By: Paul Wittmer

The answer is, "Because that's what they originally were, and the name stuck."

A torpedo boat in Revolutionary and Civil war days was a boat, propelled by oarsmen, which carried an explosive device. The explosive device was intended to be attached to the side of an enemy vessel and set off with a timing device. Some explosives, used during the Civil War, were attached to a long spar, which protruded off the bow of the boat and the crew was supposed to ram the explosive into the enemy vessel. This was most often a volunteer mission with little chance of escape.

Robert Fulton, around 1805, is also credited with the development of a torpedo; actually, a mine, because it was not self propelled; it was floated to the target and exploded by a clockwork mechanism.

Before Robert Fulton, there was David Bushnell. It was David Bushnell's experiments, while at Yale in Connecticut that led to his device for exploding gunpowder under water. A means of delivering such an explosive mine was also on his mind at the time. By mid January of 1775, the country was on the verge of open rebellion.

His Turtle was designed, built, tested and launched in secrecy in Long Island Sound. The purpose of the vessel was to attach an underwater mine to the keel of a ship, set the timing device, developed for the purpose, and escape undetected. A test was made using an old hulk and live powder. The hulk was demolished.

An attack was mounted against a British Man of War anchored off Manhattan Island, now known as New York City. This represented the first war time use of a submersible against an enemy vessel. It was done with David Bushnel's Turtle during the Revolutionary war. Getting the explosive to a position under the enemy vessel in New York harbor went fairly good, under cover of darkness; however attaching the explosive to the copper covered keel of the enemy warship failed. On the return trip of the Turtle, to Manhattan Island, the explosive was jettisoned and it exploded harmlessly. It did have the effect of causing the enemy fleet to relocate to a safer anchorage.

The famous words of David Farragut, repeated often, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" referred to mines and not the self-propelled torpedoes that are often thought of. In 1864, David Farragut led an assault on the Confederate port, Mobile Bay. Disregarding the loss of one ironclad ship to a mine, he is said to have cried out, "Damn the torpedoes; Full speed ahead!" and proceeded into the bay where he captured the Confederate flotilla.

The first successful self-propelled or automotive torpedoes were the Whitehead torpedoes. In the early 1870's, Robert Whitehead developed a self propelled or automotive torpedo, powered by a three-cylinder engine of 40 horse power.

Delivery of the self propelled torpedo, and vessels to carry these weapons steadily improved in the vessels as well as in the torpedoes themselves. Aircraft, surface craft, such as the PT Boats of WWII, Destroyers, Cruisers as well as other vessels, have delivered torpedoes. The development of the submarine to deliver torpedoes to an enemy, really had it's hey-day during WWI and again during WWII.

The record of efficiency of the combination of the fleet type submarine and torpedoes was most impressive; even with the notoriously faulty torpedoes used during WWII.

A wide variety of means to deliver torpedoes followed. There were high speed (surface) torpedo boats, used in relatively calm waters, larger destroyer vessels suitable for longer periods at sea, aircraft, for quick strikes against enemy vessels and the development of submarine boats that could remain at sea for long periods at a time.

It was the development of that efficient submarine boat that caught the attention of naval designers during WWI and especially as a result of the achievements during WWII.

Submarine builders used the name "Boat" in their titles. For example, there was the J. B. Holland Torpedo Boat Company, the Lake Torpedo Boat Company, the Fore River Submarine Boat Company, the California Submarine Boat Company, the Bethlehem Submarine Boat Company, and the Electric Boat Company.

The name "Torpedo Boat" stuck because, that's what they were originally called.