The warfare state is much older than the welfare state. For centuries, the relationship between militaries and the private manufacturing sector has been the most important point of interaction between the state and society. The naval-manufacturing relationship has even deeper historical roots: since warfare at sea has traditionally required much more sophisticated technology than warfare on land, nations have had to invest more money in navies in peacetime.
In the late nineteenth century, two developments transformed the naval-manufacturing relationship. First, the intense naval competition preceding World War I increased the pace of technological change and the need for peacetime investment in naval technology. Second, the Second Industrial Revolution transformed the manufacturing sector into the industrial sector, and it accordingly altered the nature of military and naval technology. Torpedoes were in the vanguard of both developments.
They played a significant role in the arms race before World War I because they threatened to revolutionize naval tactics and strategy. Navies realized that the tactical system built around capital ships primarily armed with big guns might give way to one built around smaller vessels primarily armed with torpedoes. At the strategic level, the ability of smaller vessels carrying torpedoes to sink larger ones made battle and blockade very risky. Given the potential of torpedoes to alter the metrics and application of naval power, navies worked feverishly to develop them before World War I.
The sophistication of torpedo technology, however, complicated the task of turning potential into reality. Powered by fossil fuels and made with hundreds of small, steel, inter-changeable parts, torpedoes symbolized the Second Industrial Revolution at sea. Sending a torpedo prototype into mass production without adequately testing it beforehand would produce nightmares of assembly and operation. A robust research and development infrastructure was therefore vital.
Torpedo development in the United States and Great Britain showed the two sides of the research-and-development coin. Despite the common depiction of a declining Britain and a rising United States in this period, Britain actually had a decided edge over the United States in naval-industrial research and development resources. This edge enabled it to perfect existing torpedo technology and test new technology, while the United States had to take technological gambles. It was research and development resources, not Yankee can-do spirit or John Bull conservatism, that accounted for the nature of technological change.
Although the two nations met with differing degrees of success, the effort to create an adequate research-and-development infrastructure profoundly changed the relationship between state and society in both the United States and Britain. Lacking the resources to develop adequate technology alone, the public and private sectors were forced to work together—but their collaboration raised fundamental and complex questions about the nature of property in relation to invention, and it imperiled the liberal political philosophy on which both nations were putatively founded.
Between their interaction with industrialization and the new relationship between the government and the private sector, torpedoes may be said to have helped put the “industrial” and the “complex” in the military-industrial complex. Their story therefore belongs in larger narratives about the nature of technological change, industrialization, modern warfare, and national development.