History and Design of Submarines

Two-Man Submarine
Stephen Frink/Getty Images

Designs for underwater boats or submarines date back to the 1500s and ideas for underwater travel date back even further. However, it was not until the 19th century that the first useful submarines began to appear.

During the Civil War, the Confederates built the H.L. Hunley, the submarine that sank a Union ship. The U.S.S. Housatonic was built in 1864. But it wasn't until after World War I began that the first truly practical and modern submarines were invented.

The submariner's problem has always been how to improve his underwater endurance and performance, and both capabilities are defined by the ship. Early in submarine history the submariner's problem often was how to make his ship work at all.

Hollow Papyrus Reeds

Historical accounts point out that man has always sought to explore the ocean depths. An early record from the Nile Valley in Egypt gives us the first illustration. It is a wall painting that shows duck hunters, bird spears in hand, creeping up to their prey beneath the surface as they breathe through hollow papyrus reeds. The Athenians are said to have used divers to clear the harbor entrance during the siege of Syracuse.

And Alexander the Great, in his operations against Tyre, ordered divers to destroy any submersible vehicle (submarine) defenses the city might undertake to build. While in none of these records does it actually say that Alexander had any kind of submersible vehicle, legend has it that he descended in a device that kept its occupants dry and admitted light.

William Bourne - 1578

Not until 1578 did any record appear of a craft designed for underwater navigation. William Bourne, a former Royal Navy gunner, designed a completely enclosed boat that could be submerged and rowed beneath the surface. His creation was a wooden framework bound in waterproofed leather. It was to be submerged by using hand vises to contract the sides and decrease the volume.

Although Bourne's idea never got beyond the drawing board, a similar apparatus was launched in 1605. But it didn't get much farther because the designers had neglected to consider the tenacity of underwater mud. The craft became stuck in the river bottom during its first underwater trial.

Cornelius Van Drebbel - 1620

What might be called the first "practical" submarine was a rowboat covered with greased leather. It was the idea of Cornelius Van Drebbel, a Dutch doctor living in England, in 1620. Van Drebbel's submarine was powered by rowers pulling on oars that protruded through flexible leather seals in the hull. Snorkel air tubes were held above the surface by floats, thus permitting a submergence time of several hours. Van Drebbel's submarine successfully maneuvered at depths of 12 to 15 feet below the surface of the Thames River.

Van Drebbel followed his first boat with two others. The later models were larger but they relied upon the same principles. Legend has it that after repeated tests, King James I of England rode in one of his later models to demonstrate its safety. Despite its successful demonstrations, Van Drebbel's invention failed to arouse the interest of the British Navy. It was an age when the possibility of submarine warfare was still far in the future.

Giovanni Borelli - 1680

In 1749 the British periodical "Gentlemen's Magazine" printed a short article describing a most unusual device for submerging and surfacing. Reproducing an Italian scheme developed by Giovanni Borelli in 1680, the article depicted a craft with a number of goatskins built into the hull. Each goatskin was to be connected to an aperture at the bottom. Borelli planned to submerge this vessel by filling the skins with water and to surface it by forcing the water out with a twisting rod. Even though Borelli's submarine was never built it provided what was probably the first approach to the modern ballast tank.

Continue > David Bushnell's Turtle Submarine

The first American submarine is as old as the United States itself. David Bushnell (1742-1824), a Yale graduate, designed and built a submarine torpedo boat in 1776. The one-man vessel submerged by admitting water into the hull and surfaced by pumping it out with a hand pump. Powered by a pedal-operated propeller and armed with a keg of powder, the egg-shaped Turtle gave Revolutionary Americans high hopes for a secret weapon - a weapon that could destroy the British warships anchored in New York Harbor.

Turtle Submarine: Use as a Weapon

The Turtle's torpedo, a keg of powder, was to be attached to an enemy ship's hull and detonated by a time fuse. On the night of September 7, 1776, the Turtle, operated by an Army volunteer, Sergeant Ezra Lee, conducted an attack on the British ship HMS Eagle. However, the boring device that was operated from inside the oak-planked Turtle failed to penetrate the target vessel's hull.

