The concept of a submersible marine craft has been around for centuries but it wasn’t until 1776 that a functional submarine was built and used as a warship. David Bushnell, a Yale graduate, built a submarine that looked like two turtle shells attached together, hence it was dubbed the Turtle. It was a one-man sub that submerged by allowing just enough water into the hull to submerge, but not enough to sink it. The one operator would use a foot-pedal system to turn as propeller in order to propel the sub. The operator also had a hand crank that turned a large drill bit or wood screw to drill into the hull of enemy ships. Then the operator would attach a mine, carried outside the sub, to the hull using the hole and then back away before the mine detonated.
On September 7, 1777, Bushnell’s Turtle was put to the test in New York Harbor where it was supposed to attach a mine to the hull of the HMS Eagle, the flagship of British Admiral Richard Howe. Ezra Lee piloted the Turtle. He was in the processing of trying to bore into the hull so as to attach a time bomb, but his boring bit could not penetrate a layer of iron sheathing in the hull. He ended up having to back away from the Eagle, allowing the bomb to explode between the Turtle and the Eagle, but neither vessel received any damage. This was the first recorded time that a submarine had been used during a time of war in an attempt to sink an enemy vessel, although the attempt failed.
In 1797, Robert Fulton proposed building a submarine for the French government to use in their war with Great Britain.
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In 1800, Fulton built his submarine and called it the ‘Nautilus’ After a number of test dives, some to depths of 25 feet and for as long as 6 hours, Fulton piloted the Nautilus on several attempts to attack British ships. Unfortunately for Fulton, the British saw the Nautilus and were able to maneuver out of reach. The failure caused a problem with Fulton’s relationship with the French government and he eventually cut the Nautilus up and sold it as scrap.
Between 1812-1815, there are reports of at least 2 submarines used during the War of 1812, one of which ran aground on Long Island and the other was destroyed by the British.
In 1832, Brutus de Villeroi, a Frenchman, built a 3-man submarine but his attempts to sell it to the Dutch and French failed as no one would buy it.
In 1850, Prussian Army Corporal Wilhelm Bauer designed a 3-man sub that was built by a German shipbuilder. Bauer named it the Brandtaucher, (Incendiary Diver). It was designed to break up the blockade by the Danish Navy. The trim was controlled by a weight that ran along an iron rod and propulsion by two men operating a treadmill that turned the propeller. The first appearance of the Brandtaucher caused the blockade to move further out to sea. On the second run, the trim weight slid too far forward causing the submarine to plunge into the muddy bottom, 60-feet deep. The crew had to wait for 6 hours for enough water to leak into the submarine to equalize the pressure inside, allowing the men to finally open the hatch and make it to the surface.
In 1861 to 1865, submarines were used during the American Civil War. The most famous ones were the Pioneer and CSS Hunley, both built by the Confederates.
In 1870, French novelist Jules Verne published his novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in which he introduced to the world the Captain Nemo and the submarine Nautilus. In his novel, Verne wrote that Nemo and the Nautilus sink the fictional ship, USS Abraham Lincoln.
In 1885, Frenchman Claude Goubet built a battery-operated submarine, but it was too unstable to be functional. Up until that time, all of the submarines had been manpowered.
In 1889, Goubet built a second battery operated submarine, the Goubet II, but like the first one, it proved to be too unstable.
In 1893, The US Navy held a competition for experimental submarines. They were funded by Congress who appropriated $200,000 for the Navy to develop a sub. They had three entries, George C. Baker, Simon Lake and John Phillip Holland who had been designing and building submarines since 1873. Baker, who had connections in Washington DC, gave the Navy and others a demonstration of his submarine on Lake Michigan. Lake and Holland only submitted designs. The Navy chose Holland’s design and Baker complained to his politician friends and suddenly, the Navy was notified that the entire project was placed on hold.
By 1900, the Navy purchased the Holland VI submarine from the company Holland created. Even though it cost $236,000 to build, the Navy paid $150,000 for submarine. The Navy was so pleased that they ordered another submarine, even though not everyone was sold on the idea of submarines. Congress held hearings where one admiral testified that the submarine was more of a novelty but Admiral George Dewey told Congress that if Spain had only 2 of the Holland submarines, there would have been no way he could have captured Manilla. In August, 1900, Congress voted to order 6 more Holland submarines. The Holland submarines were steam powered.
