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Dolphins Find 19th Century Navy Torpedo In Pacific Ocean

A rare piece of America's military history was located this spring, when dolphins from the Navy's Marine Mammal Program located an unusual artifact: a torpedo from the 19th century. Discovered during a training exercise in the ocean near San Diego, the torpedo will eventually make its way to a museum.

The bottlenose dolphins were honing their ability to find underwater mines when the discovery was made. The torpedo did not have a warhead, Navy officials say.

"The Howell torpedo, one of the first self-propelled torpedoes developed and used by the U.S. Navy, was discovered off the San Diego coast," reads an announcement from the Space and Navy Warfare Systems Command's Facebook page.

The torpedo was developed in an era when naval power defined a nation's might; its design was seen as "a leap forward in military armament," The Los Angeles Times reports. The Times describes the torpedo as "made of brass, 11 feet long, driven by a 132-pound flywheel spun to 10,000 rpm before launch. It had a range of 400 yards and a speed of 25 knots."

The weapons have remained rare. The U.S. Navy only had 50 of them built, according to the Naval Undersea Museum.

The Howell was named for its creator, Lieutenant Commander John A. Howell. The Naval Undersea Museum in Washington state has one of the torpedoes on display; the recently found artifact is likely to join it. The museum's website describes the Howell as part of a new crop of "automobile" — or self-propelling — torpedoes of the late 19th century. The torpedoes were built by the Hotchkiss Ordnance Co. in Providence, R.I.

It seems to have taken a while for the Navy to identify the torpedo the dolphins located near San Diego — after all, it was decommissioned generations ago. In the end, a search on Google helped, a Navy official tells San Diego's CBS 8 TV.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.