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With the Revolutionary War between the United States and Great Britain raging and American David Bushnell designed a weapon to counteract the the naval superiority of the British. His invention a submersible craft – the first submarine, to attack British ships in harbor. The craft, which became known as the Turtle, was large enough to hold one person. It had a ballast tank, which was filled to submerge the craft and emptied to give it buoyancy to rise.
Bushnell’s weapon for the Turtle was a charge that could be attached to a British ship and then explode. Bushnell called his weapon a torpedo, but it was in fact the first underwater mine. On September 7, 1776 the Turtle was sent to attack the British flagship the HMS Eagle in New York Harbor. The sailor at controls Sergeant Ezra Lee maneuvered the submarine next to the Eagle’s hull, but he failed to attach the mine to the hull.
The submarine eventually was lost when the British sank the ship transporting.
Invention of the submarine
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) made sketches of a submarine and William Bourne, a British mathematician, drew plans for a submarine in 1578. But it was only in 1620 that Cornelis van Drebbel, a Dutch inventor, managed to build a navigable submarine.
Van Drebbel wrapped a wooden rowboat tightly in waterproofed leather and had air tubes with floats to the surface to provide oxygen. Of course, there were no engines yet, so the oars went through the hull at leather gaskets. Van Drebbel took the first trip with 12 oarsmen in the Thames River – staying submerged for 3 hours.
The Drebbel reconstructed. Photo by Colin Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link
The first submarine used for military purposes was built in 1776 by David Bushnell (1742-1824) of the US. His “Turtle” was a one-man, wooden submarine powered by hand-turned propellers. It was used during the American Revolution against British warships.
The Turtle would approach enemy ships partially submerged to attach explosives to the ship hulls. The Turtle worked well but the explosives did not.
Two rival inventors from the US developed the first true submarines in the 1890s. The US Navy purchased submarines built by John P Holland, while Russia and Japan opted for the designs of Simon Lake. Their submarines used petrol or steam engines for surface cruising and electric motors for underwater travel. They also invented torpedoes which were propelled by small electric motors, thereby introducing one of the most dangerous weapons in the world.
Submarines are also called U-boats, which is short for Unterseeboot, the German word for undersea boat.
The first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus (SN-571), was launched in 1955. In 1958 the Nautilus made the first voyage under the polar ice pack, completing the 2945 km (1,830 miles) journey in 6 days.
The first submerged circumnavigation of earth was made in 1960 by the nuclear submarine USS Triton.
The Story Behind The First Submarine To Sink A Warship
When testing new military technology, there are always risks for the operators. Test pilots suffered appalling death rates in the early days of jet planes, and the MV-22 Osprey suffered a series of fatal mishaps during its development, including 19 dead Marines in a single accident in 2000.
But the series of misfortunes that befell the Confederacy during its attempts to build a practical submarine show just how far safety standards can go out the window during wartime.
On a bone-chilling cold night in 1864 just outside Charleston Harbor during the Civil War, one of the largest ships in the Union Navy was conducting the interminable patrolling involved in maintaining a blockade. The USS Housatonic, a 1,260-ton, 11-gun sloop, had been tasked with blocking Charleston’s harbor and occasionally bombarding shore targets for over a year.
What was usually the most monotonous of duties quickly took a historic turn when the watch officer spotted a strange low-floating object approaching the Housatonic from the shore. After initial confusion in the dark over what the object was, the look-out sounded the alarm and the sloop sprang into belated action.
The world’s first successful attack against a warship by a combat submarine, the CSS H.L. Hunley, was underway.
A South desperate to break the blockade
From the outbreak of the Civil War, all Southern ports were blockaded under Gen. Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, which sought to both choke off Southern trade and eventually split the South in two through control of the Mississippi River.
The squeeze of the blockade on the Southern economy was acute, and led to the development of Confederate weapons designed to break through the Union fleet. The famous clash between the Confederate ironclad Merrimack with the Union Monitor at the Battle of Hampton Roads was part of the Confederate effort to break the Union stranglehold over Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay.
The clash was the first time fully armored warships faced each other in battle, and though the results were indecisive, they marked a major change in naval strategy across the Western world. But other innovations in naval technology were in the offing such as the submarine, an idea that dated back at least as far as Leonardo Da Vinci.
