Rear-Admiral Bradley A. Fiske (1854-1942) made a name for himself in the U.S. Navy as an innovator. Beginning in the 1880’s, he helped introduce improvements to ships and armaments such as using electric motors to move heavy guns, heavier armor, and electrically powered navigational instruments. Fiske took particular interest in gunnery, especially the instruments gunners used to locate targets, point their guns, and shoot accurately. Fiske developed some of the first optical sights adopted by the U.S. Navy in the 1890’s. He also invented devices that measured distance, allowed observers to see if shots hit or missed, and communication systems for gun crews. Fiske’s instruments allowed American naval gunnery to be more efficient than ever before.
American naval officers advocated rigorous battle practice as gunnery instruments improved. Rather than shooting a ship’s guns as little as once or twice a year on controlled ranges, they felt gunners should practice as frequently as practical on moving targets. Building vessels to use for target practice was cost prohibitive, so the U.S. Navy developed a “battle raft.” This was a latticework target measuring 140 feet by 40 feet and mounted on a raft. Ships towed battle rafts during target practice at various speeds and frequently changed direction in order to simulate actual movements during combat. This allowed for more realistic gunnery practice as opposed to shooting at stationary targets.
Bradley Fiske advocated adding more realism to target practice by altering sighting systems so that gunners could aim at a ship but not actually shoot at it. Fiske proposed adding a prism to one side of a pair of sighting binoculars so that the user saw a split image, one side being the targeted ship and the other side open ocean. The guns were aligned with the side that looked at the open ocean, so that when the guns fired, their shots fell harmlessly into the water. Gunners looking through these binoculars saw splashes from the shots fired just beside the image of the ship. The proximity of the splashes to the ship image determined if the shots were hits or misses.
Admiral Fiske proposed his prism target practice optics to the Sperry Gyroscope Company in 1916. Fiske and Sperry had a long history of collaboration going back at least ten years. Fiske corresponded directly with Elmer Sperry, owner of Sperry Gyroscope, about his ideas and collaborated with the company’s engineers. Sperry liked the prism target practice concept and developed working drawings and prototype instruments for the Navy to test.
The United States’ entry into World War I in April 1917 ended work on Fiske’s prism system. Neither Sperry nor Fiske returned to it after the war, both moving on to other projects. Although Fiske’s prism idea went nowhere it illustrates how Navy officers partnered with private industry to develop and manufacture devices they invented. Their collaboration led to many dead ends, but contributed to a body of research that advanced naval gunnery and other devices that military and civilian mariners use to this day.
Lucas R. Clawson is Hagley Historian and works in the Hagley Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Department.