USS Philadelphia plays searchlights on Alarm and Vesuvius by Fred S. Cozzens,1892. NH 74552 KN.
Functionally descended from Federico Gianibelli’s sixteenth‐century fireships, torpedo boats first emerged in the United States as semisubmersible bearers of “infernal machines,” directed by David Bushnell’s Turtle and Robert Fulton’s Mute against British blockaders during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Advances in spar torpedo technology during the Civil War spawned additional craft. Their capabilities were demonstrated in the historic attack by the Confederate submersible H. L. Hunley against the USS Housatonic off Charleston, and by Lt. William B. Cushing’s sinking of CSS Albemarle with a picket boat carrying a spar torpedo.
Post-war, the technical developments of the industrial revolution posed a new challenge. Soon after the Civil War, it became possible for small craft to deliver self-propelled torpedoes to within striking range of larger vessels, which could no longer be confident of detecting, let alone defending against them except under ideal daytime conditions.
Three experimental torpedo boats provided the US Navy with inital experience: Alarm, Lightning and Stiletto.