A Bainbridge-class torpedo boat destroyer leads a division of torpedo boats.
That the torpedo is destined to be used by all nations in future wars
is certain . . . . It is therefore our duty to keep pace
with other maritime powers in everything relating to development
and use of this dangerous and destructive element of warfare.

— Annual Report of the Bureau of Ordnance, 23 October 1869,
incorporated in the Report of Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, 1869.
It took the US Navy 40 years to develop the type we know today as the “destroyer.”

It began in 1869 by establishing a “torpedo station” at Newport, Rhode Island. There, drawing on experience gained during the Civil War, it embarked on an extended program in which it monitored foreign designs for both torpedoes and small craft that could transport them, evaluated a range of domestic designs, qualified a designer-builder from which it ordered a pilot purpose-built “torpedo boat” and then, following further assessment and refinement, ordered additional torpedo boats and a first generation of larger “torpedo boat destroyers.” In 1904, it paused again to reconsider the qualities desirable in future vessels and the nature of trials needed to ensure their suitability. Finally, in 1907, it ordered the first in a long sequence of improved destroyers, which began to arrive in 1909.

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In 1898 during the Spanish-American War, Spain deployed torpedo boat destroyers to Cuba, “the only real menace” to the American fleet blockading Santiago according to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who had argued that “a great nation must have a great navy” and urged that every effort be made to procure both torpedo boats and torpedo boat destroyers.

Congress soon authorized sixteen torpedo boat destroyers, which joined the fleet by the end of 1903. These were built to multiple designs, typically about 250 feet long and displacing 400 tons or more. They carried two 18-inch torpedoes and two 3-inch rapid fire guns. All were coal fired and used reciprocating machinery, with four stacks, a conning tower forward, a raised or turtleback fo’c’s’le, a flat-bottomed stern and a length-to-beam ratio of more than 10:1. First to commission, in May 1902, was Decatur of the Bainbridge class (coincidentally, later run aground in the Philippines under Lt. Chester Nimitz). Her SHP was 8,300; her trial speed approached 30 knots.

As president from 1901, Theodore Roosevelt remained deeply involved in naval affairs. In 1904, following a recommendation from his naval aide, Commander Cameron McR. Winslow, a board convened under RAdm. George A. Converse to identify qualities and functions appropriate for follow-on destroyer construction. There followed 26 700-ton Smith and 742-ton Paulding-class “flivvers” (lightweights), authorized in fiscal years 1907–10 and commissioned in 1909–12. These were longer at nearly 294 feet LOA with a redesigned “cutaway” stern. Armament was three single or twin torpedo tube mounts and five 3-inch guns. The Smiths introduced steam turbine propulsion. The Pauldings introduced oil firing.

Nominal displacement rose to 1,000 tons for the four-ship Cassin and Aylwin classes funded in 1912. The O’Brien, Tucker and Sampson classes funded in 1913–15 (6 ships each) were also “1,000-tonners”—all “broken-deckers” with high fo’c’s’les mounting eight 18-inch or 21-inch torpedo tubes on hulls 305–315 feet in length. Main gun battery was now four 4-inch/50 caliber rapid fire guns and complement was up to nearly 100. Commissioned in 1913–17, these were the most modern torpedo boat destroyers in the US Navy’s arsenal when it entered World War I.


Sources: Bauer and Roberts, Friedman, Reilly, Whitley.