The History of the Submarine

Burton J. Hendrick in McClure’s Magazine April 1 1915

The History of the Submarine

Burton J. Hendrick in McClure’s Magazine April 1 1915

The History of the Submarine

Burton J. Hendrick in McClure’s Magazine

THE history of the submarine reveals an amazing instance of wasted opportunities Since 1777 England’s successive enemies have had this engine ready at their hands; but each has neglected to use it. From the days of William Pitt, England has recognized one fundamental fact; that a successful submarine solved the problem of an attack upon the British battleline.


Most Americans probably think that the submarine boat, and its inevitable accompaniment the submarine torpedo, are modern inventions. We have apparently forgotten that a Confederate submarine boat sank a Federal war-ship in Charleston harbor in the American Civil War. This amiable vessel made its first appearance—in principle essentially the same as it is to-day—in the American Revolution. Several times since then it has made its presence known.

In the American Revolution the English fleet naturally controlled the situation. It gave England her only access to her rebellious colonies. Its destruction, therefore, would have immediately ended the war. The frigates stationed outside New York and other American harbors furnished the inspiration that led to the invention of the submarine. The colonies had no ships powerful enough to attempt

the unequal combat. Could Yankee ingenuity provide no way of removing the menace? It was a Yale freshman, David Bushnell, who discovered the principle of submarine warfare which the Germans are now using so effectively.

Bushnell invented not only the submarine boat, but the submarine mine. All through his college days from 1771 to 1775, he worked steadily at his favorite hobby—a vessel that would sail under water.

As recently as 1905 Sir William White, the great constructor of the British Navy, said: “It can not be claimed that any new principle of design has been discovered or

applied since Bushnell.....Bushnell

showed the way to all his successors in the particulars of buoyancy, stability, and control of the depth reached by submarines. . . . Although alternative

methods have been introduced and practically tested, in the end Bushnell’s plans have in substance been found the best.”

Bushnell’s craft resembled very little the modern submarine; it was shaped something like a “round clam,” its longest distance being placed vertically, so as to accommodate a single operator in sitting posture. This operator submerged his vessel by letting water into a tank, and raised it by emptying this same reservoir. A wooden propeller in front, which the navigator turned by a crank, furnished

the motive power. Bushnell’s Turtle, of course, antedated the invention of the steamboat by several years; this primitive arrangement, however, gave it a maximum speed of two miles an hour. Illumination was furnished by foxfire wood, which emitted a phosphorescent light and did not exhaust any of the precious oxygen. The vessel was steered by an ordinary rudder; it had an air-chamber in which the navigator could exist for half an hour, and ingenious devices for gauging the depth and preserving stability. Bushnell was graduated from Yale in 1775. Before this his boat had made several successful voyages. Soon afterward war broke out with England. The British fleet, under Admiral Lord Howe, sailed down from Halifax and blockaded New York harbor. Thus the young Revolution early found itself face to face with the perennial fact in modern warfare—England’s control of the sea.

Israel Putnam, himself a Connecticut man, sent for David Bushnell and his submarine boat. The inventor selected the flag-ship, the Eagle, then lying off Staten Island, as his first victim. Unfortunately, Bushnell could not navigate the Turtle himself, as he had not sufficient physical strength; and Ezra Lee, the man chosen to destroy the Eagle, had only five days in which to rehearse the performance. This fact undoubtedly explains, in part, the initial failure. According to submarine experts, there was technically ' no reason why the experiment should not have succeeded. Lee managed to reach the Eagle, submerge his vessel, and attain a vantage-point under the stern. The submarine carried a single torpedo, held in place by a cable with a screw. It was possible for the navigator from within his boat to detach this screw and fix it in the hull of the enemy’s ship. He was then expected to back away to safety; a time-clock in the torpedo ran thirty minutes, after which the explosion was to take place. Unfortunately, the Eagle's hull, at the point where Lee stopped to operate, was sheathed with copper; he was therefore unable to screw on his torpedo. Becoming somewhat nervous as daylight approached, Lee backed away, leaving his torpedo afloat. Within the appointed time this exploded, sending up a huge geyser not far from the British flagship. This failure discouraged Bushnell’s friends; his Turtle became an object of ridicule; and eventually disappeared from public view. Bushnell himself, in his disappointment, vanished. Even his family had for years lost track of him when, many years after the Revolution, he died in Georgia.

A quarter of a century afterward, Napoleon Bonaparte was engaged in almost identically the same enterprise as that which Emperor William is attempting to-day. Napoleon, like the present Kaiser, had one consuming ambition—an invasion of England. Practically all the great powers had joined the league against him, just as they have now combined against Germany. At the head of this combination, as at the head of that which prevails to-day, stood England. England’s strength then, as it is now, was her navy. This navy had destroyed the French fleet at the Nile, and was now blockading the coast of France. Napo-

1 eon’s brilliant campaigns had made France supreme on the Continent, and he had collected a large army at Boulogne to launch against England. But the English Channel intervened in 1802, just as it does in 1915.


