The First Submarine: A History of Underwater Combat

They say we know less about the bottom of the ocean than we do about the surface of the moon. But the knowledge we do have of the sea floor comes from our use and invention of submarines. Also powerful in military applications, submarines have allowed humans to do things underwater that were previously unimaginable.

As with many modern inventions, the story of the submarine is much like a roller coaster, with advances and setbacks along the way. Starting with the first submarine

What Was the First Military Submarine?

An interesting replica of a wooden submarine

The first submersible vehicle designed and built for the military was the creation by Yefim Nikonov. An illiterate shipbuilder with no formal education in engineering, Nikonov was still able to convince Peter the Great of Russia to fund several experiments and eventually build a wooden submarine. The Morel was designated as a “stealth vessel” and multiple versions of the submarine were tested.

When was the First Submarine Invented?

Commissioned by Peter the Great, the experimental submarine called The Morel was completed in 1724. It was approximately twenty feet in length and seven feet high. Made of wood, iron, and tin, it used leather bags that could fill and empty as ballast. It was intended to hold “fiery copper pipes” that would rise out of the water and burn the enemy ship above it, while it also had an airlock designed for divers to come and go.

Unfortunately, during testing in the Neva, The Morel scrapped the bottom of the river, causing a massive rip in the hull. While the men inside were able to escape, a new version could not be created – with the death of Tsar Peter, Nikonov lost his funding and returned to being a ship-builder in Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea.

The “Turtle” Submarine

While the Turtle was not the first military submarine to be designed, it was the first built in America, and the first claimed to be used in naval warfare. Built in 1775, it was designed to be used to attach explosives to the hull of an enemy ship, and could fit a single man.

David Bushnell was a teacher, medical doctor, and wartime engineer working for the Americans during the War of American Independence. While he was studying at Yale, he developed an explosive device that could be detonated underwater. Believing he could use this device to open up the British Naval blockades, he set to work designing a submersible that would allow a soldier to sneak up on ships and do so. The result of a year’s worth of design and experimentation created a bulb-like vessel known as the Turtle.

Bushnell had likely learned of the work of Cornelius Drebbel, who had created a functional submarine 150 years earlier. Building from the knowledge of this, as well as many technological advances since, Bushnell’s design included the first underwater propeller, internal instruments painted with bioluminescent foxfire, and foot-operated water ballast. Bushnell was supported by the clock-maker Isaac Doolittle, who likely made the instruments and hand-forged the propeller.

Bushnell was in direct contact with the leaders of the revolution, and wrote to Benjamin Franklin that the Turtle would be “Constructed with Great Simplicity and upon Principles of Natural Philosophy.” After being recommended by Connecticut Governor Jonathan Trumbull, George Washington put aside funds to ensure the project was completed, and Bushnell’s brother, Ezra, began training to pilot the vessel.

In 1776, three more sailors were selected and trained to use the Turtle and after only two weeks they were ready to test it in combat. It was sent to New York to sink the British Warship HMS Eagle.

Diagram of David Bushnell’s Turtle submarine

The Single Combat Mission of the Turtle

At 11:00 pm on September 6, 1776, Sargent Ezra Lee set off towards the Eagle. Between constantly having to rise (due to only twenty minutes of air being available in the vessel), and being tired from the physical strain of piloting, the submarine took two hours to make the short trip to the enemy ship of the British. When there, however, Lee faced a bigger problem. After lighting the explosive, the device refused to stick to the hull.

According to reports, British soldiers noticed the vessel and Lee decided it was best to release the explosive and get away. He hoped the soldiers would examine the device and “thus all would be blown to atoms.” Instead, the British withdrew slightly and the charge drifted into the East River before exploding harmlessly.

While American military records today record this as the first documented combat mission with a submarine, there is no record of the explosion in British history. This has led some historians to question the historical accuracy and whether the story was instead a work of propaganda. This argument is strengthened by the fact there were no other attempts made with the Turtle, and the fate of the original vessel is unknown.

In a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1785, George Washington wrote, “from the difficulty of conducting the Machine, and governing it under Water on Acct of the Currents and the consequent uncertainty of hitting the object of destination, without rising frequently above water for fresh observation, which when near the Vessel, would expose the Adventurer to a discovery, & almost to certain death—To these causes, I always ascribed the non-performance of his plan, as he wanted nothing that I could furnish to secure the success of it.”