If at first you don’t succeed try, try again
The idea of using submersible craft to take out surface ships was not a new one. During the American Revolution, Yale undergraduate David Bushnell used a tiny barrel-like, one-man contraption with a small rudder and a handle-powered screw in several attempts to attack British ships with time bombs, but every attempt failed. Either the current foiled the assault, or the primitive bombs failed to detonate.
It wasn’t until the Civil War that relatively effective, human-powered designs came about. The USS Alligator, designed by the Frenchman Brutus de Villeroi, was purchased by the Union. Originally tasked to destroy the Merrimack, which became unnecessary with the ironclad’s destruction, it eventually sank in bad weather while being towed for an attack on Charleston.
The first submarine to ever successfully carry out an attack was left to the Confederate Hunley.
Horace L. Hunley, the namesake of the submarine, had a varied career as a lawyer, planter, Louisiana state legislator and New Orleans businessman up to the start of the war. In 1861, he joined forces with engineers James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson to build the Confederacy’s first three submarines: the Pioneer, American Diver, and the Hunley.
The first two designs were lost before being deployed, with the Pioneer being scuttled to avoid Union capture and the American Diver sinking in bad weather. The Hunley was the team&aposs third and final attempt.
Fabricated from a steam boiler, the Hunley was 40 feet long and powered by seven men turning a hand crank, with an officer as pilot. The boat was incredibly cramped, with a hull height of little more than four feet and hatches so narrow they made escape difficult. Ballast pumps were all hand operated, and the dive controls were primitive at best.
After a promising test using a towed torpedo to spectacularly destroy a target barge, the Hunley was swiftly shipped to Charleston, which was under tight blockade and regular bombardment. The submarine was seized by the Confederate garrison from its private owners and crewed by the military, though Hunley and his partners stayed on as advisors. The haste to deploy the submarine led to several tragedies.
During a trial run, the Hunley sank when the skipper accidentally hit the dive controls with the hatches still open, and five men lost their lives. Not to be deterred, the boat was raised and testing began again.
When the usual skipper, Lt. George Dixon, was absent on leave after completing several successful dives, Hunley himself took the sub for a practice run. The submarine submerged and did not resurface, possibly due to yet another open hatch.
Confederate Gen. P.G.T Beauregard wrote in the aftermath: “When the boat was discovered, raised and opened, the spectacle was indescribable and ghastly the unfortunate men were contorted into all kinds of horrible attitudes.” Hunley had been killed by his own creation.
Beauregard, horrified by the accident, was at first reluctant to continue the submarine program, but Dixon convinced him otherwise. “After this tragedy I refused to permit the boat to be used again but Lieutenant Dixon, a brave and determined man, having returned to Charleston, applied to me for authority to use it against the Federal steam sloop-of-war Housatonic.”
Death from below the surface
The armament was replaced with a spar torpedo mounting a 125-pound warhead. It was designed to attach itself to the side of a ship, then be detonated by a rope pulled as the submarine backed away. On Feb. 17, 1864, the Hunley launched its first and only attack against the Housatonic two and a half miles off shore of Charleston Harbor.
After the Hunley was spotted a 100 yards away by the watch officer, a frantic alarm was raised. The ship’s crew discovered they couldn’t target an object so low in the water and close to their ship with their cannon, and they slipped the anchor chain and backed the engine in an attempt to dodge the attack.
The Hunley managed to plant the torpedo against the Housatonic and began to back away for the detonation. Desperately, the deck crew started raking the retreating submarine with rifle and pistol fire, but it was too little and too late. A massive explosion rocked the Housatonic, and within five minutes the ship was completely submerged. Five of her crew died in the attack 150 others were rescued.
What happened to the Hunley is uncertain. While many believed at the time she was sunk by her own torpedo’s explosion, it is theorized that the submarine survived the initial attack and sank for unknown reasons. An agreed upon blue light from the submarine as a signal of returning to base was seen from the shore, but the Hunley never returned.
Finding the Hunley
Confederate Submarine H.L. Hunley, suspended from a crane during her recovery from Charleston Harbor, 8 August 2000.
Many attempts to find the Hunley after its sinking were made. Renowned showman P.T. Barnum even offered a reward of $100,000 dollars to anyone who could find it. Its location was not decisively confirmed until 1995, after writer Clive Cussler, author of many nautical-themed thrillers, spent 15 years searching for it with his organization the National Underwater Marine Agency. The submarine had been covered in silt, and it took a magnetometer to finally locate it.
