Captivated by the allure of the depths of the sea, man has always been intrigued by underwater exploration and the mysteries of the deep. The first serious discussion of a "underwater" craft --designed to submerge and navigate underwater --appeared in 1578 in the writings of William Bourne, a British mathematician and writer of naval subjects. Bourne proposed a wooden framed underwater craft covered with waterproofed leather. His concept suggested that the underwater craft could be submerged by reducing its volume by contracting the sides through the use of hand vices. Bourne, however, did not actually construct such a craft.
Cornelis van Drebel, a Dutch inventor, is credited with building the first working submarine. Between 1620 and 1624 he successfully maneuvered his submersible underwater craft at depths of 12 to 15 feet beneath the surface during repeated trials in the Thames River, in England. King James I is said to have gone aboard the small craft for a short ride. Dreble's submarine closely resembled that proposed by Bourne. It's outer hull consisted of greased leather over a wooden frame with oars extending through the sides (sealed with tightly fitted leather flaps) to provide propulsion.
A number of submarine boats were constructed in the early years of the 18th century. By 1727 no fewer than 14 types had been patented in England alone. In 1747, one such inventor proposed an ingenious method of submerging and returning to the surface by affixing goatskin bags to the hull. Each skin connected to an aperture in the bottom of the craft which allowed the craft to submerge by forcing the water out of the skins. This arrangement was a forerunner of the modern submarine ballast tank.
Although man had been tinkering with the idea of an underwater apparatus for some time, the first submarine to be used as an offensive weapon in naval warfare was the TURTLE during the American Revolution (1775-1783).
Aptly named TURTLE for its appearance, the one-man, egged-shaped craft was designed by a young Connecticut patriot, David Bushnell. The first submarine ever to be used in combat was actually constructed as an afterthought. Bushnell and fellow Yale University intellectual, Phineas Pratt, had conceived of the underwater bomb with a time delayed flintlock detonator. Bushnell's one-man, hand-propelled barrel-like wood vessel, that he called a "sub-marine," was designed simply to transport the bomb to the enemy vessel.
The craft was designed to submerge beneath the water by using a valve to admit seawater into a ballast tank, and surface when a hand-pump emptied the tank. The TURTLE also introduced for the first time the propeller. This underwater machine had only two limitations --its propulsion was by man-power and it had a limited supply of oxygen. Because it lacked an underwater oxygen supply, the TURTLE could only remain submerged for a half-hour severely limiting its effectiveness.
In October, 1787, Bushnell responded to yet another one of Thomas Jefferson's letters, writing: "I have ever carefully concealed my principles and experiments," he wrote, "as much as the nature of the subject allowed, from all but my chosen friends, being persuaded that it was the most prudent course, whether the even should prove fortunate or otherwise, although by the concealment, I never fostered any great expectations of profit, or even of a compensation for my time and expense, the loss of which has been exceedingly detrimental to me." With this letter, Bushnell sent Jefferson a full description of the TURTLE and his experiments with her and with his mines.
The plan was to have the TURTLE make an underwater approach to a British man-of-war, attach a charge of gunpowder to the ship's hull by a screw device operated from within the craft, and leave before the charge was exploded by a time fuse.
In the actual attack, her operator, Continental Sergeant Ezra Lee, under the dark of night on September 6/7, 1776, controlled the TURTLE by a series of cranks and pedals, submerged below the flagship of the British navy, HMS EAGLE, and attempted to affix the mine against the hull. The TURTLE was unable to force the screw through the copper sheathing on the warship's hull. After a second attempt failed, Lee propelled the TURTLE away, only to be observed and chased. To avoid capture he set the clockwork fuse and released the bomb into the water which resulted in a frightening explosion. Although efforts to attach the mine all but failed, the British recognized the threat to its ships and moved the entire fleet. Thus, the TURTLE took her place in history as the first combat submarine.
In 1785, Thomas Jefferson sent off letters requesting information about the TURTLE. In reply, George Washington endorsed the use of the TURTLE and discussed the potential military use of the submarine in a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated September 26, 1785. In this letter, George Washington said:
"Bushnell is a man of great mechanical powers, fertile in inventions and master of execution... I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius, but that too many things were necessary to be combined, to expect much from the issue against an enemy, who were always on guard."
David Bushnell's submarine Turtle
A view of the inner workings of the submarine TURTLE as described by David Bushnell to Thomas Jefferson.
Although the U.S. Navy experimented with their own version of a hand-cranked submarine, the submarine failed tests demonstrating that the submarine needed a more efficient source of power.
Confederate submarine CSS Hunley
The Submarine during the War of 1812
During the War of 1812 between the United States and England, it is believed that a second TURTLE type submarine was built, which actually attacked the HMS RAMILLIES at anchor off New London, Connecticut. This time the little submarine succeeded in boring a hole in the ship's copper sheathing, but the screw broke loose as the explosive was being attached to the ship's hull. Reportedly, this small submarine was also responsible for harassing several of the British men-at-war riding in New York harbor.
