The First Combat Submarine Is Much Older Than You Think


The Turtle Submarine And The American Revolutionary War

In case you did a double take and had to read that line twice, yes, a submarine in the American Revolutionary War. No, not World War II or even World War I. In fact, not even the American Civil War, but the war for Independence against Great Britain. It seems a bit far fetched that a combat submarine was used in the 1770’s. Most people seem to think the Germans were the first with their U-Boats during WWI. But the Americans had them beat by 139 years before the Great War broke out in 1914. This quite an impressive feat of engineering considering the time frame. But David Bushnell, a Yale College freshman, spent much of the early 1770’s experimenting with underwater explosives. By the time tensions between the Colonies and Britain were at its peak in 1775, David took his work to Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Here he will create the Turtle, the world’s first submersible used in combat.

Development Of The Turtle

The Turtle was named after it’s shaped, as it resembled a large turtle. It was like modern day submarines that are very long and narrow. The Turtle was about 10 feet long, about 6 feet tall, and 3 feet wide. It consisted of two wooden shells covered with tar and reinforced with steel bands. It basically was able to dive by allowing water into a bilge tank at the bottom of the vessel and would go up by pushing water out through a hand pump. It was propelled vertically and horizontally by hand-cranked propellers. It contained about 200 pounds of lead inside which could be released in a moment to increase buoyancy. The vessel could only be manned by one person. It had enough air for someone to be inside for about 30 minutes and maintain a speed of 3 mph in calm water. Six small pieces of thick glass in the top of the submarine provided natural light. These things may not seem very impressive now, but this was really outside of the box type thinking back in 1775.

The Outcome Of The Turtle During The War

The British Navy had surpassed the Spanish Fleet as the most powerful and largest in the world. This created a problem for the Americans, who had to think of solutions to equal the playing field. The idea behind Mr. Bushnell’s submarine was that he could be submerged underwater inside a bay. He can take the vessel underneath British ships to place explosives and blow up their underbelly. This plan seemed genius and could turn the tide of battle since the enemy would not have any idea of what was hitting them. Unfortunately, the Turtle did not fulfill its promise of destroying British Ships during the war. It failed an attempt to drill a hole and plant an explosive on the HMS Eagle in the New York Harbor. It is believed the British had begun installing a copper underline in their bottom’s to protect against marine life and thus made the drill incapable of drilling it underwater. A second attempt off the shore of Manhattan two days later was abandoned when the pilot realized he had been spotted by the ship’s watch. The submarine was sunk some days later by the British near Fort Lee, New Jersey. The vessel would later on be salvaged out of the bay by David Bushell. George Washington would go on to say the attempt was “an effort of genius, but a combination of too many things was requisite for such an attempt to succeed”. 

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6 Comments on "The First Combat Submarine Is Much Older Than You Think"

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Funny how fast forward 200 years and we are light years ahead in technology


Pretty cool and way ahead of its time


I would never go underwater on that


Lol I would be scared to jump inside that wooden barrel underwater with sharks and everything


Interesting indeed. I had no idea submarines went back that long ago.


Very interesting didn’t know that