After an elaborate recovery operation, the vessel was finally raised in 2000. It was donated to the state of South Carolina, and currently resides at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center at the former Charleston Navy Yard, where it is still under study.
The Hunley was a pioneering vessel, marking the first time a submarine successfully attacked and sank an enemy ship. The price paid in lives in its development was severe, with Horace Hunley himself falling victim to balky and primitive technology.
But the sheer courage shown by men willing to submerge themselves again and again in little more than a floating iron coffin cannot be denied, and the determination shown in the face of tragedy in order to break a strangling blockade is one of the most innovative and intriguing episodes to emerge from the Civil War.
Submarine – The History of Submarine War
The legendary origins of the submarine stretch back to 332 BC with a tale about Alexander the Great being lowered into the sea in a glass barrel to study fish. The submarine concept was thereafter consigned to the backwaters of history for some 1,800 years.
It reappears with the publication in 1578 of Inventions or Devises by William Bourne, an English gunner turned innkeeper and mathematician. In this work, Bourne describes the principle of making a boat sink and rise again by changing the volume of the ship. If you contract the volume of the ship, it will sink if you expand its volume, it will float upward. The exact process for doing this is not made clear, and contemporary materials and techniques precluded effective experiment.
The Alexander legend and Bourne’s principle related more to the diving bell than a boat. The next step forward, conceptually, was to add some form of propulsion. The Dutchman Cornelius van Drebbel achieved this around 1620.
His boat, Drebbel I, is probably the first working submarine. Basically an enclosed rowboat manned by 12 oarsmen, it probably had a sloping foredeck. This would have forced the boat under as forward momentum was applied, like the angled plane of a modern submarine.
In 1636, a French priest, Marin Mersenne, added another piece to the jigsaw. He suggested that a submarine should be built of copper and be cylindrical in shape to better withstand increasing pressure at depth. Early designs for submarines, henceforth, generally adopted a porpoise-like form. Despite these early concepts and the Drebbel I prototype, it was more than 200 years before the French Navy launched the first true precursor of the modern submarine. In 1863, the Plongeur (‘Diver’), which was powered by engines run on compressed air, became the first submarine that did not rely on human propulsion for momentum.
Military possibilities of the Submarine
It was not long before the military possibilities of a submerged boat began to be realised. As early as the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652- 1654), Louis de Son had built his 72ft-long ‘Rotterdam Boat’. This, in effect, was a semi-submerged battering-ram designed to approach an enemy warship unnoticed and punch a hole in its side. Once launched, though, it was unable to move.
The American War of Independence provided further impetus in the form of David Bushnell’s Turtle. Water was pumped in and out of the skin of the boat to change its ballast, thus enabling the boat to sink and rise. This one-man boat was driven by hand-cranked propellers, one to provide vertical movement and another to provide horizontal drive. The Turtle became the first submarine to attack a ship, probably the HMS Eagle, in New York harbour in 1776. The attack failed, as Ezra Lee, the boat’s pilot, was unable to attach its armament, a 150lb-keg of gunpowder, to the enemy ship’s hull.
Another American, Robert Fulton, attracted the attention of Napoleon in 1800 with his Nautilus. This submarine had a number of successful test dives, reaching a depth of 25ft and an underwater speed of 4 knots. It was driven by a hand-cranked propeller underwater, and by a sail when on the surface. Although it made a number of attacks on Royal Navy ships, they could always see the Nautilus coming and easily evaded it.
Failure meant Fulton’s dismissal, and the Royal Navy, with the world’s largest fleet, breathed a sigh of relief. Submarine warfare did not develop further for 50 years. Then, the American Civil War (1861-1865) provided a major stimulus, particularly on the Confederate side. The Union had retained control of the US Navy, and its blockade of the South meant that the Confederacy was bound to search for ways to break it: the submarine was one of these.
Several prototypes were built – by both sides – but these depended primarily on improvements to established technology rather than anything radically new. The most significant achievement was the destruction of the USS Housatonic in 1864, the first submarine victory. The oar-propelled CSS Hunley attacked the Housatonic with an explosive device on the end of a spar that was attached to its nose. Though the Hunley did not survive the attack, war beneath the waves had definitely begun.
