PART ONE: 1580-1869
Key Events in the History of Submarines

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Prepared for NOVA by Captain Brayton Harris, USN (Retired)
Author, The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social and Military History






William Bourne

Cornelius Drebbel

Marin Mersenne

De Son

Giovanni Borelli

Denis Papin

Nathaniel Symons

J. Day

Bushnell's "Turtle"

Robert Fulton proposes "Nautlus"

"Nautilus" &"Torpedo"

War of 1812

Thomas Johnstone

Brutus de Villeroi
"fish boat"

Wilhelm Bauer

Lodner Phillips

"Diable Marin"

Brutus de Villeroi

James McClintock "Pioneer"

USN "Alligator"

Francis D. Lee "Davids"


CSS H. L. Hunley

Burn & Bourgeois
"Le Plongeur"

"Intelligent Whale"

CSS Hunley sinks USS Housatonic

Bauer's vision

USN and

The first published prescription for a submarine came from the pen of WILLIAM BOURNE, an English innkeeper and scientific dilettante. Bourne first offered a lucid description of why a ship floats by displacing its weight of water -- and then described a mechanism by which:

"It is possible to make a Ship or Boate that may goe under the water unto the bottome, and so to come up again at your pleasure. [If] Any magnitude of body that is in the water . . . having alwaies but one weight, may be made bigger or lesser, then it Shall swimme when you would, and sinke when you list . . . ."

In other words, decrease the volume to make the boat heavier than the weight of the water it displaces, and it will sink. Make it lighter, by increasing the volume, and it will rise. He wrote of watertight joints of leather, and a screw
mechanism to wind the volume-changing "thing" in and out. Bourne was describing a principle, not a plan for a submarine, and offered no illustration.

early submarines: William Bourne

Some years later, this drawing purported to be Bourne's scheme: leather-wrapped pads which can be screwed in toward the centerline to create a flooded chamber, and screwed out to expel the water and seal the opening.

However, Bourne wrote of expanding and contracting structures, not flooding chambers and submarines built in England in 1729 and France in 1863 conformed with his idea exactly.

Dutchman CORNELIUS DREBBEL, hired in 1603 as "court inventor" for James I of England, built what seems to have been the first working submarine. According to accounts, some of which may have been written by people who actually saw the submarine, it was a decked-over rowboat, propelled by twelve oarsmen, which made a submerged journey down the Thames River at a depth of about fifteen feet.

There are no credible illustrations of Drebbel's boat, and no credible explanations of how it worked. Best guess: the boat was designed to have almost-neutral buoyancy, floating just awash, with a downward-sloping foredeck to act as a sort of diving plane. The boat would be driven under the surface by forward momentum . . . just as are most modern submarines. When the rowers stopped rowing, the boat would slowly rise.

Reports that Drebbel's patron, James I, witnessed a demonstration, may be true. Reports that James I took an underwater ride are most unlikely.
French priest MARIN MERSENNE theorized that a submarine should be made of copper, cylindrical in shape to better withstand pressure and with pointed ends both for streamlining and to permit reversing course without having to turn around. Pressure? For every foot of depth, water pressure increases about half a pound per square inch (PSI).
The 72-foot-long "Rotterdam Boat," designed by a Frenchman (named DE SON) was probably the first underwater vessel specifically built (by the council of the Southern Netherlands
) to attack an enemy (the English Navy). This almost submarine a semi-submerged ram was supposed to sneak up unobserved and punch a hole in an enemy ship. The designer boasted that it could cross the English Channel and back in a day, and sink a hundred ships along the way.

[Correction entered: the client was not "Belgium" as noted in the original posting. Thanks to Björn Verheijden, 2010]
early submarines: De Son Rotterdam Boat
The "Rotterdam Boat." Propulsion: a spring-driven clock-work device to turn a central
paddle wheel. The device was so underpowered that, when the boat was launched,
it went literally nowhere.
There is no evidence that Italian GIOVANNI BORELLI ever built a submarine, but this illustration continues to appear in books and magazines in several variations as if were a real boat, sometimes erroneously linked with Drebbel's or Symons's (below, 1729) efforts. Borelli did understand the basic principle of volume vs weight (displacement), but he illustrated a totally impractical ballast system by which weight would be increased or diminished by allowing a bank of goat-skin bags to fill with water, then by squeezing the water out to rise again.
Giovanni Borelli early submarine

DENIS PAPIN, a professor of mathematics built two submarines. He used an air pump to balance internal pressure with external water pressure, thus controlling buoyancy through the in-and-out flow of water into the hull.
Propulsion: sails on the surface, oars underwater.