A replica made from the original designs of the experimental submarine can be now seen at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.

Cornelius Drebbel’s Submersible Vehicle

Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel was a dutch inventor who was paid to move to England and work directly for James I in 1604. While he spent some time as a teacher for Rudolf II and Ferdinand II, he would also return to England to continue working on his larger inventions.

Drebbel’s many inventions included a self-regulating chicken incubator, an air-conditioning system, and the mercury thermometer. Known for the grinding of very precise lenses, Drebbel also created the first compound microscope.

Drebbel’s submarine was developed for the English navy and is the first which could be controlled from within the vessel and the first which had an internal oxygen source. The following excerpt from the autobiography of dutch poet Constantijn Huygens describes one of the tests of Drebbel’s fantastic machines:

[…] He kept the king and several thousand Londoners in the greatest suspense. The great majority of these already thought that the man who had very cleverly remained invisible to them – for three hours, as rumour has it – had perished, when he suddenly rose to the surface a considerable distance from where he had dived down, bringing with him the several companions of his dangerous adventure to witness to the fact that they had experienced no trouble or fear under the water, but had sat on the bottom, when they so desired, and had ascended when they wished to do so[…] From all this it is not hard to imagine what would be the usefulness of this bold invention in time of war, if in this manner (a thing which I have repeatedly heard Drebbel assert) enemy ships lying safely at anchor could be secretly attacked and sunk unexpectedly.

Drebbel’s submarine was made of wood and leather, was controlled by oars, and could increase its oxygen supply by burning saltpeter. It used a mercury barometer to measure how deep it was underwater. Some sources even state that James I tested the device, becoming the first monarch to travel underwater!

Little is known about what happened to Drebbel and his submarine. The final decade of Drebbel’s life has not been recorded, and he would eventually pass away in 1633 as the owner of a pub.

The Drebbel – A reproduction wooden submarine on the grounds of the museum

Was the Nautilus the First Submarine?

By no definition was the French Nautilus the first submarine. However, it was the first to successfully attack another ship during testing. Designed by the American inventor Robert Fulton, it was first created for the French Navy, and then later designs were drawn for the English.

Robert Fulton, American Inventor

Robert Fulton was an 18th-century engineer. Better known for running the first commercial steamboat, he also developed some of the earliest naval torpedoes, worked on the Erie Canal designs, and exhibited the first panorama painting to the people of Paris.

In 1793, Fulton was commissioned directly by Napoleon Bonaparte to design and create a submarine for the French navy. After Napoleon canceled the project, Fulton was hired by the British to design their own submarine before returning to America. There he designed the first steam-driven warship in the world while setting up his own commercial steamboat business.

READ MORE: Who Invented the Steamboat? The History and Legacy of Steamboats

Since his death in 1815, The US Navy has named five separate ships after the naval innovator, and a statue has been erected at the Library of Congress, placing him alongside Christopher Columbus.

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The Innovation of the Nautilus

The Nautilus was the culmination of all prior research into naval submarines. Powered underwater by a hand-driven screw. When surfaced, it could raise a collapsible sail designed based on Chinese ships Fulton had previously studied. It included an observation dome and horizontal fins, additions that remain in submarine designs today. The Nautilus used a leather “snorkel” for air.

The submarine carried a “carcass” mine with a unique design – The submarine would fire a harpoon-like spike at an enemy ship, connecting the two vessels by a length of rope. As the submarine moved back away, the rope would pull the mine towards the target and explode.

The Nautilus required a crew of three, who could survive over four hours underwater. Later designs for the British allowed for a crew of six and would contain enough rations to travel 20 days at sea on the surface and up to six consecutive hours underwater.

The Nautilus was first tested in 1800. Two men working the screw could gain speeds faster than two rowers on the surface, and it successfully dived below 25 feet. One year later, it was given a combat trial, destroying a 40-foot sloop offered up as a testing target. This is the first account of a ship being destroyed by a submarine.

Unfortunately, the Nautilus faced issues with leaking, and after a particularly poor test in the presence of Napolean himself, the experiments were scrapped. Fulton had the prototype dismantled and destroyed any machinery that might be used in the future.

The First Submarine: A History of Underwater Combat 3
A reconstruction of Robert Fulton’s Nautilus

Rockets, Divers, and the First Successful Submarine Attack

There were many great advancements in military submarines during the early to the mid-19th century. A Russian submarine built in 1834 was the first to be equipped with Rockets, though never past experimental stages.

