Death Under the Sea: How Submarines Came To Rule the Oceans

Key Point: The modern submarine is a deadly weapon.
The concept of a ship that could submerge beneath the water and then resurface dates back as far as the late 1400s, when Italian Renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci claimed to have found a method for a ship to remain submerged for a protracted period of time. However, da Vinci refused to reveal his discovery to the world because he feared “the evil nature of men who practice assassination at the bottom of the sea.”
The Early Pioneers of Submersible Ships
A Dutchman, Cornelis Drebbel, built the first known practical submersible in 1620, using blueprints developed nearly 50 years earlier by English amateur inventor William Bourne, whose plans never got beyond the drawing board. A leather-covered, 12-oar rowboat, Drebbel’s craft was reinforced with iron against water pressure to a depth of 15 feet. He tested the submersible in the Thames while working under contract to the British court. King James I observed the tests, although it is probably apocryphal that the monarch ever made a test dive himself. Despite several successful tests between 1620 and 1624, the Royal Navy eventually lost interest in Drebbel’s invention, and none was commissioned or built.
During the latter years of the 17th century, a number of other European inventors and scientists worked on submarine designs. In 1680, Italian inventor Giovanni Borelli sketched plans for a submarine that could be sunk or raised using goatskins in the hull that were alternately filled or emptied of water by twisting a rod. A few years later, French physicist Denis Papin designed and built two submarines consisting of a heavy metallic box and air pump. When enough air was pumped inside, the operator could open holes in the floor of the sub to let in enough water to float the box. Papin reportedly tested a second, oval-shaped vessel on the Lahn River in 1692. There were also reports of Ukrainian Cossacks employing a submersible boat, much like a modern diving bell, that they propelled by walking beneath it on the bottom of the river.
The Turtle: The First Military Submarine
The first military submarine was Turtle, which made its debut during the American Revolution. Built in 1775 by Connecticut inventor David Bushnell, the walnut-shaped submersible measured 7 feet high and 5½ feet wide. Bushnell designed it to be operated by one man and capable of submerging 20 feet deep for up to half an hour. Made of oak and covered with pine-tar pitch for waterproofing, Turtlelooked more like a beer keg than a modern submarine. The ship dove and surfaced by means of brass pumps that took in or expelled seawater as ballast, while using 700 pounds of lead weights that could be played out in 50-foot increments on a line.
Following the outbreak of the American Revolution, patriots were desperate to strike a blow at British ships blockading New York harbor. Bushnell’s Turtle was pressed into service. To sink the British ship Eagle, Turtle would need to come alongside and fasten a 150-pound bomb to Eagle’s keel with a screw. Bushnell initially gave the piloting job to his brother, Ezra, but Ezra’s poor health led to the postponement of the plan. In the end a sergeant in the Continental Army, Ezra Lee, was chosen for the task. On September 6, 1776, Lee set out on the mission. Unfortunately for the Americans, he could not drill a hole into Eagle’s copper-reinforced bottom, and the attack failed.
The Submarine Takes its Iconic Shape
In 1801, expatriate American designer Robert Fulton, then living in France, demonstrated the copper-hulled Nautilus, the first fish-shaped submersible, which employed a screw to push rather than pull the vessel. The vessel included sails for surface propulsion and enough compressed air to keep a four-man crew underwater for three hours. In spite of successful trials on the Seine River in Rouen and at Brest, the French Admiralty declined to invest in Fulton’s new technology.
In the 1850s, the Danes were at war with the German states, and the Danish Navy blockaded German ports. A Bavarian artillery engineer, Wilhelm Bauer, devised a plan to utilize submarines to attack the Danish ships. With public support, he built Brandtaucher (Fire Diver). Disaster struck when the hull plates sprang a leak, and the ship sank to the bottom and became embedded in mud. Bauer persuaded his men to let the water flow in, equalizing the pressure inside and outside the submarine to enable the hatch to be opened. After six long hours underwater, the crew was able to flee its doomed vessel. Bauer did not give up. In 1856 he built Seeteufel (Sea Devil), a 52-foot submarine carefully equipped with a rescue device, for Russia during the Crimean War.