Papin featured "certain holes" through which the operator might "touch enemy vessels and ruin them in sundry ways."

Papin's first submarine

Denis Papin early submarine

Papin tested his first boat, (left) but his patron lost interest and the second boat (above) was never finished. Illustrations of this submarine look like a steam kettle. Papin was also the inventor of the pressure cooker. An engraver might have confused the two, or this may have been a joke or Papin's attempt at secrecy.

English house-carpenter NATHANIEL SYMONS created a one-man expanding/contracting sinking boat no locomotion as a sort of public entertainment. Sealed up inside, in front of a crowd of spectators, he cranked the two parts of his telescopic hull together, spent forty-five minutes underwater, then expanded the hull, rose to the surface, and passed the hat. One man gave him a coin.
Wagon-maker J. DAY, another Englishman, built a small submarine with detachable ballast stones, hung around the outside with ring bolts, which could be released from inside. This worked quite well in shallow water. Encouraged by a professional gambler, he built a bigger boat: they would take bets on how long he could remain underwater, further out in the deep-water harbor.

Surrounded by ships filled with bettors, they hung some stones; the boat wallowed awash, but would not go under. They hung some more stones. The boat sank like a rock and would have collapsed long before the ballast could be released.

Yale graduate DAVID BUSHNELL (75) built the first submarine to actually make an attack on an enemy warship. Dubbed the "Turtle" because it resembled a sea-turtle floating vertically in the water, it was operated by Sergeant Ezra Lee.

The scheme: be towed into the vicinity of the target; open a foot-operated valve to let in enough water to sink, close the valve; move in under the enemy by cranking the two propellers one for forward and one for vertical movement turned by foot treadle "like a spinning wheel;" drill into the hull to attach a 150-pound keg of gunpowder with a clockwork detonator; crank to get away; operate a foot-pump to get the water out of the hull and thus re-surface.

In early-morning darkness on September 7, 1776, "Turtle" made an attack on a British ship in New York harbor, probably HMS Eagle. The drill may have hit an iron strap it would not penetrate the hull. (Contrary to most reports, the Eagle of 1776 had not been fitted with a copper-sheathed bottom.) Lee became disoriented, soon bobbed to the surface and was spotted by a lookout. He managed to get away.

Bushnell's Turtle of 1776
"Turtle," as drawn in 1875 from the best information the artist could gather.

There are several important errors. It shows ballast tanks when there were none; it shows an Archimedes screw (helical) for locomotion instead of the propeller like the "arms of a wind mill" or a "pair of oars"described by Bushnell and others.

It also shows -- but this we may forgive -- the operator wearing a rather foppish late 19th-century outfit.
ROBERT FULTON, a marginal American artist but increasingly successful inventor living in Paris, offered to build a submarine to be used against France's British enemy: "a Mechanical Nautlius. A Machine which flatters me with much hope of being Able to Annihilate their Navy." He would build and operate the machine at his own expense, and would expect payment for each British ship destroyed.

He predicted that, "Should some vessels of war be destroyed by means so novel, so hidden and so incalculable the confidence of the seamen will vanish and the fleet rendered useless from the moment of the first terror."

After protracted delays and several changes in government, Fulton was encouraged enough to build the submarine he called "Nautilus." He made a number of successful dives, to depths of 25 feet and for times as long as six hours (ventilation provided by a tube to the surface).

"Nautilus" was essentially an elongated "Turtle" with a larger propellor and mast and sail for use on the surface. In trials, "Nautilus" achieved a maximum sustained underwater speed of four knots. Fulton (given the rank of rear admiral) made several attempts to attack English ships which saw him coming and moved out of the way. Relationships with the French government deteriorated; a new Minister of Marine is reported to have said, "Go, sir. Your invention is fine for the Algerians or corsairs, but be advised that France has not yet abandoned the Ocean."

Fulton broke up "Nautilus" and sold it for scrap (after which it may have sat on the beach for a number of years). He proposed but, most reports to the contrary, never built an improved version. The name "Nautilus" was immortalized by Jules Verne in his 1870 novel, "20,000 Leagues under the Sea"
and was given to several U. S. Navy boats including the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the 1954 USS Nautilus.


Robert Fulton Nautilus submarine, an early historic submarine

This most commonly-reproduced "Nautilus" was drawn two years before the submarine was built; Fulton added a deck and made a number of un-documented changes in the finished product. Illustrations which show "Nautilus" with the hull-form and sail rig of a surface sailboat represent the never-buil "improved" version.