It is likely that the wooden hull was too hard to penetrate, the boring device hit a bolt or iron brace, or the operator was too exhausted to screw in the weapon. When Sergeant Lee attempted to shift the Turtle to another position beneath the hull, he lost contact with the target vessel and ultimately was forced to abandon the torpedo. Although the torpedo was never attached to the target, the clockwork timer detonated it about an hour after it was released.

The result was a spectacular explosion that ultimately forced the British to increase their vigilance and to move their ship's anchorage further out in the harbor. Royal Navy logs and reports from this period make no mention of this incident, and it is possible that the Turtle's attack may be more submarine legend than a historical event.

  • David Bushnell Larger Photo of Turtle Submarine
    David Bushnell built a unique vessel, called the Turtle, designed to be propelled underwater by an operator who turned its propeller by hand.
  • David Bushnell's American Turtle
    The only working, full-scale model of David Bushnell's 1776 invention, the American Turtle.
  • David Bushnell 1740-1826
    The most sensational contribution of patriot and inventor David Bushnell to the American Revolutionary War effort was the world's first functioning submarine.

Continue > Robert Fulton and the Nautilus Submarine

Then came another American, Robert Fulton, who in 1801 successfully built and operated a submarine in France, before turning his inventing talents to the steamboat.

Robert Fulton - Nautilus Submarine 1801

Robert Fulton's cigar-shaped Nautilus submarine was driven by a hand-cranked propeller when submerged and had a kite-like sail for surface power. The Nautilus submarine was the first submersible to have separate propulsion systems for surfaced and submerged operations. It also carried flasks of compressed air that permitted the two-man crew to remain submerged for five hours.

William Bauer - 1850

William Bauer, a German, built a submarine in Kiel in 1850 but met with little success. Bauer's first boat sank in 55 feet of water. As his craft was sinking, he opened the flood valves to equalize the pressure inside the submarine so the escape hatch could be opened. Bauer had to convince two terrified seamen that this was the only means of escape. When the water was at chin level, the men were shot to the surface with a bubble of air that blew the hatch open. Bauer's simple technique was rediscovered years later and employed in modern submarines' escape compartments that operate on the same principle.

Continue > The Hunley

During the American Civil War, Confederate inventor Horace Lawson Hunley converted a steam boiler into a submarine.

This Confederate submarine called the could be propelled at four knots by a hand-driven screw. Unfortunately, the submarine sank twice during trials in Charleston, South Carolina. These accidental sinkings in Charleston harbor cost the lives of two crews. In the second accident the submarine was stranded on the bottom and Horace Lawson Hunley himself was asphyxiated with eight other crew members.

The Hunley

Subsequently, the submarine was raised and renamed the Hunley. In 1864, armed with a 90-pound charge of powder on a long pole, the Hunley attacked and sank a new Federal steam sloop, USS Housatonic, at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. After her successful attack on Housatonic, the Hunley disappeared and her fate remained unknown for 131 years.

In 1995 the wreck of the Hunley was located four miles off Sullivans Island, South Carolina. Even though she sank, the Hunley proved that the submarine could be a valuable weapon in time of war.

Biography - Horace Lawson Hunley 1823-1863

Horace Lawson Hunley was born in Sumner County, Tennessee, on 29 December 1823. As an adult, he served in the Louisiana State Legislature, practiced law in New Orleans and was a generally notable figure in that area.

In 1861, after the start of the American Civil War, Horace Lawson Hunley joined James R. McClintock and Baxter Watson in building the submarine Pioneer, which was scuttled in 1862 to prevent its capture. The three men later constructed two submarines at Mobile, Alabama, the second of which was named H.L. Hunley. This vessel was taken to Charleston, South Carolina, in 1863, where it was to be used to attack blockading Union ships.

During a test dive on 15 October 1863, with Horace Lawson Hunley in charge, the submarine failed to surface. All on board, including Horace Lawson Hunley, lost their lives. On 17 February 1864, after it had been raised, refurbished and given a new crew, H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to successfully attack an enemy warship when she sank USS Housatonic off Charleston.

Continue > The USS Holland & John Holland

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Bellis, Mary. "Submarines." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Bellis, Mary. (2021, July 31). Submarines. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "Submarines." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).