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By NUWC Division Newport Public Affairs
When entering the Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) Division Newport campus, most employees simply follow the roadways to their respective destinations, never really taking into account the names of the streets on which they are traveling.
There’s Howell Street, the main address for the warfare center, Cunningham Street and Fulton Street, among others. But how did these roads get their names? They honor a series of servicemen and inventors who made tremendous strides in the evolution of submarines and torpedoes for the U.S. Navy, some of whom had a strong connection to Newport.
While it is unclear who was tasked with designating the street names, the first street signs went up in January 1978, when the command was called Naval Underwater Systems Center, according to an article in a command newsletter from Jan. 20, 1978.
Here’s a little background on the men after whom the streets are named:
John Adams Howell (1840-1918) was a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy who in 1870 patented the first self-propelled “automobile” torpedo, using a 132-pound flywheel that completed 10,000 revolutions per minute. By the late 1880s, after undergoing extensive development, testing and evaluation at the Naval Torpedo Station on Goat Island in Newport, Howell’s design was the first automobile torpedo to be issued to the fleet.
The Howell torpedo spent less than 10 years as the undersea weapon of choice, though, as it was largely displaced by the Whitehead, a self-propelled locomotive torpedo. According to the U.S. Naval Institute, only three Howell torpedoes remain, one of which is on display at the Naval War College Museum in Newport.
Inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815) is believed to be the man who coined the term “torpedo,” used to describe a floating device with gunpowder that would explode below warships. In 1800, the Pennsylvania native — while living in Paris — launched the first practical submarine, named Nautilus, a 21-foot vessel with a hand-cranked propeller.
Despite his contributions to marine combat, Fulton perhaps is best known for inventing the commercial steamboat, dubbed the Clermont, in 1807. That led to the creation of the Demologos, the first warship to be propelled by a steam engine. It was launched after Fulton’s death in 1815.
Five Navy ships have borne the name USS Fulton in the honor of Fulton.
An inventor and native of Buffalo, New York, John Louis Lay (1833-1899) in 1872 created and developed the Lay torpedo, a surfacing-running vessel propelled by an engine fueled on compressed carbon dioxide gas. The 7.6-meter, 2,800-pound torpedo — which included 1,000 pounds of dynamite — was steered using a cable with an effective range of 1.25 miles.
The Lay torpedo was developed and tested at the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, and an improved version of his design, the Lay-Haight torpedo, debuted in 1880.
Considered the “Father of Submarine Warfare,” David Bushnell (1740-1824) invented the “Turtle,” a prototype that later became the first submarine used in combat in 1776.
A full-size working replica of the single-man vessel, which staff at NUWC Division Newport helped build, is on display at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Connecticut. A cutaway replica is also located at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.
Bushnell studied at Yale University, where he discovered gunpowder could explode below the surface and used his knowledge to create the first underwater mine — a precursor to the torpedo.
Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson (1803-1889) in the early 1870s developed the first torpedo with counter-rotating propellers mounted on a single shaft. It was called the Ericsson torpedo, and it underwent extensive testing in Newport.
Ericsson used the same ideology on future ship designs, including “The Destroyer,” a surface warship launched in 1878 that could fire submarine torpedoes.
David Porter (1780-1843) was a commodore in the U.S. Navy, and his son, David Dixon Porter (1813-1891), ascended to the rank of admiral. Five ships have carried the name USS Porter — a torpedo boat in service during the Spanish-American War and four destroyers. One of them, the DDG-78 destroyer, homeported in Norfolk, Virginia, remains in active duty.
There is a Porter Avenue on Naval Station Newport, named for David Dixon Porter, and a Porter Road at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, which honors the father and his son.
U.S. Navy Lt. F.M. Barber (1845-1922), while stationed at the Naval Torpedo Station in the 1870s, co-designed a rocket torpedo that included a 48-pound warhead and 51 pounds of rocket propellant. One highlight of the design was a spiraled exterior so it would rotate as it went through the water.
After testing, it was determined the Barber torpedo couldn’t remain on its predicted trajectory and further development was halted. Helping design this torpedo was Cmdr. Edmund O. Matthews, who served as the first commanding officer of the Naval Torpedo Station from 1869-1873.
Patrick Cunningham (1844-1921), an Irish-born inventor from nearby New Bedford, Massachusetts, also developed a rocket-powered torpedo that too suffered from unpredictable trajectories, as well as variable speeds.
Known as the “Wild Irishman,” he was a staunch supporter of presidential candidate Williams Jennings Bryan in the 1896 election. So when a parade was held in honor of William McKinley, Bryan’s opponent, in the days before the election, Cunningham decided he would fan the flames.
He retrieved one of his torpedoes, positioned it on a wagon and sent it down the street of the Massachusetts city. Straddling the 17-foot, explosive-packed torpedo, dubbed the “Flying Devil,” Cunningham planned to ride it at the head of his own parade. While astride the weapon, he attempted to light it off with a burning newspaper that was rolled up to form a torch. Luckily, his son was present and pulled him off as the torpedo started down the street before colliding with a tree stump and coming to a stop.
There was an ensuing explosion that badly damaged five houses and a nearby shop. Some suffered injuries, though there were no casualties.
More about Cunningham and this event is in the Division Newport 150th Anniversary Yearbook.
In addition to the aforementioned streets that appear on maps, Division Newport also has some smaller roadways that weren’t given names when the land first was developed in the early 1940s as an annex to the Naval Torpedo Station on Goat Island.
But in the mid-1990s, the Navy Facilities and Engineer Command (NAVFAC) insisted all roads on installations be identifiable by a name to be entered into the Computer Aided Engineering Documentation System.
NUWC Newport is the oldest warfare center in the country, tracing its heritage to the Naval Torpedo Station established on Goat Island in Newport Harbor in 1869. Commanded by Capt. Chad Hennings, NUWC Newport maintains major detachments in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Andros Island in the Bahamas, as well as test facilities at Seneca Lake and Fisher's Island, New York, Leesburg, Florida, and Dodge Pond, Connecticut.
Join our team! NUWC Division Newport, one of the 20 largest employers in Rhode Island, employs a diverse, highly trained, educated, and skilled workforce. We are continuously looking for engineers, scientists, and other STEM professionals, as well as talented business, finance, logistics and other support experts who wish to be at the forefront of undersea research and development. Please connect with NUWC Division Newport Recruiting at this site- https://www.navsea.navy.mil/Home/Warfare-Centers/NUWC-Newport/Career-Opportunities/ and follow us on LinkedIn @NUWC-Newport and on Facebook @NUWCNewport.