The Royal Navy and the modern submarine
The real breakthrough, and the birth of the modern submarine, came courtesy of John Phillip Holland, towards the end of the 19th century. He became the first designer to successfully unite three new pieces of technology – the electric motor, the electric battery, and the internal combustion engine – to create the first recognisably modern submarine.
The Admiralty’s official position at the time was to give submarine development ‘no encouragement’. But it could not afford to ignore it completely, and, in October 1900, five Hollands were ordered with the purpose of testing ‘the value of the submarine in the hands of our enemy’. The Hollands were built under licence at Vickers’ yards in Barrow, which was to become the home of British submarine construction.
The traditionalist view at the Admiralty thought of submarine warfare, in the words of Rear Admiral Wilson, as ‘underhand, unfair, and damned un-English’. Notwithstanding such views, the submarine gained a champion in Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher. Having watched the five Hollands ‘sink’ four warships in an exercise to defend Portsmouth Harbour, Fisher realised that naval warfare had changed. So, when he became First Sea Lord (1904-1910), he diverted 5% of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, despite strong opposition, to the construction of submarines.
From the beginning of Fisher’s tenure to the outbreak of the First World War, there was continual development of the submarine, from the Hollands through A to D classes. The D-class, with its decking and deck gun, represented a major change from the porpoise shape of earlier submarines, and introduced the form that would become familiar through two world wars.
Submarines in World War Two
Lulled into the belief that ASDIC made submarines irrelevant, the British Government, advised by the Admiralty, agreed in 1935 that the German Navy should be allowed the same tonnage of submarines as the Royal Navy.
Captain, later Admiral, Dönitz was ready with his submarine strategy. WWI experience implied that in a ‘tonnage war’, merchant ships could be sunk faster than they could be replaced. In order to achieve this, U-boats were to operate in Atlantic waters in ‘wolf packs’: seven or eight boats would shadow merchantmen across the sea, attack at night, and then submerge to escape, ready for the next attack.
The strategy worked until mid-1943, when the Germans had lost 250 submarines and sunk over 3,000 Allied vessels. In May, the tide turned, with 42 U-boats sunk in that month alone, forcing Dönitz to withdraw his fleet from the Atlantic. Even so, over the next two years they lost a further 520 submarines and sank only 200 ships. American aid, the convoy system, long-range air cover, and improvements in detection and anti-submarine weapons all had their effect.
Having lost the Battle of the Atlantic, the Germans were forced to rethink. One result was the development of the snorkel, a breathing tube that meant the submarine could use its diesel engine whilst just below the surface, conserving battery power. It also made submarines less visible from the air, though the snorkel did leave a trailing wake, and it could be picked up on sonar. The standard U-boat had been the Type VII, of which more than 700 were built. They were around 200ft long, with a surface displacement of 760 tons, and a surface speed of 15 knots, equalling the speed of most surface ships. They had a dive time of 20 seconds to a maximum safe depth of 650ft, a range of over 8,700 miles, and could go seven or eight weeks without refuelling. Britain’s equivalent workhorse was the T-class.
They were the first of the Navy’s boats to have their fuel tanks inside the hull, eradicating the problem of leaking fuel leaving surface trails. Whilst slightly smaller than the classes they replaced, they were an all-round improvement, and an all-welded hull meant they were stronger and able to dive deeper.
The T-class performed sterling service in all naval theatres of war. HMS Truant, for example, sank enemy ships in home waters, in the Mediterranean, and in the Far East – clocking up 81,000 tonnes of destruction in all. There was also success in the Far East for HMS Trenchant, which sank the Japanese heavy cruiser Ashigara.
Submarines during The Cold War
Post WWII developments were dominated by the Cold War and the arms race between the US and the USSR. Changed political realities meant a different role for the submarine. The Royal Navy’s job ceased to be aimed at attacking surface shipping, and focused instead on the interception of Soviet submarines.
The new Amphion class had been designed and introduced towards the end of WWII, but the submarine’s new role, and the development of increasingly sophisticated equipment, meant they were gradually refitted. They had already been given the Snort mast, a development of the German snorkel, and air-warning radar that worked whilst the submarine was underwater. Extra streamlining was introduced, which included the removal of the deck-gun but perhaps the most important advances were in the complex array of sonar devices that were added to the boat.