The Sub Marine Explorer, built by Julius H. Kroehl in 1863, included a pressurized chamber that allowed divers to come and go from the underwater vessel. It spent its life not as a military submarine but as a vessel used for pearl diving in Panama. The Sub Marine Explorer also set new records by diving below 100 feet.

The first successful use of a submarine in battle was the CSS Hunley. A confederate submarine during the American Civil War, it used torpedos to sink the USS Housatonic, a warship that held 12 large cannons and blocked the entrance to Charleston. The sinking killed five sailors.

Unfortunately, after escaping this encounter, the Hunley itself sank, killing all seven crew on board. Between these men and the many sailors who died during testing, the confederates lost a total of 21 lives.

The Hunley was rediscovered in 1970 and eventually raised in 2000. Its remains can be viewed today at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center.

The First Mechanical Submarines

The French vessel, the Plongeur, was technically the first mechanical submarine using a compressed air engine. Designed in 1859 and launched four years later, the design of the vessel, unfortunately, made it next to impossible to control.

However, the Plongeur played an important role in the history and culture of submarines – while a model of the submarine was displayed at the International Exposition of 1867, it was viewed by Jules Verne, who would later write the classic Sci-Fi Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. This popular book would increase public interest in submarines and underwater exploration, making it easier for later engineers to obtain funding for their experiments.

Having failed as a submarine, the vessel was repurposed as a water tanker and maintained that role until it was decommissioned in 1935.

During the 1870s and 80s, engineers around the world experimented with both air and steam engines, with submarines such as the Ictineo II, Resurgam, and the Nordenfelt I. The Nordenfelt also became the first underwater vehicle to include armed torpedoes and machine guns. A later design of this submarine, named the Abdülhamid, would become the first to launch torpedoes from underwater.

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The late 19th century also saw experiments with battery-powered submarines, such as the Goubet I and Goubet II. However, due to limitations in batteries at the time, these projects were scrapped for having too short a range.

The First Submarine: A History of Underwater Combat 4

The First Diesel Submarine

The 20th century saw the rise of petrol and then diesel-powered submarines. In 1896, John Holland designed a diesel-and-battery vessel that would become the prototype of the US Navy’s first submarine fleet. These Plunger-Class submarines would be the first to be deployed on regular missions, supporting the harbor defense systems in the Philippines.

John Holland, father of the Modern Submarine

John Philip Holland was an Irish teacher and engineer. Born in 1841, Holland was the child of a member of the coast guard and grew up around boats. Educated by the Irish Christian Brothers, he taught mathematics until he was 32 when he fell ill. His mother and brothers had recently moved to Boston, so Holland decided to join them where the weather was somewhat better for his health.

READ MORE: Who Invented Math? The History of Mathematics

Unfortunately, upon arrival in America, he had a nasty fall on an icy footpath. Laid up in the hospital, he turned his mind to designs he had been making since he was 18 – designs for a new form of the submarine. Funded by Irish revolutionaries, Holland built this first submarine and later improved it to create The Fenian Ram.

Holland and his Irish backers fell out over funding, and the revolutionaries could not make the vessel work without the inventor’s help. However, Holland was able to use his experiments to gain the attention of the US Navy. His design, which used gasoline and electric engines, could travel almost 30 miles underwater, far longer than any the Navy had been able to produce before. On 11 April 1900, the US purchased the Holland VI for $160,000 and ordered seven more “A-Class” submarines to be built.

Holland would die in 1914 at the age of 73. He was able to learn of his vessels being used in combat overseas before he passed away.

The submarine designed by John P. Holland

USS Holland

The Holland VI, or USS Holland was the first modern submarine to be commissioned by the US Navy. While it never saw battle itself, it was used as the prototype for the first fleet, which would be used in the Philippine Islands during World War One.

The Holland was a 16-meter-long vessel that held a crew of six, a single torpedo tube, two spare torpedoes, and a pneumatic “dynamite gun.” It could travel 35 miles underwater at a speed of five-and-a-half knots and could dive over twenty meters in depth. It held 1500 gallons of petrol and used a battery-powered 110-volt motor underwater.

The Holland was primarily used as a prototype for later submarines, and an experimental vessel to obtain data and improve tactical knowledge. For a brief time in 1899, it was based in New Suffolk with five of its descendants, making the base the first official submarine base in US history. It was then moved to Rhode Island, where it would be used for training until decommissioned in 1905.

