When we think about submarines in warfare, we generally think about today’s nuclear subs or the diesel powered subs of World War I and II that we see in the movies. Science fiction fans generally think of the Nautilus and Captain Nemo, made famous in the 1870 novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. Civil War buffs often point to the CSS H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that sunk the Union warship, USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor in 1864. The Hunley was the first time a submarine successfully sunk an enemy vessel during battle
But submarines existed and were used in battle long before the Civil War.
In 1580, an English innkeeper and science buff by the name of William Bourne described how to build a submarine. He appears to be one of the first to understand the concept of buoyancy and water displacement. He wrote:
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“It is possible to make a Ship or Boate that may goe under the water unto the bottome, and so to come up again at your pleasure. [If] Any magnitude of body that is in the water . . . having alwaies but one weight, may be made bigger or lesser, then it Shall swimme when you would, and sinke when you list . . . .”
In 1623, a submarine built by Cornelius Drebbel, a Dutch inventor working in the court of British King James I, travelled at a depth of 15 feet down the Thames River. It was propelled by twelve oarsmen. This sub had a front plane that made the sub submerge under forward momentum, but once the oarsmen stopped rowing, it floated back to the surface. The same principle is used on many mid-depth ranging fishing lures today.
In 1634, Marin Mersenne, a French Priest described a submarine made of copper, cylindrical in shape and pointed front and rear for better streamlining and allowing reverse motion without having to turn around.
In 1654, the Rotterdam Boat was built by De Son, a Frenchman. He built it for the Netherlands and it was designed to travel across the English Channel and return, after punching holes into the hulls of British ships. The Rotterdam Boat was 72-foot-long and propelled by a spring driven device. When launched, it went nowhere.
In 1696, Denis Papin, the inventor of the pressure cooker, designed two submarines. They looked more like underwater drums or boxes that used an air pump to control the buoyancy. They were not designed for any kind of speed due to their shape. When on the surface, it was propelled by a sail, but when submerged it was rowed with oars. He built his first sub, but supposedly never completed his second sub after his backers backed out.
In 1729, Nathaniel Symons, an English carpenter built a non-propulsion submarine as a spectator event rather than a usable vessel. Once inside the sub, Symons would crank the ends of his hull together and the sub sank. After 45 minutes underwater, he would crank the ends of the hull back out, making it expand and float back to the surface.
In 1773, J. Day, an Englishman, built a submarine that used detachable ballast stones tied to the outside of the hull. Once submerged, the stones could be released from inside and the sub would rise. He had a successful test in shallow water. Then he was encouraged to build a larger version and then see how long it could remain submerged in deeper water. The larger version was taken out to deeper water, and they began to tie ballast stones to the hull but the sub would not submerge. They tied more stones and the sub went under and never resurfaced. It is surmised that the hull caved in to the pressure of the deeper water before the ballast stones could be untied.
In 1776, 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 out the sub, to the hull using the hole and then back away before the mine detonated.
On this day, 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.
Over the next week, more attempts were made to use the Turtle to sink British ships in the Hudson River, but none of them were successful Bushnell believed that Lee was inept in how to properly use the mechanisms on the Turtle, but Bushnell had physical limitations that made it impossible for him to pilot his submarine. Lee explained his failures, writing:
“When I rowed under the stern of the ship, could see men and deck and hear them talk-then I shut all doors, sunk down, and came up under the bottom of the ship, up with the screw against the bottom but found that it would not enter.”
The Turtle was lost during the Battle of Fort Lee when the American ship that was carrying it was sunk by the British. However, George Washington did commission Bushnell as an Army Engineer. Bushnell when on to design floating mines that there used to sink and damage a number of British ships. The British frigate Cereberus was sunk by one of Bushnell’s mines.
After the Revolutionary War ended, with the aid of Washington, Bushnell was promoted to Captain and given command of the US Army Corps of Engineers and was stationed at West Point. Later on, he studied medicine and opened a practice in Warrenton, Georgia, and taught at the local academy David Bushnell died in 1824 at the age of 70.
Bushnell’s legacy is remembered in the naming of two submarine tenders, USS Bushnell (AS-2) in 1915 and again in 1942 (AS-15). A full scale model of Bushnell’s Turtle is on display at the US Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.
Sources for the above includes: Key Events in the History of Submarines; The Story Behind The First Submarine To Sink A Warship; The First Submarine Attack Happened During The Revolutionary War; World’s First Submarine Attack; Bushnell Turtle Midget Submarine Prototype (1775); David Bushnell and his Revolutionary Submarine; History of the Submarine – David Bushnell 1742-1824; David Bushnell