In 1902, Raimondo Lorenzo D’Equevilley, a Spaniard, approached the German Navy with a submarine design and rebuffed and told that submarines had no useful purpose in warfare. He took his design to Krupp Germania shipyard who built his electric driven submarine. The sub had no ability to recharge while operating at sea, some were not enthused. However, Kaiser Wilhelm II was impressed when he and his admiral brother took a ride on board the submarine. In the end, the Krupp company built a larger kerosene powered sub. The German Navy was now interested and ordered a larger, gasoline powered submarine.
By 1904, Great Britain had 5 Holland built submarines in service that were assigned to defend Portsmouth. They managed to torpedo four warships, impressing many among the British Navy hierarchy.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt became the first president to ride in a submarine. The ride influenced Roosevelt to institute submarine pay for all Navy personnel assigned to submarines because of the hazardous nature of being a submariner.
In 1906, Germany launched U-1, their first U-Boat. It was 139 feet long, displaced 239 tons and could reach 11 knots on the surface and 9 knots submerged. One of the main reasons for Germany’s launch of U-1 was because France and Great Britain already had around 60 submarines in service. It was powered by 2 kerosene engines.
By 1911, a 26-year-old Navy Lieutenant by the name of Chester Nimitz convinced the navy to switch from gasoline engines to diesel. Nimitz had already commanded several gasoline powered submarines and found the gasoline to be dangerous. Nimitz’ fourth submarine was the diesel powered Skipjack.
In 1912, Germany began to build their submarine fleet in earnest, improving to a new larger and faster series of U-Boats.
In early 1914, Europe was on the brink of war. Submarines were becoming a greater part of navies. Great Britain had 74 subs in service, 31 under construction and 14 more in the planning stage. France had 62 subs in service and 9 under construction. Russia had 48 subs. Germany only had 28 subs in service and 17 more in construction. The US had 30 in service and 10 under construction, Italy had 21 in service and 7 being built, Japan had 13 in service and 3 under construction and Austria had 6 in service and only two under construction. Most of the submarines were either gasoline or diesel powered.
In 1915, Germany put their 35 U-Boats to work sinking as many British merchant ships as possible. By now, submarines were completely changing the face of naval warfare.
Over the next 30 years, submarines continued to get bigger, more powerful and more deadly, but most of them were still being powered by diesel engines and were limited to service based upon the amount of fuel they could carry and where they could refuel.
In 1953, the US Navy began reshaping their hull design to make them more rounded like an airship, rather than the traditional ship-like. The newly designed 203-foot Albacore was the prototype. It’s diesel engines were able to obtain a speed of 26 knots.
After the use of the atomic bomb to end World War !!, scientists began trying to figure out how to harness atomic power for other purposes, including powering naval vessels. Putting a nuclear powered engine on a regular surface ship was not as big of challenge as putting one on a submarine because of its large size.
Basically, a nuclear engine works by superheating water and turning it into steam. The steam is then piped to a series of turbines that spin and drive the propellers as well as provide electricity throughout the ship. Putting all that into the confined space of a submarine was quite the challenge, but the challenge was met.
On this day, September 30, 1954, the US Navy commissioned the world’s first nuclear powered submarine, appropriately named the USS Nautilus (SSN 571). The Nautilus measured 323 feet long and displaced 3,674 tons. With only 4 kilograms of uranium (approximately 9 pounds), the Nautilus could stay at sea for over half a year without refueling. On the maiden voyage, the Nautilus reached a surface speed of 18 knots and as fast as 23 knots (26.5 mph) submerged. It traveled from New London, Connecticut 1,381 miles to San Juan, Puerto Rico submerged the entire trip, something impossible for diesel or gasoline powered subs to do.
The Nautilus was one of two nuclear experiments. It was fitted with a reactor that used pressurized water to transfer heat from the reactor to the steam plant. A second configuration was looked at that used a liquid sodium potassium alloy to convey the heat from the reactor to the steam plant. The second configuration was used on the Navy’s second nuclear submarine, the Seawolf.
As with other major advances over the past 100 years, using nuclear power in a submarine completely revolutionized submarines and sub warfare.
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Sources for the above includes: Today, September 7, 1776: First Wartime Submarine Attack [VIDEO]; Submarine History Timeline Part One: 1580-1869; World Submarine History Timeline 1870-1914; World Submarine History Timeline 1580-2000; World Submarine History Timeline Part Four: 1941-2000; USS Nautilus Commissioned; History of USS NAUTILUS (SSN 571); USS NAUTILUS (SSN-571)