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Lincoln's Secret Weapon
400 Years of Subs
Introduction | 1580-1861 | 1861-1900 |1900-1918
1918-1939 | 1939-1945 | 1945-1972 | 1972-2000

William Bourne, an English innkeeper and scientific dilettante, provided the first published prescription for a submarine. Bourne first offered a lucid description of why a ship floats—by displacing its weight of water—and then described a mechanism by which

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] [a]ny 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....

Bourne's scheme
Some years later, this drawing purported to be Bourne's scheme. This plan featured leather-wrapped pads that one could screw in toward the centerline to create a flooded chamber and screw out to expel the water and seal the opening. Bourne wrote of expanding and contracting structures, however, not flooding chambers, and submarines built in England in 1729 and France in 1863 conformed with his idea exactly.
In other words, decrease the volume to make the boat heavier than the weight of the water it displaces, and it will sink. Make it lighter, by increasing the volume, and it will rise. Bourne wrote of watertight joints of leather and a screw mechanism to wind the volume-changing 'thing' in and out. He described a principle rather than a plan for a submarine, and he offered no illustration.

Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel, hired in 1603 as "court inventor" for James I of England, built what seems to have been the first working submarine. According to accounts, some of which people who actually saw the submarine may have written, it was a decked-over rowboat propelled by twelve oarsmen and made a submerged journey down the Thames River at a depth of about 15 feet.

Neither credible illustrations of Drebbel's boat nor credible explanations of how it worked exist. Best guess: The vessel was designed to have almost-neutral buoyancy, floating just awash, with a downward-sloping foredeck to act as a sort of diving plane. The boat would be driven under the surface by forward momentum (as are most modern submarines). When the rowers stopped rowing, the craft would slowly rise. Reports that Drebbel's patron, James I, witnessed a demonstration may be true, but those claiming the king took an underwater ride are most unlikely.

French priest Marin Mersenne theorized that a submarine should be made of copper and cylindrical in shape to better withstand water pressure (which increases about half a pound per square inch for every foot of depth). Such a craft, he maintained, should also bear pointed ends for streamlining and to permit course reversal without having to turn around.

Rotterdam Boat
De Son's Rotterdam Boat.

The 72-foot-long Rotterdam Boat, designed by a man named De Son (a Frenchman), was probably the first underwater vessel specifically built (by Belgians) to attack an enemy (the English Navy). De Son meant for his almost-submarine—a semi-submerged ram—to sneak up unobserved and punch a hole in an enemy ship. He boasted that it could cross the English Channel and back in a day, and sink a hundred ships along the way. Propulsion: a spring-driven clockwork device that turned a central paddle wheel. The device was so underpowered, however, that when the boat was finally launched, it went—literally—nowhere.

Borelli's boat
Illustration purportedly showing Borelli's boat with its goatskin ballast bags.
No evidence exists that Italian Giovanni Borelli ever built a submarine, but this illustration and several variations continue to appear in books and magazines as if it had been a real boat, sometimes erroneously linked with the efforts of Drebbel (1623) or Symons (1729). Borelli did understand the basic principle of volume versus weight (displacement), but he illustrated a totally impractical ballast system in which an operator would increase the boat's weight by allowing a bank of goatskin bags to fill with water, then decrease it by squeezing the water out and enabling the vessel to rise again.

Papin's boat
Papin tested the first boat, but his patron lost interest, and the second boat was never finished. Illustrations of this submarine look like a steam kettle (and, it so happens, Papin also invented the pressure cooker). An engraver might have confused the two, or the engravings may have been a joke or Papin's attempt at secrecy.

Professor of mathematics Denis Papin built two submarines. He used an air pump to balance internal pressure with external water pressure, thus adjusting buoyancy by controlling the in-and-out flow of water into the hull. Propulsion: sails on the surface, oars underwater. Papin described "certain holes" through which the operator might "touch enemy vessels and ruin them in sundry ways."

