Frank McDowell Leavitt

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Frank McDowell Leavitt

Birthdate: (72)
Death: 1928 (72)
Immediate Family:

Son of Rev. Dr. John McDowell Leavitt and Bithia Leavitt
Brother of John Brooks Leavitt and Anna Brooks Cresap

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About Frank McDowell Leavitt

Frank McDowell Leavitt (1856–1928) was an American engineer and inventor. Leavitt devised one of the earliest machines for manufacturing tin cans and later invented the Bliss-Leavitt torpedo, the chief torpedo weapon used by United States Navy in World War I. Leavitt was part of an emerging cadre of American engineers whose design feats were putting United States manufacturing might on the map at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Early life and career beginnings

Frank M. Leavitt was born at Athens, Ohio, on March 3, 1856, the son of Rev. John McDowell Leavitt, later president of Lehigh University, and his wife Bethia (Brooks) Leavitt of Cincinnati, Ohio. Leavitt married Ohio-born Gertrude Goodsell at Brooklyn, New York, on November 8, 1893, and settled in Brooklyn Heights, New York, where he pursued his career as an engineer.

Within a decade of his marriage, Leavitt had patented an early – and lucrative – process to manufacture tin cans. By 1904 he turned his attention to weaponry: Shortly afterwards Leavitt began working with the civilian contracting firm E. W. Bliss & Co. of Brooklyn to design a new type of torpedo. The recently concluded Russian-Japanese War had caught the attention of United States Naval officials, because both nation's fleets had lost most of their battleships to underwater explosives. The race was on to perfect the deadly armaments, and the United States Navy was becoming the world leader in torpedo technology.

Previous torpedoes were powered by radial engines powered by compressed air. Leavitt's idea was to use steam turbines to drive the torpedo. In 1904 Leavitt designed a new class of torpedoes, manufactured by his employer the Bliss Company. The first model of the inventor's new torpedo was called the Bliss-Leavitt Mk 1. The weapon was powered by a single-stage, vertical turbine engine, fuelled by alcohol used to heat the air before entering the engine.

The design was seen as groundbreaking in the armaments race. "New, Deadlier Torpedo," headlined The New York Times in a front-page story on the development. "Missiles Equipped with Turbine Engines the Navy's Latest Acquisition". In the story that followed, The Times noted that "the United States Government is supplying its Navy with a new engine of destruction which will be a deadly step in the evolution of modern warfare.... The new invention is known as the Bliss-Leavitt torpedo." The new devices, the newspaper noted, would cost the government $4,000-to-$6,000 apiece.

The design was revolutionary, but not without problems. The single-stage turbine engine drove a single propeller, which had a tendency to develop unbalanced torque and thus to roll in the water, throwing off its accuracy. The manufacturer and its inventor Leavitt corrected the problem in subsequent models of the Bliss-Leavitt torpedo by using a twin-turbine engine driving twin propellers, thus steadying the armament's waterborne trajectory. The Bliss-Leavitt Mk 2 and Mk 3 models of the weapon incorporated improvements to the design by Lt. Gregory Davison of the United States Navy. Ultimately, the Brooklyn manufacturing company introduced a Bliss-Leavitt Mk 4 model, an 18-inch torpedo used in the torpedo boats and submarines of the era.

The Bliss Company had long enjoyed a close relationship with the United States Navy, acting as the virtual sole supplier of torpedoes to the service. But an English competitor emerged, Whitehead, and the competition between the two firms subsequently drove torpedo technology forward, resulting in a flurry of new models following the turn of the twentieth century. In short order the Bliss Company turned out its Mk 6 model, which used horizontal turbines and could be launched above-water (but with limited range of 2,000 yards). A subsequent Mk 7 was the next great leap of technology, utilizing a water spray into the engine's combustion chamber to create a steam-powered torpedo.

Bliss-Leavitt Torpedo Changes the Game

Bliss-Leavitt Mark 11 torpedoes launched from destroyer USS Milwaukee, ca. 1925"In 1912, the E. W. Bliss Company produced its finest torpedo to date, the Bliss-Leavitt Mk 7," writes Anthony Newpower in his authoritative Iron Men and Tin Fish. "This innovative design featured the use of steam, generated from water sprayed into the combustion pot along with the fuel. The resulting mixture dramatically boosted the efficiency of the torpedo, leading to markedly improved performance."

The Bliss-Leavitt Mk 7 was so cutting-edge that its design changed the face of naval warfare. Building on inventor Frank M. Leavitt's initial design, and incorporating his later improvements, the Mk 7 had a range of 6,000 yards at a brisk clip of 35 knots. The torpedo carried 326 pounds of TNT or TPX explosive. The Bliss-Leavitt Mk 7 was introduced into the United States Navy Fleet in 1912, and the design proved so resilient and far-sighted that it remained in use for an unprecedented 33 years – up to and including service in World War II. (During the Second World War, the Mk 7 was used to arm reactivated World War I destroyers still carrying 18-inch torpedo tubes. Also pressed into service during the conflict were several subsequent models of Bliss-Leavitts, including the Mk 9, Mk 11 and Mk 12).

The Navy considered the new weapon so essential to its arsenal that it sued in federal court in 1913 to prevent the Bliss Company from revealing any details of its manufacture to foreign countries. In its petition asking an injunction preventing company officials from telling British officials the technical details of the revolutionary torpedo, Assistant United States Attorney General Malcolm A. Coles told a U.S. District Court Judge that the court must "protect the right arm of the nation's defense" – the Navy – by granting a U.S. Government request for an injunction preventing Bliss from revealing the technical specifications of the weapon to a British company.

During the First World War, most United States Navy ships were still functioning chiefly as anti-submarine escorts, and the use of torpedoes as offensive weapons was limited. On May 21, 1917, the USS destroyer Ericsson reportedly fired a single torpedo at a German U-Boat. But the German Navy, on the other hand, subsequently put the torpedo at the centerpiece of its naval efforts – a pairing of ship and weapon that would prove devastatingly effective during World War II.

Final years and legacy

Frank M. Leavitt, who served as chief engineer for the E. W. Bliss Company for many years, died at his home in Scarsdale, New York, on August 6, 1928. The Ohio-born inventor and his wife had no children. His sister Anna Brooks Leavitt, who married USN Commander James C. Cresap, had a grandchild named in honor of the inventor: U.S. Navy Lieut. Commander Frank McDowell Leavitt Davis, who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Lieut. Commander Davis later commanded a Naval torpedo bombing plane squadron in World War II, and perished while on duty in a Navy plane crash off Malta in 1946. Frank McDowell Leavitt Davis is honored with a plinth at the Naval Academy cemetery. Frank M. L. Davis and his father, Lieut. Ralph Otis Davis, both were assigned to the Navy submarine service.

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Frank McDowell Leavitt's Timeline

Age 72