The Americans had also been busy, and another German invention, the rocket, became one of the major areas of advance in submarine design. The US’s experimentation with sub-launched missiles would lead to Polaris and Trident.
They also went nuclear in the sense of having developed a suitable power-plant for a submarine. In 1955, USS Nautilus made the first nuclear-powered submarine patrol, all 323ft and 3,674 tons of it. It had a surface speed of 18 knots and a capability of reaching 23 knots submerged. The Nautilus also represented a radical shift in design. Capable of sustained underwater cruising, the Nautilus had returned to the streamlined, porpoise shape of the early pioneers, for there was now no need to spend long periods on the surface. It revolutionised naval warfare, for it combined the stealth and surprise of traditional submarines with a speed greater than their quarry.
The British, too, developed nuclear-powered submarines, and Dreadnought, the Navy’s first example, went to sea in 1963. There were two strands to British design: one was the attack submarine, with responsibility for protecting Britain’s nuclear deterrent the other was the Submerged Ship Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN), which carried Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The most famous of the latter was the Resolution Class HMS Conqueror, which sank the Belgrano during the Falklands War in 1982, and remains the only nuclear submarine with an official kill.
Such combined operations point the way to contemporary military strategy. As the Malta Convention of 1998 declared the Cold War over, so the role of the submarine has changed. It is no longer just anti-submarine work, but, in military terminology, ‘Maritime Contributions to Joint Operations’. This also includes the ability to launch special forces operations and undertake intelligence gathering – but the Silent Service has always been capable of multi-tasking. Silent, submerged, and lethal, the submarine has changed the face of naval warfare.
A submarine (the word originally meant under the sea) is a boat that is built to be operated under water for extended periods of time. The first known treatise on submarines (also called subs) was written in 1578. Published by English mathematician William Bourne (1535 – 1582) in his Inventions or Devices, the document describes a ship with two hulls, the outer made of wood. While no record exists concerning its manufacture, the ship, according to Bourne, could be submerged or raised by taking in or expelling water from between the double hulls. Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebbel (1572 – 1633) built the first known submarine. It consisted of greased leather over a wooden framework. It was propelled either on or beneath the surface by eight oars sealed through the sides with leather flaps. During a demonstration for James I (1603 – 1625) in 1620, this vessel was successfully piloted just under the surface of the Thames River. It was unable, however, to make deep descents.
During the American Revolution, American inventor David Bushnell (1742 – 1824) built a one-person submarine called the Turtle. It resembled an egg squashed thin with a height of 6 ft (2 m), and had two hand-cranked screw propellers, a hand-operated control lever connected to the rudder, foot-operated pumps to let water in or send it out (to submerge or surface), and a crudely lit control panel. As if it was not dangerous enough simply to get in the water sealed inside this
device, the Turtle also had a large explosive device attached to it in the hopes the operator could maneuver under an enemy ship, screw the explosive into the ship ’ s hull, and depart before the explosive ’ s timing device discharged it. Unfortunately, the Turtle failed to sink any ship. On its only test mission, the Turtle was assigned the task of bombing the British HMS Eagle off the waters of New York City, but its pilot was unable to screw the explosive into the Eagle ’ s copper hull.
Others, such as English carpenters Nathaniel Symons and J. Day, included ballast systems on their submarines to permit descents. Day ’ s submarine resembled a sloop, and had two large bags of stones hanging from its bottom to serve as ballast. Day would sink, then jettison the rocks to return to the surface. After two successful tests, Day confidently decided he would test his vessel off Plymouth Sound, a site with a depth of 900 ft (274 m). Apparently his ship was crushed by high water pressure, for when he and his crew descended, a crowd of onlookers waited in vain for his return. Day and his crew had become the first victims of a submarine mishap.
Perhaps the most successful early submarine was designed by American engineer and inventor Robert Fulton (1765 – 1815). In an age of naval battles, Fulton, who detested war, felt that a device capable of neutralizing the effectiveness of warships would end war altogether. While living in France in 1767, he outlined plans to build a sub called the Nautilus and unsuccessfully attempted to interest the French government in his idea. By 1801, however, he had managed to complete a submarine on his own. A 21 ft (6 m) vessel with a two-bladed propeller, the Nautilus performed well in tests, even sinking a ship with an explosive charge. But he was once again rejected by the French government, so he moved to England, hoping for a better reception there.
