29 June 2021: OK, so we're a few days late this week; sorry about that. Got tied up with other stuff and didn't get to this great tale of the very first commercially viable (almost) submarine. So, without further ado, let's have a look at the submarine that almost worked during the American Revolution, courtesy of Military History.
While the submarines of today are obviously very technologically advanced, there was a time when they were quite primitive. To put this into perspective, the first time that a submarine was actually commissioned for military purposes was in 1775.
The vessel in question was called the Turtle and was used by the American Continental Army during the Revolutionary War to fight the British. As you might expect, this submarine was pretty different from the ones that we're accustomed to today.
Towards the beginning of the American Revolution, an inventor by the name of David Bushnell recognized that the various American militias were having extreme difficulties fending off British ships. The reason for these issues was that the British Navy was at its peak when the conflict broke out; thus, making it quite difficult to win any naval battles.
As a result of this, Bushnell decided that the best way to remove Great Britain's ships would be to do so via stealthy operations. In order to accomplish this momentous task, Bushnell put together his expertise of underwater explosions and his limited knowledge of submarines.
The end result was an acorn-shaped submersible that (in practice) would be able to attach explosives to the hulls of England's finest vessels. To construct the experimental craft, Bushnell utilized two wooden shells that were painted with tar and braced them with steel brackets. To operate the underwater warship, propellers and a hand pump were fitted that allowed the sub to raise and lower while underwater.
In August of 1776, after months of training and testing, Bushnell and an American general named Samuel Holden Parsons decided that it was time to put the Turtle into action. The target in question would be the HMS Eagle, which was considered by many to be the flagship vessel of the British fleet in New York's harbor. The individual who would pilot the submarine for its maiden voyage would be a soldier named Sgt. Ezra Lee.
Lee's mission would be to approach the Eagle from under the water and surface at the very back of the ship. Once there, Lee would then screw the explosive into the hull of the ship and flee to safety. If all went according to plan, the explosives would sink the ship, as well as heavily damage British morale.
On the night of September 6th, 1776, Sgt. Lee set off towards the Eagle from the New York coast. It took him over 2 hours to reach his destination, which unfortunately left him with only 20 minutes of oxygen to work with. As a result of the time crunch, Lee frantically attempted to screw the explosive into the hull to no avail.
As he made another attempt on the side of the hull, Lee was spotted by soldiers who were stationed onshore. As the English troops rowed out to investigate, Lee lit the fuse to the explosive, threw it in the harbor, and escaped underwater. Though the explosive did detonate, nobody was injured, nor was any ship damaged.
One month later, Lee made yet another attempt on a different ship off of the coast of Manhattan. This time around, however, he was spotted almost immediately; thus, forcing him to abandon the mission. A few days later, the British discovered the Turtle while it was engaged in yet another mission and destroyed it.
Despite the apparent failure of the Turtle, this did not stop the likes of George Washington from praising Bushnell's design. Washington even referred to the Turtle as a stroke of genius; albeit, one with too many factors working against it.
While Bushnell would never successfully sink a ship with a submarine throughout the American Revolution, he would go on to inspire future inventors like that of Robert Fulton and John Holland (creator of the Hunley [Civil War]). Historians would also bestow him with the title of "Founder of Modern Submersible Warfare.
Who would have thought that this humble beginning would evolve into the sleek, deadly, and fast submarines that we take for granted today!
Until next time,