Submarines of the Civil War
Confederates tried their hand at submarines during the Civil War. In 1861, New Orleans-based machinist James McClintock built Pioneer, a cigar-shaped vessel with conical ends, 30 feet long and four feet in diameter. Pioneer was built with countersunk rivets to join quarter-inch iron plate to its interior framework. This reduced friction while she moved underwater. During a subsequent test run, Pioneer successfully sank a schooner on Lake Pontchartrain.
Unfortunately for the Confederates, the Union Navy soon took New Orleans, and one of the financial backers of the submarine, Horace L. Hunley, ordered Pioneer scuttled to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Hunley did not give up. He built another vessel, Pioneer II, or American Diver. He set out to sink a blockading Union ship, but a squall blew in from the sea. While being towed by a tug, the submarine sank after a big wave swept over its open hatch.
The determined Hunley built a third submarine, named after himself. The Horace L. Hunley was more advanced than its predecessors. Built from a boiler, the vessel had diving plates on each side of the hull, manual pumps to increase or decrease water ballast, and a single screw and rudder. The submarine had a snorkel for air and was equipped with a 90-foot-long spar loaded with black powder. A crew of eight hand-cranked the propeller shaft. Three crews were lost while testing the vessel in Mobile, including Hunley himself.
The submarine was raised, re-outfitted, and transferred to Charleston, South Carolina. On the night of February 17, 1864, Hunley set out to sink the Union warship Housatonic, anchored 12 miles outside Charleston harbor. The sub came up to the enemy vessel to attach the charge. While attempting to back away, Housatonic inadvertently rammed Hunley, setting off the bomb. In a matter of minutes, Housatonic sank. Unfortunately for the crew aboard Hunley, so did the sub.
Early in the 1880s, George Garrett, an English clergyman, and Thorsten Nordenfeldt, a Swedish inventor, teamed up to build the first steam-powered submarines. Nordenfeldt III, their best, could submerge to a depth of 50 feet for a range of 14 miles. A steam engine powered the submarine on the surface and was shut down to dive. Nordenfeldt III also had twin torpedo tubes. Sold to the Ottoman Navy, Nordenfeldt III later had the distinction of firing the first underwater torpedo.
The Arms Race of the Early 20th C.
In 1889, an officer in the Spanish Navy, Don Isaac Peral, designed a more advanced submarine. Named after himself, Peral’s ship was entirely powered by electricity and made of steel. Peral was capable of 10 knots on the surface and eight knots submerged. In many respects, Peral resembled the submarines later developed during World War I. It had two torpedoes, fresh-air systems, and a fully reliable underwater navigation system. Despite two years of successful tests, the hidebound Spanish Navy terminated the project—a lucky break for the United States Navy, which would go to war with the Spanish nine years later.
Americans became involved in the development of the submarine during the last few years of the 19th century. Irish inventor John Philip Holland built America’s best-known practical submarine, Holland. A gasoline engine powered the submarine on the surface, and a battery-driven motor did so when the vessel was submerged. Holland could fire 18-inch torpedoes from a single torpedo tube. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt witnessed the sub’s sea trials and recommended that the Navy buy Holland, but it was not until 1900 that it was formally commissioned. Six more submarines of the Holland type were ordered. Holland’s company later filled orders by Great Britain, Russia, the Netherlands, and Japan. The Holland Torpedo Boat Company was the forerunner of General Dynamics, which continues to build sophisticated submarines today.
Another pioneer in the development of the submarine was Simon Lake. In 1894, Lake launched the first practical submarine in the rivers of New Jersey. The following year, the Lake Submarine Company began to build the first steel submarine, Argonaut I. Lake’s submarines had the first bow and stern diving planes for depth control. In 1897, he patented the “even-keel” submarine. Lake developed the periscope and virtually eliminated the magnetic effect of metal surrounding the submarine’s compass. In 1898, Argonaut completed a 1,000-mile cruise above and beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

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