Robert Fulton and the Nautilus
Thirteen years after David Bushnell had sent this account to Thomas Jefferson, another famous American inventor and artist, Robert Fulton, experimented with submarines several years before his steamboat CLERMONT steamed up the Hudson River. In 1800, under a grant from Napoleon Bonaparte, Fulton introduced two innovations to the submarine. His submarine, called the NAUTILUS, was completed in 1801. The cigar-shaped submarine was made of copper sheets over iron ribs. The NAUTILUS introduced the horizontal and vertical rudders and a flask of compressed air that allowed approximately a five-hour supply of oxygen. Like the TURTLE, the NAUTILUS was a hand-cranked submarine, but it also incorporated a collapsing mast and sail for use on the surface. By folding her mast, a hand-turned propeller drove the boat submerged. When the French rejected the project, Fulton turned to Britain. In 1805, the NAUTILUS sank the brig DOROTHY in a test, but the Royal Navy would not back his efforts. Fulton came to the United States and succeeded in obtaining congressional backing for a more ambitious undersea craft. This new submarine was to carry 100 men and be powered by a steam engine. Fulton died before the craft was actually finished, however, and the submarine, named MUTE, was left to rot, eventually sinking at its moorings.
The Civil War and the C.S.S. H. L. Hunley
The Confederate States submarine H. L. HUNLEY has long been shrouded in mystery. In 1864, the CSS H. L. HUNLEY became the first submarine to sink and enemy ship in wartime when it rammed the USS HOUSATONIC with a sparborne torpedo. While fate the of the CSS H. L. HUNLEY still remains clouded in a veil of mystery, according to one South Carolina newspaper, one of the many mysteries surrounding the CSS H. L. HUNLEY seems to have been finally solved. The Post and Courier reports that the remains believed to be from the first crew of the CSS H. L. HUNLEY were found under the Citadel football stadium and its parking lot in Charleston, South Carolina.
Local reports say that the graves were discovered when part of the parking lot caved in. Several days after the initial find, five more remains and artifacts were unearthed under the bleachers of the stadium. The search continues. The unmarked cemetery contains victims of many causes, and some believe they include members of the first HUNLEY crew. It was reported that as the city of Charleston grew, the cemetery was surrounded and in the 1940s urban progress covered the little cemetery with the Citadel's 21,000-seat Johnson Hagood Stadium and its parking lot. When the stadium's complex was built, building contractors were permitted only to remove the grave markers. Since the discovery, volunteers have continued to excavate the stadium area where they have found fourteen more bodies.
The CSS H. L. HUNLEY seemed doomed from the outset. Disaster first struck in August 29, 1863, when the submarine sank in twenty-five feet of water at its mooring from the wake of a passing ship. On another fateful day, her seven man crew, along with Army Lieutenant John Payne, had dived the CSS H. L. HUNLEY with a passenger, Lieutenant Charles E. Hasker, on board. Five men were trapped in the sub and their bodies were so bloated that they had to be dismembered, placed in an oversized coffin, and hurriedly buried in the Confederate mariner's cemetery along the Ashley River. It is presumed that the haste with which the burial took place was probably due to the secrecy surrounding the CSS H. L. HUNLEY. Only Payne, Hasker, and two of the crew survived the ensuing disaster.
On October 15, 1863, her designer, Horace Lawson Hunley, and seven other brave sons of the Confederacy, also drowned on a trial run of this undersea vessel. After the tragic loss of their leader and seven valiant crewmen, Lieutenant Dixon and seven more assumed the mantle of hero when the CSS H. L. HUNLEY was once more resurrected and restored.
On the night of February 17, 1865, Dixon and his dauntless crew set out on their historic last voyage. They too were fated not to survive, but they vindicated their gallant captain and validated the submarine's design concepts by presenting the USS HOUSATONIC with the distinction of being the first man-of-war sunk by submarine attack.
The operation of the HUNLEY was primitive. It's top speed was estimated to be 4 knots. The HUNLEY's crew sat on the port side of a bench running lengthwise of the interior. Facing to starboard, each man turned a single hand cranked shaft, which acted as a cylinder and piston to a modern day engine, which was the actual propeller shaft.
Three HUNLEY crews were lost during the life of the vessel, including the HUNLEY's last crew which was responsibly for successfully sinking the blockade vessel USS HOUSATONIC near Charleston on February 17, 1864. The HUNLEY, however, did not survive its otherwise successful mission. The remains of the submarine were reportedly found in twenty-eight feet of water four miles from Sullivan's Island in May 1995. Archaeological work had begun in the turbulent and murky waters; artifacts and sections of the vessel have been found. There is a proposal to raise the HUNLEY in 2000 and display it in the Charleston Museum.