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Robert C. McGuire


According to reports coming from Grand Forks on this date in 1917, an inventor from there, Robert C. McGuire, had developed an idea of controlling torpedoes wirelessly. He had been experimenting with models of torpedoes in a bathtub. Two electrical wires were hanging over the bathtub edge; they were charged, but he didn’t know it. He grabbed one, and was shocked, but also saw that the torpedo model looked like it was trying “to climb out of the bathtub” toward him. He started to run with the idea.

According to the report, McGuire was offered $650,000 by the government after experts from the Navy department tested the model in the Mississippi River.

Yet McGuire was not the only inventor to find interest in the topic. Torpedoes had long been in existence—they were in use before Robert Whitehead invented the first mobile torpedo in the 1860s. Whitehead’s torpedo was powered by compressed air and travelled about 200 feet at a maximum of six knots. In the 1880s, inventor John Ericson came up with a rocket torpedo that ran at about 60 knots, but it had so short a range that the US Navy torpedo station called it more of a liability to the ship launching it, than to the target.

Even inventor Nicola Tesla worked on a wireless torpedo. In 1907, about ten years before the experiments of North Dakota’s Robert McGuire, Tesla wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times, stating, “A report…says that I have attained no practical results with my dirigible wireless torpedo. This statement should be qualified. I have constructed such machines, and shown them in operation on frequent occasions. They have worked perfectly, and everybody who saw them was amazed at their performance. It is true that my efforts to have this novel means for attack and defense adopted by our Government have been unsuccessful, but this is no discredit to my invention. … The time is not yet ripe for the telautomatic art.”

The time must have ripened in those ten years, as just a month after the report about Robert McGuire’s invention, a patent was filed by Claude H. Hill of Quincy, IL on a wireless-controlled, flying torpedo. And his application wasn’t the only one filed around that time.

So, Robert McGuire’s role in the evolution of the torpedo may not have been grandiose. Nevertheless, his work tied North Dakota to an interesting piece of American military history.

Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker

The New York Times, March 20, 1907

The Silva Journal, March 31, 1917, p.4