  Fulton also attached the name "torpedo" to that maritime weapon we now call a mine. Fulton's torpedoes were meant to be towed into position, either by a submerged boat or a surface rowboat. When the French passed on the submarine, he offered so sell torpedoes to the English; he demonstrated their utility by sinking an anchored ship with a torpedo towed into place by a rowboat.

In 1867, English engineer Robert Whitehead developed a self-propelled mine, which he called the "automobile torpedo" -- the true ancestor of the modern submarine-launched torpedo.

There were at least two submersibles reported during the War of 1812, to one of which a British admiral attached the by then-generic name "Turtle." There is no truth to the assertion that Bushnell "returned to the charge" in the War of 1812; by that time, Bushnell, whose family had not heard from him for more than 25 years, was in his 70s and living under an assumed name in Georgia.

The first boat, which may have operated just awash, was attributed to "an ingenious gentleman named Berrian," as reported in the New York Evening Post, headed out to do battle in June. 1814. On June 26, it was grounded on the Eastern end of Long Island. The Sag Harbor militia tried to defend it, but were overwhelmed with four men killed or wounded. The boat was destroyed by the British sloop of war Sylph and frigate Maidstone.

History of Submarines: 1814

[Added 2010. Information provided by --- and our thanks go to --- Geoffrey K. Fleming, Director of the Southold (NY) Historical Society]
One artist's concept (1908) of the 1814 "torpedo boat"
The other boat, clearly a submarine, is preserved in the notebooks of Samuel Colt, a design attributed to SILAS CLOWDEN HALSEY: "lost in New London harbor in an effort to blow up a British 74." Of this, nothing else is known.
  .Silas Clowden Halsey submarine War of 1812

The drawing shows the operator with one hand on a tiller, the other on a crank to turn the propeller and drill bit. A technical "Turtle" clone: there is a "water cock" and a "force pump" at the bottom of the boat and an "air tube to shove up when at the surface of the water." A "torpedo" is attached by a line to the drill.
  (Return to top)
Englishman THOMAS JOHNSTONE may or may not have participated in Fulton's efforts on behalf of the French and may or may not have been hired to build a 100-foot-long submarine to be used in a planned rescue of Napoleon Bonaparte from exile on the island of Elba. Whatever the facts of the case Napoleon died before the (possible) submarine was finished.

Frenchman BRUTUS DE VILLEROI demonstrated what he called le bateau poisson ("fish boat"), a submarine 10 feet 6 inches long, just over two feet diameter, with a crew of three . . . maybe; that would be a bit tight. Propulsion: three pair of duck-paddles. Over several years, he demonstrated (and tried to sell) his submarine to the Dutch and the French, without success. He moved to Philadelphia in the late 1850s (listed in the 1860 Federal Census, occupation, "natural genius." (See below, 1859 ).

  DeVilleroi first submarine scheme "Waterbug"
Drawing made by two Dutch officials, who examined Villeroi's "fish boat," 1832
The German port of Kiel was under blockade by the Danish Navy, and Prussian army corporal WILHELM BAUER persuaded a shipbuilder to construct his design for a blockade-breaking submarine which he called "Brandtaucher," (Incendiary Diver). The boat was made of riveted sheet iron, about the size and shape of a small sperm whale; propulsion, by a two-man-power treadmill which drove a propeller. A third crewmember steered. Buoyancy was controlled by ballast tanks, and trim was adjusted by moving a sliding weight along an iron rod.

On its first appearance, Brandtaucher was sufficiently threatening to cause the blockading force to move further out to sea. On a subsequent submerged run, the sliding weight slid too far forward and the boat plunged to the bottom, getting stuck in the mud at 60 feet. Water pressure was too great to allow Bauer and his two companions to open the hatch, and, with water seeping in through the damaged hull, they had to wait until incoming water had raised the internal pressure to match that outside. After an unimaginable six hours in the claustrophobic darkness -- they opened the hatch and were swept aloft in a bubble of escaping air.
early submarine: Wilhelm Bauer Brandtaucher submarine 1850
"Brandtaucher" was recovered in 1887 and is now on display in Dresden.

Indiana shoemaker LODNER D. PHILLIPS built at least two submarines. The first collapsed at a depth of twenty feet. The second achieved hand-cranked underwater speeds of four knots and depths to 100 feet; Phillips offered to sell it to the U. S. Navy. The response: "No authority is known to this Bureau to purchase a submarine boat . . . the boats used by the Navy go on not under the water."