English house-carpenter Nathaniel Symons created a one-man expanding/contracting sinking boat (no locomotion) as a sort of public entertainment. Sealed up inside, in front of a crowd of spectators, he cranked the two parts of his telescopic hull together, spent 45 minutes underwater, then expanded the hull, rose to the surface, and passed the hat. One man gave him a coin.

Wagonmaker J. Day, another Englishman, built a small submarine with detachable ballast: stones hung around the outside with ring bolts that one could release from inside. This worked quite well in shallow water. Encouraged by a professional gambler, Day built a bigger boat and offered spectators the opportunity to place bets on how long he could remain underwater farther out in the harbor.

Surrounded by ships filled with bettors, Day's associates hung some stones; the boat wallowed awash but would not go under. They hung more stones, and this time the boat sank like a rock. Though no one could prove it, the vessel would have collapsed long before a frantic Day and his men could have released the ballast. All hands were lost.

The Turtle
The Turtle as drawn in 1875. Despite an effort to gather reliable information, the artist made several significant errors. The drawing shows ballast tanks, though the Turtle had none. It depicts an Archimedes screw (helical) for locomotion instead of a propeller like the "arms of a windmill" or a "pair of oars" described by Bushnell and others. Finally—and this we may forgive—it displays the operator wearing a rather foppish late-19th-century outfit.
Yale graduate David Bushnell ('75) built the first submarine to actually make an attack on an enemy warship. Dubbed the Turtle for its resemblance to a sea turtle floating vertically in the water, the craft was operated by one Sergeant Ezra Lee. The plan was for Lee to be towed close to an enemy ship, open a foot-operated valve to let in enough water to sink, close the valve, and move in under the target. He would do so by cranking two propellers—one for forward and the other for vertical movement—by using a foot treadle "like a spinning wheel." He would then drill into the hull to attach a 150-pound keg of gunpowder with a clockwork detonator, crank to get away, and operate a foot pump to get the water out of the hull and re-surface.

In early-morning darkness on September 7, 1776, Turtle made an attack on a British ship in New York harbor, probably HMS Eagle. The drill may have hit an iron strap, for it failed to penetrate the hull. (Contrary to most reports, the Eagle of 1776 did not have a copper-sheathed bottom.) Lee became disoriented and soon bobbed to the surface. Though a lookout spotted him, he managed to get away.

Robert Fulton, a marginal American artist but increasingly successful inventor living in Paris, offered to build the French government a submarine for use against Britain. Fulton called it "a Mechanical Nautilus. A Machine which flatters me with much hope of being Able to Annihilate their Navy." He would build and operate the machine at his own expense and would expect payment for each British ship destroyed. Fulton predicted that "Should some vessels of war be destroyed by means so novel, so hidden, and so incalculable, the confidence of the seamen will vanish and the fleet [be] rendered useless from the moment of the first terror."

After protracted delays and several changes in government, Fulton felt encouraged enough to build the submarine he called Nautilus. He made a number of successful dives, reaching depths of 25 feet and on one occasion staying down for as long as six hours, with ventilation on that excursion provided by a tube to the surface.

Nautilus was essentially an elongated Turtle with a larger propeller and a mast and sail for use on the surface. In trials, Nautilus achieved a maximum sustained underwater speed of four knots. Given the rank of rear admiral, Fulton made several attempts to attack English ships, which saw him coming and simply moved out of the way.

This most commonly reproduced Nautilus was drawn two years before Fulton built the submarine. Fulton added a deck and made a number of undocumented changes in the finished product. Illustrations that show Nautilus with the hull form and sail rig of a surface sailboat represent the never-built 'improved' version.

His relationship with the French government deteriorated. A new Minister of Marine reportedly said, "Go, sir. Your invention is fine for the Algerians or corsairs, but be advised that France has not yet abandoned the Ocean." Fulton broke up Nautilus and sold the metal for scrap. He proposed but never built an improved version.

