The Evolution of Submarine Design

Jeff Rotman/Getty Images

The following timeline summarizes the evolution of submarine design, from the submarine's beginning as a human-powered warship to today's nuclear-powered subs.


2 man submarine underwater
Stephen Frink/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images

The first submarine design was drafted by William Borne but never got past the drawing stage. Borne's submarine design was based on ballast tanks which could be filled to submerge and evacuated to surface - these same principles are in use by today's submarines.


Cornelis Drebbel, a Dutchman, conceived and built an oared submersible. Drebbels' submarine design was the first to address the problem of air replenishment while submerged.


David Bushnell's Turtle Submarine
Francis Barber

David Bushnell builds the one-man human powered Turtle submarine. The Colonial Army attempted to sink the British warship HMS Eagle with the Turtle. The first submarine to dive, surface and be used in Naval combat, its intended purpose was to break the British naval blockade of New York harbor during the American Revolution. With slight positive buoyancy, it floated with approximately six inches of exposed surface. Turtle was powered by a hand-driven propeller. The operator would submerge under the target and, using a screw projecting from the top of Turtle, he would attach a clock-detonated explosive charge.



Robert Fulton builds the Nautilus submarine which incorporates two forms of power for propulsion - a sail while on the surface and a hand-cranked screw while submerged.


Holland VII

John P. Holland introduces the Holland VII and later the Holland VIII (1900). The Holland VIII with its petroleum engine for surface propulsion and electric engine for submerged operations served as the blueprint adopted by all the world's navies for submarine design up to 1914.


The French submarine Aigette is the first submarine built with a diesel engine for surface propulsion and electric engine for submerged operations. Diesel fuel is less volatile than petroleum and is the preferred fuel for current and future conventionally powered submarine designs.


The German U-boat U-264 is equipped with a snorkel mast. This mast which provides air to the diesel engine allows the submarine to operate the engine at a shallow depth and recharge the batteries


The German U-791 uses Hydrogen Peroxide as an alternative fuel source.


USS Nautilus
U.S. Navy

The U.S. launches the USS Nautilus - the world's first nuclear-powered submarine. Nuclear power enables submarines to become true "submersibles" -- able to operate underwater for an indefinite period of time. The development of the Naval nuclear propulsion plant was the work of a team Navy, government and contractor engineers led by Captain Hyman G. Rickover.


U.S Navy

The U.S. introduces the USS Albacore with a "tear drop" hull design to reduce underwater resistance and allow greater submerged speed and maneuverability. The first submarine class to use this new hull design is the USS Skipjack.


U.S. Navy

The USS George Washington is the world's first nuclear powered ballistic missile firing submarine.

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Bellis, Mary. "The Evolution of Submarine Design." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). The Evolution of Submarine Design. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The Evolution of Submarine Design." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).