It soon became clear that the English did not want his submarine either. In fact, Fulton had failed not because his vessel did not work, but because major naval powers feared his vessel and did not want to participate in developing a weapon that could negate their military strength. Fulton went on to produce his famous steamboats in the United States.
After the American Civil War (1861 – 1865), designers, spurred on by the invention of the self-propelled torpedo in 1866, increasingly sought alternatives to human-powered propulsion for submarines. Several systems proved unsuitable — steam engines made the craft unbearably hot and an electric battery could not be recharged at sea. In the late 1890s, however, Irish-born American engineer John Philip Holland (1841 – 1914) solved the problem with the use of a new power source, the gasoline engine. Because it needed oxygen, the gasoline engine could not be used while a submarine was underwater, but on the surface it could not only provide propulsion but also charge the batteries used while submerged. Holland ’ s vessels incorporated many of the features engineers associate with modern subs: a powerful engine, advanced control and balancing systems, and a circular-shaped hull to withstand pressure. The United States Navy accepted his submarine, the Holland, in 1900.
Around this time, two other improvements were introduced. Simon Lake (1866 – 1945), who also built an early gasoline-powered submarine, created the first periscope specifically for submarines: it provided a magnified view and a wide angle of vision. In the 1890s, German inventor Rudolf Diesel (1858 – 1913) invented an engine that was fired by compression rather than an electric spark. The diesel engine was more economical than the gasoline engine and its fumes were much less toxic and volatile. This new engine became the mainstay of all submarines until nuclear power was introduced as a means of propulsion in the 1950s.
Germany made good use of diesel propulsion during World War I (1914 – 1918). Unlike Britain ’ s small, coastal subs, Germany ’ s vessels, displacing up to 3,200 tons, were capable of crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Their U-boat (short for unterseeboot) sent more than 11 million tons of Allied shipping to the bottom and, in the process, created a new, terrifying type of warfare.
In World War II (1939 – 1945) submarines played an even larger role in Germany ’ s repeated attacks on Allied shipping, eventually destroying 14 million tons of shipping. Meanwhile, American submarines crippled the Japanese by sinking nearly 1,400 merchant and naval ships. The greatest improvement came through the development of the snorkel, a set of two fixed air pipes that projected from the sub ’ s topside. One tube brought fresh air into the vessel, and the other vented engine exhaust fumes. Now a sub could stay hidden below the surface when running on its diesel engine and recharging its batteries.
The greatest advance in submarine technology was the advent of nuclear power. With the encouragement of United States Navy Captain Hyman Rickover, American inventors Ross Gunn and Phillip Abelson designed the U.S.S. Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine. Launched in 1955, the Nautilus carried a reactor in which controlled nuclear fission provided the heat that converted water into steam for turbines. With this new power source, the submarine could remain under water indefinitely and cruise at top speed for any length of time required.
For a submarine able to remain under water for longer distances at higher speeds, a needle-like shape proved inefficient. The Davis Taylor Model Basin in the United States developed a new teardrop design, first tested on its Albacore submarine. Vessels with this improved shape easily drove through the water at speeds of 35 to 40 knots (35 to 40 nautical miles per hour). The U.S. Navy later adopted the Albacore ’ s shape for its submarines.
Submarines have also benefited from advances in navigation equipment. Inertial navigation systems, relying on gyroscopes, now fix their position with extreme accuracy. The U.S.S. Skate used this system to navigate under the polar ice cap at the North Pole in 1959.
In the 1990s and 2000s, submarines used for the defense of a country can launch numerous weapons such as mines, cruise missiles for land attacks, torpedoes, and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with nuclear warheads. Most submarines run with nuclear energy, but some still use diesel engines and electric batteries. As of the mid-2000s, the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, China, and France are the countries with the largest and most advanced fleets of submarines. Together they operate about 150 submarines. Other countries possess smaller and less sophisticated submarines.
This steam-driven boat was 100 feet long and displaced 160 tons. She was an improved version of an earlier submarine built in Stockholm in 1882 and based on the Resurgam, a submarine designed and developed by an Englishman, The Rev. William Garrett of Liverpool.
In 1887, another Nordenfelt was built at Barrow. This vessel was 125ft long, displaced 230 tons, had a hull form more like that of a conventional ship, and achieved a speed of 14 knots.