Fulton also attached the name 'torpedo' to that maritime weapon we now call a mine. Fulton's torpedoes were meant to be towed into position, either by a submerged boat or a surface rowboat. When the French passed on the Nautilus, he offered to sell torpedoes to the English, demonstrating their utility by sinking an anchored ship with a pair of torpedoes towed into place by a rowboat.

Halsey's boat
This drawing of Halsey's boat depicts a technical Turtle clone, with an "air tube to shove up when at the surface" at the top and a "water cock" and "force pump" at the bottom. The operator has one hand on the tiller, the other on a crank used to turn the propeller and drill bit. A line attaches the 'torpedo' to the drill.
At least two submarines reportedly operated during the War of 1812. A British admiral called one of them "a Turtle," though assertions that Bushnell himself "returned to the charge" in the War of 1812 are not true. By that time, Bushnell, whose family had not heard from him for more than 25 years, was in his 70s and living under an assumed name in Georgia. The other submarine survives only in the notebooks of the revolver king Samuel Colt. The notebooks (now in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society) show a design attributed to Silas Clowden Halsey. Colt added the notation "lost in New London harbor in an effort to blow up a British 74." Of this craft, nothing else is known.

Englishman Thomas Johnstone may (or may not) have participated in Fulton's efforts on behalf of the French and may (or may not) have been hired to build a 100-foot-long submarine to be used in a planned rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from exile on Elba. Whatever the facts of the case, Napoleon died before the (possible) submarine could be finished.

While the Danish Navy was blockading the German port of Kiel, Prussian army corporal Wilhelm Bauer persuaded a shipbuilder to construct a blockade-breaking submarine based on his design. Bauer called his brainchild Brandtaucher (Incendiary Diver). About the size and shape of a small sperm whale, the boat was made of riveted sheet iron. Two men powered a treadmill to drive a propeller, while a third man steered. The crew controlled buoyancy with ballast tanks and adjusted trim by moving a sliding weight along an iron rod.

Brandtaucher was recovered in 1887 and is now on display in Dresden, Germany.

On its first appearance, Brandtaucher proved sufficiently threatening to cause the blockading force to move farther out to sea. On a subsequent submerged run, however, the sliding weight slid too far forward, and the vessel plunged to the bottom, getting stuck in mud at 60 feet. Bauer and his two companions could not open the hatch because of the water pressure; they had to wait until a leak had sufficiently filled the interior with seawater that the pressure inside matched that without. After an unimaginable six hours in the claustrophobic darkness, they opened the hatch and were swept to the surface in a bubble of escaping air.

Steering Submarine Propeller
Phillips earned an 1852 patent for a "Steering Submarine Propeller," whose main innovation was a hand-cranked propeller on a swivel joint that allowed crew to steer the vessel and control up and down movement.
Indiana shoemaker Lodner D. Phillips built at least two submarines. The first, which he constructed in 1845 at the age of 20, collapsed at a depth of 20 feet. The second achieved hand-cranked underwater speeds of four knots and depths of 100 feet. Phillips offered to sell it to the U.S. Navy, which promptly responded, "No authority is known to this Bureau to purchase a submarine boat . . . the boats used by the Navy go on not under the water." During the Civil War, he again offered his services to the Navy, again without success.

Wilhelm Bauer built the 52-foot Diable Marin (Sea Devil) for Russia. The submarine made as many as 134 dives, the most spectacular of which celebrated the coronation of Tsar Alexander II. Of the 16 men the boat took underwater, four formed a brass band, whose underwater rendition of the national anthem could be heard clearly by listeners on the surface.

French designer Brutus de Villeroi built a 33-foot-long treasure-hunting submarine for Philadelphia financier Stephen Girard. The target: the wreck of the British warship De Braak, lost near the mouth of the Delaware River in 1780. The method: divers operating out of an airlock. The boat made at least one three-hour dive to 20 feet; no other details are known.

Continue: 1861-1900

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