Based on the design of the Holland, the US Navy created five more “Plunger” or “Adder”-class submarines. These versions were larger, with more powerful electric motors and larger batteries. However, they were not without problems. Ventilation for the petrol engine was poor, the depth gauge only went to thirty feet, and there was zero visibility while underwater. While these ships saw some combat in the Philippines, they were quickly made obsolete due to the rapidly advancing technology produced during WW I. By 1920, most had been decommissioned, with some used as target practice.

Plan of the USS “Adder”

World Wars and the U-Boats

The U-boats of Nazi Germany were some of the greatest submarines built at the time, and they played a major role in the second world war. The Unterseeboot or “Under-sea-boat” was first developed in the late 19th century, and by 1914, the German navy had 48 submarines in its possession. On the 5th of September that year, the HMS Pathfinder became the first ship sunk by a submarine using a self-propelled torpedo. On the 22nd of the same month, the U-9 sunk three separate British warships in a single day.

U-Boats were primarily used as “commerce raiders,” attacking merchant and supply ships. Superior to British and American vessels, U-Boats had functional snorkels which allowed them to be powered by diesel engines water, and periscopes to offer a clear vision for the captains while at depth. By the end of the first war, 373 German submarines had been built, while 178 were lost in combat.

During the early stages of WW II, U-boats became an effective way to prevent American efforts to support Allied troops in Europe. The allied air forces couldn’t provide significant coverage of the Atlantic, allowing German submarines to attack supply ships and disappear when help arrived.

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Early U-boat warfare would primarily involve surfaced ships that would dive if the radar was detected. However, new radar technology made this tactic ineffective, and German scientists concentrated their efforts on making boats that could handle long-term submersion. The Type XXI U-Boat, built from 1943 to 45, could run for 75 consecutive hours underwater, but only two were to see combat before the war ended.

Was the USS Nautilus the First Nuclear Submarine?

At nearly a hundred meters in length and holding over a hundred men, the USS Nautilus was the first operational nuclear submarine in the world. Designed in 1950, it was five years before it was first launched.

With the ability to rise and submerge quickly and having a speed of 23 knots, contemporary radar and anti-submarine aircraft were ineffective against it. The ship carried six torpedo tubes.

USS Nautilus

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How Nuclear Power Changed Submarine Technology Forever

While WW II submarines could last up to two days underwater, the Nautilus could last for two weeks.

By 1957, the USS Nautilus had traveled over sixty thousand nautical miles. On August 3, 1958, it dove under the North Pole, having traveled over 1000 miles through water it could not escape from if in an emergency. In 1962, Nautilus was a part of the Naval blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis and continued working as an operational naval vessel for another six years. It was not until 1980 that the boat was decommissioned. The vessel now serves as a museum of submarine history in New London.

How Did We Survive Underwater Before Submarines?

Before naval submarines, there were centuries of experiments into how we might survive underwater. Ancient Assyrians used the first “air tanks” in the form of leather bags filled with air. Ancient texts describe underwater feats that would only have been possible with some form of artificial aid, while legend has it that Alexander the Great explored the sea using an ancient prototype of a diving bell.

READ MORE: Of Arms and Men: Arming America and Military History

What is the Future of Submarines?

The submarine of the 21st century hasn’t changed too dramatically from those of the mid-twentieth. This is primarily due to the advancement of Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) technology. The big advantage of submarines was their stealth capabilities, and if the enemy knew exactly where the submarine was, it lost the advantage. Modern techniques to detect submarines involve complex algorithms which can detect the noise of the vessel, even underneath all the ordinary noise of an ocean. While some engineers are attempting to create submarines that are “stealthier”, others are taking a different route.

Unmanned Underwater Vehicles, or UUVS, are “submarine drones”. Just like the drones which fly above combat missions, barely detected but capable of great devastation, UUVs can be inexpensive, smaller, and save lives. Other suggestions of futurists include high-speed “attack subs”, creating fleets with unique vessels just as the air force does with planes.

UUVS are also being used to further deep sea investigation. Unmanned vehicles have been used to explore the extreme depths of the ocean and survey the wreck of the Titanic.

While the sea has become so much harder to hide in, there is still a role for submarines in warfare. The military of world superpowers will continue to turn to innovative thinkers in both private and public sectors, looking for new ways to both explore and fight underwater.

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