Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  10 (1885), 927–37.

The Defense of Our Sea-ports

Henry P Wells



Relevant illustrations:

eng. [11]


Military Technology, Experiment, Electricity, Industrial Chemistry, Popularization, National Efficiency, Expertise, Engineers, War, Invention, Aeronautics, Dynamics, Theory, Steamships

    Addressing the 'reader [...] unfamiliar with this subject' (931) and imparting 'facts which every citizen should know' and 'should carefully weigh, if he has any regard whatever for the safety and welfare of his country' (932), warns that the American coastline is 'everywhere vulnerable' to enemy attack (927). Describes the 'excellent and sure' fish torpedo defences available, at a cost, to modern sea-ports, stating that the 'Sims torpedo [...] is apparently the favorite of our army officers, who have been experimenting with it now for some four or five years' (928). In experimental tests, the Sims torpedo bears a 'heavy charge of dynamite, gun-cotton, or explosive gelatine', and is powered by 'electricity generated ashore' which is 'sufficient to drive it at the rate of over ten miles an hour'. However, it has not been 'tried against an enemy' in the 'hurry and excitement of actual battle', and 'about seventy-five per cent. should be discounted from the efficiency of the practice ground to arrive at the probable result under these more trying conditions'. In fact, 'Careful research discloses the use of no fish torpedo except the "Whitehead" in actual conflict'. (929) Cautions that the 'efficiency of the entire [torpedo] system [...] is as dependent upon the integrity of their electrical connection as upon the presence of an explosive in the torpedo itself', and insists that the connecting 'wires' must made 'absolutely secure against the heaviest projectiles' or a 'single well-directed shot may paralyze the whole defense in an instant' (930). In addition, warns that the superintendence of torpedo defences 'must be the work of experts'; in 1883, though, 'not more than one hundred men qualified by technical knowledge to be intrusted with the work could be found' in America, while 'England maintains more than five times this number in the comparatively trivial harbor of Halifax alone' (931). Explains that at the close of the American Civil War 'we were possessed of the most powerful artillery the world had ever seen' but soon 'sank into [a] condition of repose', while 'other nations' took the 'lessons of our war [...] to heart, and one and all strove to improve their means of attack and defense in every way they could devise'. Changes were made to the 'composition' of gun-powder, for instance, 'using less sulphur, and a charcoal which, compared to the former practice, was much under-charred, thus producing the so-called "brown" or "cocoa" powder of the Germans', which is 'said to give less smoke than the ordinary variety' (932). Discusses the rapid increase over the last decade in the size and calibre of 'Krupp's [...] "high power" gun[s]' (934), suggesting that in the 'long struggle for supremacy between guns and floating armor, the guns now seem destined to have decidedly the better of it' (935). The 'possible range of guns of such fearful power' is limited only by the difficulties created by the 'shock of the recoil', and although the 'determination of this question by actual trial is hedged about with difficulties' the 'extreme theoretical range' of such guns can be calculated as being 'between ten and eleven miles' (934). Concludes by admonishing Americans against considering their coastal defences with an 'apathy which must, if persisted in, ultimately overwhelm us in national humiliation and disaster' (937).

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