By 1701, the Assembly voted £150 for the building of a fort on the island, naming the work Fort Anne. In 1730, it became Fort George. In 1774, the Assembly ordered Fort George dismantled and the guns sent to Providence for safety. During the War of the Revolution it was called Fort Liberty by the Americans, although the English, during their occupation of Newport, retained the old name of Fort George. In 1784, it was named Fort Washington, and, in 1798, Fort Wolcott, to commemorate the Revolutionary service of Governor Oliver Wolcott.
During the War of the Rebellion [Civil War], Goat Island was occupied by the Naval Academy. Two frigates, the Constitution and the Santee, were moored near the shore, and were used as quarters for midshipmen.
At the time of the founding of the Torpedo Station, there were on Goat Island a one-story building, formerly the army barracks, and a number of small wooden structures, which had been erected for the use of the Naval Academy. The barrack building was used for class rooms for officers, and for laboratories. What is known as Storehouse No. 2, built principally of the material obtained from the temporary buildings first mentioned, was used as a storehouse and machine shop.
Between 1871 and 1874, the Station experienced its greatest material expansion, the storehouse, the machine shop, the cottages for officers, the chemical laboratory and the electrical laboratory being erected, and the old barracks rebuilt into quarters and officers for the Inspector in charge.
The only notable addition since that date is the gun-cotton factory built in 1881 and the new wing of the electrical laboratory just completed.
The Torpedo Station was instituted with the view of training a number of officers and men (to be entitled the Torpedo Corps) in the use of torpedoes of all kinds and the necessary accessories.
It was intended that to this place, as headquarters, should be confided the defense by torpedoes of the entire coast. Two years later, by congressional action, the general subject of torpedoes was divided and that part relating to stationary torpedoes (called submarine mines) was assigned to the Engineer Corps of the Army.
From the moment of its inception, the Torpedo Station has been occupied with the experimental solution of a great variety of technical problems effecting the naval service.
Of the various forms of torpedoes devised or tested at the Station there is no end. The spar torpedo, operated from launches or even larger craft, has been studied and perfected in all its parts. From the cumbersome cast iron shell filled with gunpowder has been evolved the small and compact sheet iron case carrying gun-cotton of more than double power.
Explosion by percussion has given place to explosion by means of electricity either on contact or at will.
For wooden spars have been substituted iron and steel tubes. The present boat fittings will probably remain practically unchanged for a long while to come.
The towing torpedo, a case designed to be dragged by a cable off the quarter of a vessel and to dive underneath and adversary, received at one time much attention and experiment. It had its day and is now obsolete.
Stationary torpedoes being soon transferred elsewhere are only dealt with here as a means of instructing our officers and men in the nature of the obstructions they are likely to encounter in an enemy’s port. They are anchored in the channel, usually connected with the shore through submarine cables, and fired by electricity when struck by a ship striving to force her way in. Prior to their removal from Willets Point, many appliances for their use were invented or improved here. It will suffice to refer to the Indicator and Cut-out (designed by Lieut. Comdr. Converse) an instrument which is mounted on shore and which rings a bell to call the attention of the operator whenever the cable breaks or the circuit is broken and which fires the mine when struck, at the same time showing on a dial the number of the mine exploded and breaking, for a moment, the circuits of all neighboring mines which might be fired through the commotion of the water.
Another form of torpedo is known as the “controlled torpedo”. It carries its own motive power, is propelled by an engine and steered from the starting point by electricity. The exemplar is the Lay, so called after its inventor, of which three specimens have been tried at the station. Mr. Ericsson has also entered this field and sent here a torpedo driven and controlled by compressed air conveyed through a flexible tube which is dragged by the torpedo.
The Whitehead torpedo, adopted by all the navies of the world, except our own, is self propelled, but it is not controlled. It runs at a set depth below the water and must be launched in the right direction to ensure a hit. An experimental torpedo of the same nature was planned and constructed here in 1870. Of like type and scope are the Howell and the Hall torpedoes, the one driven by the energy stored up in a heavy revolving disc, the latter, like the Whitehead, by compressed air.
Submarine projectiles, actuated by the burning of a rocket composition, have also been studied here and a submerged gun provided.
It was through the Torpedo Station that electricity was introduced into the navy. The apparatus for test and experiment is quite complete, including steam generators and engines, dynamos of various makes, and a tolerably well equipped electrical laboratory, to which heavy currents are conveyed by adequate underground conductors.
The whole station is lighted at night with electricity, produced by a large compound-wound Weston dynamo driven by a Westinghouse automatic engine. The ferry launch Wave is lighted electrically by a small turbo-electric generator making 9,000 revolutions per minute.
Our navy is very deficient in torpedo boats. The hull of the first of its kind is still here. This boat, the Lightning, was built by Herreshoff in 1876. Her performance of over twenty miles in an hour has never been equalled by a boat of her size—58 feet in length. The Stiletto has lately been added to the fleet.
The use of high explosives in naval warfare has been a constant object of experiment. Nitro-glycerine, dynamite, explosive gelatine, etc., have been made and tested here, and much valuable information brought before the public. On Rose Island, in the middle of Narragansett Bay, is a battery of light guns, where explosives for use in shells are tried in small quantities before passing to the Proving Ground at Annapolis for experiment on a large scale.
The Torpedo Station has three distinct functions—experiment, manufacture and instruction. It assembles the parts for all torpedo outfits for vessels—although castings, etc., are secured from outside establishments. Its activity in this respect, at any time, depends upon the number of vessels fitting for sea. In addition, it manufactures all the gun-cotton used in the navy. The plant for this purpose was erected in 1881, and is the only regular factory in the country for the manufacture of this wonderfully safe and powerful substance.
Every year, a number of naval officers are ordered to the Torpedo Station for three months’ instruction in torpedo work, diving, electricity, high-speed engines and the chemistry of explosives. Practice dominates this course, and theory only enters so far as is necessary. A few members of each class return subsequently for a more extended course of instruction in the same branches.
Two classes of seamen are practically trained each year in these subjects. The same men received six months’ additional training in the gun shops of the Washington Navy Yard, and are rated Seamen Gunners. From among their number are selected the specialists of the crew to care for the new appliances of warfare, such as modern guns with their complicated carriages and gear, rapid fire guns, gatlings, dynamos for ship lighting, search lights, electric motors for pointing the guns, etc., etc.
In general terms, nearly all new appliances, outside of propelling machinery, pass through the Torpedo Station for criticism or test prior to adoption into Naval Service. As a technical and experimental laboratory for the navy its value is great and constantly increasing.