The Nordenfelt's were not particularly successful. When operating near the surface they were fast and manageable, but when completely submerged they lacked longitudinal stability.
They were ultimately sold to the Ottoman Empire and Russia. The submarine for Russia never reached her customer, foundering on the Jutland (Danish) coast on her delivery voyage.
The Turkish boat became the Abdul Hamid, which was dismantled for delivery by ship and re-assembled at Taskizak Naval Shipyard along the Golden Horn in Constantinople under the supervision of its English designer, George William Garrett.
Abdul Hamid was first launched in Turkey on September 6, 1886 in front of many international dignitaries lined along Golden Horn. First diving tests were carried out in February 1887. Three dives were attempted successfully, 20 seconds each, with only the hemispherical navigator cockpit remaining above the water. On another test run in early 1888, the submarine was able to navigate through the strong currents around the Seraglio Point, making up to 10 knots of speed and successfully sank an old target ship with a single torpedo. The first submarine in history to fire a torpedo while submerged. After more tests and trials at Izmit naval base, Abdul Hamid officially joined the Ottoman Navy in a flag ceremony on 24 March 1888.
When the advent of nuclear power put steam propulsion back into submarines, Vickers could surely reflect: 'So what's new? We did it in 1886.'
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How Nuclear Submarines Work
Leonardo da Vinci sketched a primitive submarine around 1515, and in 1578, William Bourne drafted the first design for a submersible craft. In 1620, the first successful submarine was built by Cornelius Drebbel and tested in the Thames River, where it completed a three-hour journey.
At least 14 different submarine designs were patented by 1727 [source: Brittanica]. Early designs usually incorporated wooden submarine frames covered in oil-soaked waterproof leather, with oars extending from the hull for propulsion.
American inventor David Bushnell developed the first military submarine in 1775, during the American Revolution. The Turtle was used on July 7, 1776, to sneak up on a British battleship and attach an explosive device to the hull of the enemy ship. Ultimately, the Turtle's mission failed. Designing an underwater weapon delivery system proved to be a difficult task for years to come.
Early subs were usually propelled by hand-operated cranks, and their offensive strategies centered around covertly confronting a surface ship, attaching explosives to the enemy's hull and escaping before the explosion. Though it may sound simple, the process was quite difficult. Many submarines were simply unable to catch up to enemy warships. Attaching explosives also proved tricky since it was difficult to penetrate the ships' hulls using screw-type devices.
By the War of 1812, a submarine similar to the Turtle had almost perfected this part. It was able to screw an appendage (a vertically aligned large screw to which a rope connected an explosive) into the hull of a British warship. But the screw dislodged, separating the torpedo from its intended target.
If able to catch up to an enemy ship and attach explosives to it, escaping proved just as difficult. The crew of the H.L. Hunley, a submarine used by the Confederacy during the Civil War, discovered this. The H.L. Hunley used a long spar, or arm, to hold and release an explosive charge, successfully sinking the USS Housatonic. However, the H.L. Hunley also fell victim to the explosion, and its entire crew died on Feb. 17, 1864.
On the next page, read about the other developments in submarine design that emerged later in the 19th century.
Colorado History: Secret submarine launched in 1898 at a Central City lake
It is preposterous to believe that Colorado would be the site for the development of a submarine and even harder to believe is that its origin was high in the mountains, far removed from any substantial body of water.
Nevertheless, on an autumn afternoon in 1898, Central City’s Rufus T. Owens launched a submarine into Missouri Lake at an elevation of 8,500 feet.
Submarines began to appear during the Civil War, and during the final two decades of the 19th century, a number of submarine designs were proposed by a variety of inventors.
This activity may have sparked Owens’ interest, and he began his attempt to design such a craft. He was an engineer and was known for his design of the water distribution systems for both Central City and Black Hawk.
This same year, 1898, the United States was at war with Spain over the sovereignty of Cuba. It was highlighted by the naval battle of Manila Bay. The United States considered submarines to be a potentially effective way of defending its coastline against a potential Spanish invasion.
Owens named his small undersea craft the Nautilus after Jules Verne’s fictitious vessel.
