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Thanks for the memories  July 26, 2012

US Navy dolphins find antique torpedo

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Michelle Starr is the tiger force at the core of all things. She also writes about cool stuff and apps as CNET Australia's Crave editor. But mostly the tiger force thing.

Howell torpedo on display at the US Naval Undersea Museum.
(Credit: The Naval War College Museum)

Dolphins trained by the US military to find objects underwater have uncovered a late 19th-century torpedo.

Unlike Operation Acoustic Kitty, the US military's dolphin program, active since the 1960s, has had quite a bit of success. Dolphins, you see, are capable of producing sonar, and have an aptitude for learning commands, proving to be much more useful than machines for aquatic mine detection.

Military bottle-nose dolphin K-Dog with its handler, Sergeant Andrew Garrett.
(Credit: US Navy)

Braden Duryee, operations supervisor for the SSC Pacific Biosciences Division, explained, "Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to man. They can detect mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor that are acoustically difficult targets to detect."

This time, though, two of the trained bottle-nose dolphins have discovered something much more interesting than mines: a late 19th-century Howell Automobile Torpedo, the first self-propelled torpedo in the US, off the coast of Coronado, California. Unlike previous torpedoes, it was propelled by a hand-wound flywheel that weighed around 60 kilograms and needed to spin at around 10,000 rotations per minute. Conceived in 1871, the torpedo wasn't officially approved for construction until 1877, and then use until 1885-86. It was quickly superseded in 1892, meaning only 50 of the torpedoes were ever produced.

Until this discovery, in fact, only one Howell torpedo was known to still exist, housed in the US Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington.

(Of course, Howell was pipped at the post by Melbourne, Australia, inventor Louis Brennan, who patented his steerable propeller torpedo in 1877.)

The dolphins had been trained by US Navy specialists to touch the front of the boat with their noses if they find something, and the back of the boat if they don't. During a shallow-water dive last month, a dolphin by the name of Ten surfaced and touched the front of the boat, confusing the human handlers, who did not expect any finds in that area. When it happened a week later with a dolphin named Spetz, a marker was placed, and divers were sent in for examination and retrieval. They discovered, after extensive research, that it was a 130-year-old torpedo.

"It was apparent in the first 15 minutes that this was something that was significant and really old," Christian Harris, operations supervisor for the SSC Pacific Biosciences Division, said. "Realising that we were the first people to touch it or be around it in over 125 years was really exciting."


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