During the Civil War, Phillips again offered his services to the U. S. Navy, again, without success.


early submarine: Lodner D. Phillips submarine patent
Phillips was granted an 1852 patent for a "Steering Submarine Propller." The innovation: steering, as well as up-and-down movement, was controlled by a hand-cranked propeller on a swivel joint.

In 1856, he patented his "Submarine Exploring-Armor"--- an armored diving suit (left). In 1915, a submarine (with long-dead operator) was discovered, sunk, in the Chicago River, The newspapers dubbed in the "Fool Killer." It may have been a Phillips boat. The photo below (right) from the Chicago Daily News shows the boat being raised from the river.

Lodner Phillips armored diving suit"Fool Killer" submarine

BauerSea Devil1855 1855
WILHELM BAUER built the 52-foot "Diable Marin" or "Seeteufel" (Sea Devil) for Russia; this submarine made as many as 134 dives, the most spectacular of which was in celebration of the coronation of Tsar Alexander II. The boat took sixteen men underwater, four of whom made up a brass band whose underwater rendition of the national anthem clearly could be heard by observers on the surface.
French designer BRUTUS DE VILLEROI built a 33-foot-long treasure-hunting submarine for a Philadelphia financier. The target: the 1780 wreck of the British warship De Braak, lost near the mouth of the Delaware River. The method: divers, operating out of an airlock. The boat made at least one three-hour dive to twenty feet; no other details known. (However, Villeroi was not finished with the submarine-business. See below, 1861-1862.




To review the
world history
of submarines


Early in the Civil War, the Confederate Government authorized citizens to operate armed warships as "privateers." A New Orleans consortium headed by cotton broker HORACE L. HUNLEY was approved for the operation of "Pioneer," a 20-foot long three-man submarine (one to steer, two to crank the propeller) designed and built by JAMES MCCLINTOCK .

In a March 1862 demonstration on Lake Pontchartrain, a submerged "Pioneer" sank a barge with a towed floating torpedo. In April, 1862, the
U. S. Navy captured New Orleans, and "Pioneer" was scuttled by its builders. Soon discovered, the boat eventually was sold for scrap in 1868.


Confederate submarine "Pioneer"

Plan---most certainly for "Pioneer" [, 2010]

  Confederate submarine "Pioneer" salvaged
The Confederate submarine Pioneer, pulled from "the bottom of New Basin,
New Orleans," drawn by Ensign David M. Stauffer of the
Mississippi Squadron, 1865 [, 2010]
  l Civil War submarine in New Orleans

A Civil War-era submarine -- which was long thought to be "Pioneer," but is not -- was
discovered and raised in 1878 and is on display at the Louisiana State Museum.
True origin? A mystery.
VILLEROI obtained a contract from the U. S. Navy for a larger submarine: the 46-foot-long "Alligator." Propulsion: originally sixteen oarsmen with hinged, self-feathering oars; improved, a three-foot diameter hand-cranked propeller. Weapon: an explosive charge to be set against an enemy hull by a diver.

"Alligator" was placed in service on June 13, 1862 the first submarine in the U. S. Navy, all reports to the contrary notwithstanding. Towed South from Philadelphia for operations in the James River, the boat proved to be too large to hide and support divers in the relatively shallow water. It foundered and sank in a storm, 1863, while being towed to a potential operating area off South Carolina.
  DeVilleroi "Alligator" first US Navy submarine

U. S. Navy submarine "Alligator"

Villeroi's own plan view of Alligator, recently discovered in France.
[Added 2010]

  First U.S. submarine Alligator 1861
Confederate Army officer Captain FRANCIS D. LEE created the low-freeboard steamboat known as a "David" (as in, David versus Goliath). Weapon: poke the enemy ship with a spar torpedo (an explosive at the end of a long pole), or directly ram it. Built by the Southern Torpedo Boat Company in Charleston as a profit-making venture (substantial bounties were being offered to anyone who could sink a blockading Union warship), they seemed like a good idea at the time but had little success.
  civil war confederate David submersible
Intercepted Confederate mail included this drawing---forwarded to the Federal War Department---of a submarine to be used off the coast of Texas. No other details available . . . [2010]
  Unknown Confederate submarine 1863
Hunley's New Orleans consortium shifted operations to Mobile, Alabama, and built a second, slightly-improved submarine which may have been called "American Diver." McClintock spent some time and money trying to replace hand-cranking with some sort of electrical motor, but without success. This submarine sank in rough weather in Mobile Bay; the crew was rescued.
  civil war confederate submarine american diver by McClintok

Sketch made by McClintock in 1872, which may represent
the features of "American Diver."