He hired a pair of Central City contractors to do the actual construction, but he kept the work a secret. Built in a small shed in Central City, Owens’ craft was 19 feet long and 5 feet tall at its center. It was constructed using a wood frame made of hand-hewn, whipsawed lumber held together by handmade square nails.
After completion of the frame, the exterior was covered with irregular size sheets of iron soldered at the seams to create a presumably seaworthy craft.
On the day of the launch, Owens hired the owner of a local livery company to use a flatbed wagon to haul the Nautilus to Missouri Lake. The lake was three miles north of Black Hawk and the closest body of water to Central City.
At first, Owens climbed into his craft for its first, untested dive. His friends talked him out of this as being far too dangerous, and he decided that the craft could be effectively tested using rock ballast.
The Nautilus was pushed out into Missouri Lake for her maiden voyage and immediately sank to the bottom!
Possibly out of embarrassment, Owens left Central City never to be seen again. The Nautilus now sat on the floor of the small lake.
Within two years, the United States Navy launched its first successful submarine, the Holland.
The existence of the Central City submarine grew more doubtful as time obscured its details. This was combined with the fact that few had actually witnessed the launching, and the event was not recorded by local newspapers.
During the winter, a surprised ice skater might look down and spot the craft lying on its side a dozen feet below the surface of Missouri Lake.
The Chain O’Mines Co. partially drained Missouri Lake during the 1930s, and the Nautilus was completely exposed, thus confirming its existence. Its square hatch was stolen by a souvenir hunter.
After the lake was refilled, the public soon forgot about the ship.
During World War II, submarine warfare was in the spotlight renewing interest in Owens’ creation.
The 1929 Coleman truck used to raise the Nautilus is now fully restored and property of Ken Kafka of Pierce, Colorado. (Kenneth Jessen)
One of the few witnesses to the construction of the Nautilus, Fred DeMandel, decided to locate and retrieve Owens’ ship.
As the end of 1943 approached, DeMandel got permission to search the lake by sawing holes in the ice in the general area where the ship was believed to rest.
On Jan. 11, 1944, after sawing more than a hundred holes and by using a line with a lead sinker, DeMandel finally located the Nautilus. He confirmed his find using a glass bottom bucket to peer into the water.
The foreman of a local trucking company was hired to raise the vessel using a winch.
A large hole was cut in the ice above the Nautilus and a steel tripod was erected over the hole. A chain was run through the tripod to the winch.
On Jan. 25, the school in Central City was closed along with the courthouse and many businesses to witness the raising of the Nautilus.
As the submarine was hoisted to the surface, 300 spectators were on hand. The band from the Central City High School played “Columbia Gem of the Ocean.”
After interest in the craft dried out, it was put on public display at DeMandel’s Central Gold Mine and Museum.
William C. Russell Jr., publisher of the Central City Register‑Call purchased the craft and moved it to his warehouse. In 2011, the Gilpin History Museum in Central City acquired the craft and put it on display.
Rufus T. Owens built his submarine in secrecy leaving many unanswered questions.
The Navy was searching for a practical design at the time, but did Owens intend to submit his design?
When the submarine was raised, no propulsion system or steering mechanism could be found. The ballast weighed around 1,500 pounds, somewhat excessive for a first dive.
Maybe the entire project was nothing more than a whim.
Central City’s submarine is housed in the Gilpin History Museum. The craft lacked any propulsion system or steering mechanism leading to speculation that the project was nothing more than a whim on the part of its inventor, Rufus T. Owens. (Kenneth Jessen)
A Historic Success
Through the display of amazing courage and intrepidity of everyone involved the operation was a success.
On July 30, 1939, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fiedler, performed a memorial concert for the USS Squalus victims at Little Boar’s Head in North Hampton, NH. The concert was broadcast nationally.
The bow of the Squalus breaks the surface as the Navy recovered her in September 1939. (U.S. Navy)
For their actions during the operation, f our officers and men would receive the Medal of Honor, 46 others decorated with the Navy Cross, and one awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
In September 1939, the Navy was able to raise USS Squalus off the ocean floor. It recovered the bodies of 25 of the 26 sailors who had drowned one sailor had made it out of the sub but never made it to the surface. His body was never recovered.
In 1940, USS Squalus has recommissioned as USS Sailfish and served in World War II sinking seven enemy ships. Her conning tower resides in Portsmouth Navy Shipyard as a memorial for sailors lost in combat.