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Hitler's Lost Sub
400 Years of Subs by Brayton Harris

Checkered, fraught with drama, and wholly absorbing, the history of the submarine is as much about the quirky personalities of those behind development of undersea vehicles as it is about the remarkable successes and often tragic defeats they met with. In this illustrated timeline of what submariners call simply 'boats,' follow the progress of invention over four centuries, from the first working submarine built in 1623 to the most advanced marine machine ever to sail the seas, the USS Seawolf, launched in 1997.

For a comprehensive illustrated history, click on the year ranges below. Or, if you just want a quick sketch, simply read the outline below.

1580-1861
1580: William Bourne publishes first description of submarine
1623: Cornelius Drebbel constructs the first working submarine
1776: David Bushnell builds first submarine to attack enemy warship
1800: Robert Fulton's submarine stays down for up to six hours
1812: Two submarines reportedly operate in War of 1812
1850: Wilhelm Bauer escapes from his sunken submarine
1855: Bauer's Sea Devil makes 134 dives


1861-1900
1861: During Civil War, Pioneer sinks barge with a towed torpedo
1862: Alligator becomes first submarine in the U.S. Navy
1864: Hunley sinks USS Housatonic, first warship ever sunk by submarine
1870: Jules Verne publishes Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
1881: John Holland's Fenian Ram reaches speeds of nine knots
1885: Thorsen Nordenfeldt's Nordenfeldts considered world standard
1889: Isaac Peral's Peral successfully fires three "automobile torpedoes"
1898: Simon Lake's Argonaut I journeys from Virginia to New Jersey


1900-1918
1900: U.S. Navy buys Holland VI for $150,000, launching Age of Submarines
1905: Theodore Roosevelt becomes first U.S. president to go for submerged ride
1906: Germany launches U-1, the first Unterzeeboot or U-boat
1914: Lake's Seal sets a depth record of 256 feet
1915: U-20 sinks civilian liner Lusitania, killing 1,198 passengers
1916: Germany creates UA class of U-boat, the ultimate World War I submarine
1917: Germany UA boats sink 174 ships along U.S. east coast
1918: By war's end, Germany has lost 173 U-boats


1918-1939
1923: U.S. boat S-1 features on-deck hangar and seaplane
1925: Steamer accidentally sinks U.S. boat S-51 (all hands lost)
1931: France fields Surcouf, world's largest submarine until World War II
1932: Japan builds I-5, first of a series of submarine aircraft carriers
1935: Karl Dönitz defines new concepts for submarine warfare
1938: Experimental Japanese HA boat tops 21 knots submerged
1939: USS Squalus survivors saved using McCann submarine rescue chamber
1939: U.S. scientist proposes "fission chambers" to power submarines


1939-1945
1940: U.S. submarine production jumps to 71 for fiscal year 1941
1940: Over three days, U-boats sink 38 ships in three convoys
1941: "Ultra" codebreakers able to read most U-boat radio traffic
1941: U-570 becomes first and only submarine ever captured by aircraft
1942: Germans deploy "Milk Cow" submarine for mid-ocean U-boat refueling
1943: Germans perfect "snorkel" to enable boats to run on diesel below surface
1943: U.S. introduces "Hunter-Killer" anti-submarine groups
1944: USS Archerfish sinks largest ship ever sunk by a submarine
1944: Japan fields the Kaiten suicide torpedo, holding one kamikaze pilot
1945: By war's end, Germany has lost 821 U-boats
1945: U.S. Navy does GUPPY fleet upgrade, modifying 52 boats


1945-1972
1947: U.S. begins experimenting with submarine-launched missiles
1950: USS Pickerel makes submerged run from Hong Kong to Pearl Harbor
1952: USS Tang sets American depth record of 713 feet
1954: First nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, goes to sea
1956: U.S. begins developing Polaris submarine-launched missile
1958: Soviet Union fields its first nuclear-powered submarine
1960: USS Triton completes first submerged circumnavigation of globe
1963: USS Thresher sinks in 8,300 feet of water, killing 128 crew members
1965: USS Albacore reportedly sets underwater speed record of 33 knots
1968: USS Scorpion sinks, possibly a victim of one of her own torpedoes


1972-2000
1972: Development begins on long-distance Trident submarine missile
1974: C.I.A. covertly attempts to raise a sunken Soviet Golf-class boat
1982: British submarine sinks Argentine cruiser Belgrano, killing 368 sailors
1989: Soviet submarine Komsomolets sinks in Norwegian Sea
1997: The USS Seawolf, "submarine of the 21st century," enters service
2000: U.S. Navy tests Avenger, mini-submarine for use by Navy SEALs
2000: Russian submarine Kursk sinks, killing all 118 submariners aboard


Brayton Harris is the author of The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social, and Military History (Berkley Books, 1997) and Blue & Gray in Black & White: Newspapers in the Civil War (Brassey's, 1999). He spent 22 years on active duty with the U.S. Navy, retiring in 1978 with the rank of captain.

All images in this feature are courtesy of Capt. Brayton Harris, USN (retired).

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