Inventions and Discoveries of the 19th Century #8 – Submarines


The Turtle with pilot Ezra Lee

The concept of an underwater vessel goes way back with even Alexander the Great rumoured to have used some sort of diving bell for reconnaissance missions. Various designs were worked on in the Middle Ages and the Elizabethan era. Most notable is William Bourne’s 1578 design of a wooden vessel covered in leather that could submerge by decreasing its volume via contracting its sides with hand-turned screws.

The military implications of such devices were the focus of a 1776 attempt by American Revolutionists to destroy the British warship HMS Eagle. The Turtle, designed by David Bushnell, had two propellers powered by a foot treadle and was supposed to drill into the hull of an enemy vessel and attach a keg of gunpowder with a clockwork timer. It is not clear exactly why this plan failed. The pilot – Ezra Lee – may not have been able to penetrate the hull of HMS Eagle or perhaps he was unable to hold the craft stable enough to carry out the work, but the bomb was reported to have gone off downriver after being abandoned by the Turtle, giving the British enough of a fright to make them move their ships further away.

It was France that saw a big increase in interest concerning submarines in the early nineteenth century. American inventor, Robert Fulton, designed and built the Nautilus for the French government in 1800. It was based on the Turtle’s system of propulsion with an added mast and sail for use on the surface. While moderately succesful in tests, Fulton’s relationship with the French government was a rocky one and his submarine was never put into use. Frenchman Brutus de Villeroi pursued the idea and developed the Waterbug in 1833; a small vessel propelled by three pairs of duck paddles. He tried to interest the French and Dutch governments but was unsuccessful and it remained a working prototype. More impressive, was Wilhelm Bauer’s Diable Marin/Seeteufel for the Russians which, in honor of Tsar Alexander II’s coronation in 1855, took a small brass band underwater for a quick rendition which could be heard upon the surface.    


The H. L. Hunley. A Confederate submarine and the first in history to sink a warship.

The American Civil War saw several more attempts to bring the submarine into the war arena, mostly by private enterprises in the South who wanted to break the Union’s blockade and cash in on the Confederate privateering law. Their earliest was the Pioneer which, in 1862, sunk a barge with a towed torpedo in a test on Lake Pontchartrain. Designed by James McClintock and financed by Horace Lawson Hunley, it was propelled by a two-man propeller shaft. The vessel never saw service as the Union soon captured New Orleans and the Confederates were forced to scuttle it. While the Union did not openly approve of submarines, there is evidence that they secretly pursued the idea. An early effort was the Alligator, designed by the Waterbug’s father Brutus de Villeroi. Technically the first submarine in the U.S. Navy, the Alligator was sunk in a storm in 1863 before seeing any action. Meanwhile, the Rebels were experimenting with different methods of propulsion. Hunley and McClintock’s American Diver (or Pioneer II) first had an electrical motor and then a steam engine but both were unsuccessful and they fell back on the old hand cranked propeller shaft. The American Diver attempted an attack on the Union Blockade at Mobile Bay but the vessel was too slow and later sank in stormy weather. Not to be deterred, Hunley and co. began work on a new vessel which was commandeered by the Confederates. Hunley remained with the project and was killed during one of its tests, ultimately giving his name to the first submarine to sink a warship. Reluctant to fully submerge the H. L. Hunley, the Confederates used the principal of the earlier ‘David’ torpedo boats which floated on the surface and prodded the enemy vessel with a ‘spar-torpedo’ (an explosive charge attached to an iron bar). In 1864 the Hunley sank the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor. After the Union ship went down, the Hunley inexplicably sank on its way back to port.


Replica of the Ictineo II in Barcelona Harbor.

Methods of propulsion were always a challenge and the first submarine to successfully make a voyage without human power was the French Plongeur in 1863 using compressed air. The Spanish submarine Ictineo II, designed by Narcis Monturiol, was the first combustion powered submarine. Built in 1864, it was improved in 1867 with an air independent engine relying on a chemical reaction of zinc, manganese dioxide and potassium chlorate which powered a steam engine as well as providing oxygen for breathing, thus skirting the need for a snorkel which all submarines up to this point had employed. Inspired by the submarine’s development (particularly in his homeland), Jules Verne wrote his 1870 novel; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea which has been a radical influence on the public’s perception of early submarines. While Captain Nemo’s high-tech Nautilus (its name borrowed from Robert Fulton’s design) may be a far-fetched slice of steam-age sci-fi, long-range submarines were anything but a pipe dream by this point. 1888 saw the maiden voyage of the French submarine Gymnote. Powered by an electrical battery, the Gymnote had a periscope and side hydroplanes both of which became standard for submarines. The turn of the century saw gasolene and electic engines replaced by diesel engines which propelled subs on the surface and stored generated electricity for submerged propulsion. With more and more nations being turned on to the idea of submarines in their navy, increase in their construction exploded. By the time the U.S. entered the First World War, it had 24 diesel-powered submarines.

verneLike the airship, the submarine has become an indelible part of Steampunk. Although used in the navies of many countries today, there is something about the dangerous experiments of the nineteenth century that feeds the imagination of Steampunk writers who tap into a world where the ocean was seen as the final unexplored frontier, much like space would be in the latter half of the twentieth century. The likes of Verne’s Nautilus were brass-clad vessels of discovery in a world where the very nature of warfare was changing. The days of heroic charges into enemy ranks were being replaced by wars of subterfuge and espionage, where a surface-going vessel might be destroyed not by enemy guns, but by a submerged powder charge attached to its hull its crew didn’t even know was there. High-tech and ahead of its time, the submarine is a natural staple of the genre and I made some use of its potential myself in Onyx City.





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