastal Defender. Luppis badgered the Austro-Hungarian War Ministry for development money, but received little more than moral support. Rijeka industrialist Giovanni Ciotta introduced Luppis to Whitehead, hoping to set up a profitable partnership that would benefit all three. Unsure that Luppis’s invention would actually work, Whitehead decided to go it alone; Luppis received an initial share of royalties, and a model of his invention was kept in the Whitehead factory just to let everyone know where the original inspirational came from.

After working for a couple of years on the idea of an underwater projectile, Whitehead finally decided to demonstrate it to the War Ministry’s inspectors on December 21 1866. Early prototypes proved difficult to control, however, and it was Whitehead’s development of a gyroscopic guidance system that turned his unorthodox underwater bomb into an epoch-defining piece of military hardware.

Whitehead, his son John, his son-in-law Georg von Hoyos and his chief mechanic Annibale Plöch were the tightly-knit team behind the development of the torpedo, and remained so for almost forty years. To begin with, Europe’s navies were intrigued by the new invention but reluctant to place orders. Although Whitehead was made a baron by Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Josef I in 1868, state patronage remained on a symbolic level. The Stabilimento Tecnico went bankrupt in 1873, but Whitehead and Hoyos were able to buy it out the following year. The resulting Torpedofabrik Whitehead & Co went on to become a military-industrial giant.

Street mural showing Robert Whitehead and torpedo launch gantry, Rijeka

Whitehead himself was an impressive, if rather distant, figure. “Dressed all in white, like some colonial plantation owner” wrote Tissot, “he balanced an enormous parasol over his shoulder in order to shade his massive, square, copper-tinted head, which was animated by two soft large eyes of the most profound blue… Mr Whitehead doesn’t talk much; he belongs to a race of silent thinkers and great inventors, listening only to the ocean of thoughts seething incessantly in his head.“

Whitehead was nothing if not a good salesman, however. The British royal armouries in Woolwich started producing his torpedoes under license, and a Whitehead factory in Weymouth soon followed. Whitehead also did licensing deals with the French, Germans, Italians, and sold torpedoes to any navy that came shopping. At the time of Victor Tissot’s visit in the early 1880s, Whitehead’s biggest customer was the Russian navy.

La Bestia

According to Tissot, Whitehead’s torpedoes had “a power of destruction more formidable than all the sea-monsters of legend put together. Imagine a huge steel fish, say, a 6- or 7-metre-long tuna, able to swim at speeds of 24 knots.., with an explosive charge capable of sending the biggest armoured ships to the bottom in a matter of minutes. “

Not for nothing did the workers call it “la bestia”; the beast. The torpedo was a symbol of Rijeka’s nineteenth-century industrial might. In an increasingly grand manufacturing city that hosted shipyards, paper mills and cigarette factories, the torpedo was seen as a uniquely Rijekan artefact that no other port – at least not in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – could boast.  Visiting the city for the Pester Lloyd newspaper in 1893, Hungarian humorist Porzó spoke archly of a new kind of bean that grew here and nowhere else. “It is a flesh-eating plant, half-beast, you might say; and as it is man-made, it is naturally bloodthirsty. This legume-creature belongs to the state and destroys life. It is called – as the attentive reader will already have guessed – Torpedo.  Rijeka is its garden, Pula [where most Austro-Hungarian warships were stationed] is its park.”

Torpedo launch gantry, Rijeka. Photo by Martin Mayhew

With the death of Whitehead’s son John in 1902, and of Hoyos in 1904, an already ailing Robert Whitehead decided to float the company on the stock market. British companies Armstrong Whitworth and Vickers became major shareholders, and British managers were brought in to run the factory.

The Whitehead factory also built submarines. In 1910 John Whitehead’s daughter Agatha, main heiress to the family money, married naval Lieutenant Georg von Trapp, future Austrian U-boat hero and subsequently – after Agatha’s death in 1922 - founder of the Trapp Family singing group. The children featured in the Sound of Music are Robert Whitehead’s great-grandchildren.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, the Whitehead factory was requisitioned by the Austro-Hungarian state. The British regained control of the company after the war’s end, but with the Rijekan economy ruined by post-war uncertainties, the business went bankrupt in 1923. Rijeka’s absorption by Fascist Italy brought a renewed desire to resurrect the industry, and torpedo development resumed with some notable successes – including an aeroplane-launched projectile that went into service in the 1930s. Following World War II and the return of Rijeka to Croatia (then a republic within a federal Yugoslavia), the torpedo factory concentrated on making a wide range of diesel motors until finally closing its doors in 1966. Today the factory buildings are largely vacant and are falling into disrepair; the famous testing gantry once visited by Victor Tissot is listed as a protected monument, but in desperate need of renovation.

Torpedo Tea

The city’s archive of historic torpedoes was disposed of when the factory closed. The Rijeka City Museum has since amassed a respectable collection of projectiles - but if you want to see the earliest existing example of a torpedo, it is to the Croatian Maritime Museum in Split that you must go.

The Whitehead mausoleum, Kozala Cemetery, Rijeka

Indeed Rijeka’s relationship with its greatest technological product has always been ambiguous. The torpedo was from its inception regarded as a terror weapon, something that could be justified in terms of coastal defence or deterrence, but which was still considered slightly improper as a means of attack.

The earliest torpedoes do however possess a distinct steam-punk allure, their elegantly crafted, deftly riveted bodies packed full of late-Victorian precision engineering. Local tea-blending firm Samovar sticks a diagram of an antique torpedo on the packaging of their fragrant and fruity Torpedo Tea, improbably subtitled “Mr Whitehead’s Favourite Tea”. Really? Surely no true Englishman would ever drink a beverage that blended those trusty black leaves with frivolous ingredients such as mint, orange and chamomile. 

Robert Whitehead died in Berkshire in November 1905. He was buried in Worth, West Sussex, despite having previously arranged for the construction of a bombastic family mausoleum in Rijeka’s Kozala Cemetery. Still occupying the graveyard’s highest point, the ziggurat-like sepulchre stands in mute testimony to one of greatest engineering careers of the modern age.

* As recounted in his book La Hongrie de l’Adriatique au Danube (Paris 1883)

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© Jonathan Bousfield