Hunley's consortium built a third, larger, submarine -- about 40 feet long. Crew: possibly nine, eight to crank the propeller and at least one to steer and operate the sea cocks and hand-pumps to control water level in the ballast tanks.

Confederate Civil War submarine Hunley cross section
  confederate civil war submarine CSS Hunley

These drawings were made, sometime after the Civil War, from information
provided by W. A. Alexander -- one of the original (and suriving) builders.
The cross-section (above) clearly shows the tight working space inside.

This submarine was sent to Charleston, to try to break the Federal blockade. Almost immediately, it, too, sank -- possibly twice, swamped by the wake of a passing steamer, with the loss of some crewmembers. Confederate Commanding General P. G. T. Beauregard became disenchanted but Horace Hunley persuaded him to allow "one more try" under his -- Hunley's -- personal supervision. The boat sank again, killing Hunley and the crew.

It was found, and raised -- and two members of the original team who had not been aboard harassed Beauregard often enough that , after "many refusals and much discussion," he agreed to allow one more attempt -- but not as a submarine. The boat -- now named CSS H. L. Hunley in honor of her spiritual father -- was to be armed with a spar torpedo and operate awash, as a David.

   civil war confederate submarine Hunley

CSS H. L. HUNLEY, recovered after a fatal accident and awaiting a "go-no go"
decision by Charleston-area commanding General P. G. T. Beauregard, CSA.
A group of Northern speculators formed the American Submarine Company, to take advantage of a vote in the U. S. Congress to approve the use of privateers. However, when President Abraham Lincoln declined to accept the authority, construction of this consortium's submarine the "Intelligent Whale" languished. The boat was not completed until 1866, long after the end of the war. The then-ostensible owner, O. S. HALSTEAD, made several efforts over several years to sell it to the government; the U. S. Navy held formal acceptance trials in 1872. The "Intelligent Whale" failed. Halstead was murdered, probably by the jealous ex-lover of his mistress.
civil war submarine Intelligent Whale

"Intelligent Whale" is now an exhibit at the Militia Museum in New Jersey. It should
not be regarded as a serious contender in the 19th Century submarine sweepstakes.

A French team of CHARLES BURN and SIMON BOURGEOIS launched "Le Plongeur" (The Diver) 140 feet long, 20 feet wide, displacing 400 tons. Power: engines run by 180 psi compressed air stored in tanks throughout the boat. Method of operation: fill ballast tanks just enough to achieve neutral buoyancy, then make adjustments with cylinders that could be run in and out of the hull to vary the volume Bourne's concept. The boat was too unstable; the movement of a crew member could send her into radical gyrations.

History of Submarines: Le Plongeur

Le Plongeur (CLICK to view enlarged, printable pdf file).
Added 2010.

On February 17, after months of training and operational delays, the spar-torpedo-armed CSS H. L. Hunley attacked USS Housatonic which became the first warship ever sunk by a submarine. However, Hunley disappeared with all hands, not to be found until 1995, about 1000 yards from the scene of action. Best speculation on the fate of Hunley: with hatches open for desperately-needed ventilation, the boat was swamped by the wake of a steamer rushing to the aid of Housatonic. Hunley was recovered in the summer of 2000, and is now in the process of conservation and study.
WILHELM BAUER proposed that submarines be powered by a visionary but not yet practical internal combustion engine. Overall, he was to spend twenty-five years developing (or at least, proposing) submarines on behalf of six nations Germany, Austria, England, the United States, Russia, France. His plebeian origin and autocratic style not to mention his lowly army rank were a serious handicap in dealing with the aristocratic brethren who ran most of the navies of the day. Essentially ignored by his native Germany in his lifetime, Bauer became a posthumous hero in the Nazi era.
The U. S. Navy began manufacturing, under license, the WHITEHEAD torpedo, for use by surface ships and, especially, a new class: the torpedo boat. This spawned development of another new class, the torpedo boat destroyer. Some navies flirted with yet another class, the destroyer of torpedo boat destroyers. Whatever: surface launched torpedoes had marginal military effectiveness, and found their true home underwater.

Get the whole story:
The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social and Military History

Brayton Harris is author, co-author, editor of or contributor to more than 20 books; click to visit WWW.BRAYTONHARRIS.COM for information on five that are new or have just been re-issued:

The Age of the Battleship 1890-1922
WAR NEWS: Blue & Gray in Black & White . . . Newspapers in the Civil War
Admiral Nimitz: Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater
Citizens for Eisenhower: The 1952 Presidential Campaign; Lessons for the Future?
PICTURE.BOOK: The Full Story of the Movie They Didn't Want You to See