Or.e morning, in the midst of his perplexities, Napoleon received a remarkable letter. “The sea which separates you from your enemy,’ it read, “gives him an immense advantage over you. . . .

I have it in my power to cause this obstacle which protects him to disappear.” The name signed to this proposal had made no great stir in the world then, but acquired a considerable reputation afterward. It was that of Robert Fulton. Even then, however, it was not entirely new to Napoleon. For six or eight years Fulton had lived in Paris, earning a comfortable livelihood with his Panorama, and experimenting with steamboats and other new ideas. For several years, Napoleon now recalled, Fulton had peste;*,', his predecessor in political authority in France, the Directory, with new and dreadful engines of warfare, submarine boats and submarine mines.


Napoleon’s immediate ambition was to move his army across the Channel into England, and, as as essential preliminary, to dispose of the English blockading fleet. He therefore appointed a commission to investigate the American’s plans. Fulton gave several demonstrations in the harbor of Brest. His boat represented a considerable improvement over Bushnell’s. On the surface it looked much like an ordinary sloop, a sail and jib furnishing its motive power. Just before the boat descended, this mast and sail were removed and laid lengthwise on the deck. Like Bushnell’s craft, Fulton’s submarine was moved under water by a propeller turned by hand. Fulton, with three companions, succeeded easily in sailing his vessel five hundred yards twenty-five feet beneath the surface; on one occasion they remained under water four hours. They blew into a thousand pieces a shallop which the French admiralty had placed at their disposal. The experiment impressed the French observers as a brilliant success; and Napoleon instructed Fulton to proceed against the British fleet, which was hovering off Brest.

The English, however, knew what was going on. They quickly grasped a fact as true now as it was then: that the one certain defence against a submarine is to run away. Their ships left the coast of France—at least, they carefully kept out of the sailing range of Fulton’s boat. For several months Fulton kept up a weary vigil, but the British admiral gave him no opportunity. This failure disgusted the impatient Napoleon. He denounced Fulton as a charlatan and a visionary, and dismissed him from his service. French naval historians have always asserted that this precipitate action was the greatest mistake of Napoleon’s career—that he thus threw away his one chance of defeating England and of saving his own empire.

Another nation, however, appreciated the meaning of Fulton’s work. This was England itself. The British government, even while the French experiments were going on, was constantly soliciting the American to come to London. Fulton’s friend the Earl of Stanhope, himself something of a scientist and mechanician, was especially insistent; and the English even sent secret emissaries to Paris to entice Fulton away. When Napoleon finally rejected his plans, therefore, Fulton went to England. William Pitt, who had become Prime Minister, received him cordially; the fact that Fulton had been energetically attempting to blow up the whole British navy apparently caused no hard feelings at all. “If your boat is introduced into practice,” said Pitt, after examining Fulton’s drawings, “it will annihilate all military marines.” Soon afterward Fulton entered Deal Harbor in his submarine and blew up a Danish brig of two hundred tons. Deal Harbor, it may. be noted, is precisely the place where a German submarine a few weeks ago destroyed a British torpedo-boat.

The man chiefly responsible for the modern development of this unpopular craft was another American, John P. Holland, who died a few days after the breaking out of the present war. Mr. Holland, born in Ireland in 1841, was an ardent Irish patriot. As a young man he Was a conspicuous leader in the celebrated Fenian order—a secret society which aimed at overthrowing British rule in Ireland. This ambitious scheme, as well as all others aimed at the integrity of England, ran afoul of the same obstruction— the British fleet. In meditating this problem, Holland arrived at precisely the same solution as had Bushnell and Fulton : a submarine!


The chief object of these Fenian conspiracies was a war between the United States and England; one of the conditions of peace, it was assumed, would be an independent Irish republic. The Irishmen eagerly fell in with Holland’s scheme for submarines. They raised $50,000, all contributions in pennies, dimes, and dolíais. With this Holland set to work. The “Fenian ram”—it was really not a “ram” at all—was the result. According to those who participated in the experimental voyages, the vessel worked satisfactorily. She was about twenty feet long, and carried three men, one to run the engine, one to steer, and one to shoot the torpedo. Inasmuch as the threatened Anglo-American war never materialized, this dangerous machine found itself without an occupation. Once started making submarines, however, Holland went on. Like all other submarine inventors, he acknowledges his fundamental obligations to David Bushnell. There had been many attempts to improve Bushnell’s plans, he said, “but it was not until 1881 that anything had been built that could compare with the Turtle.’’ Still, the modern submarine, as it exists now in all the navies of the world, is Holland’s work. In 1903, when England first began to build this type of ship, the government had to purhcase from Holland the right to use his patents. In view of the history of Holland’s boat, this transaction is not entirely lacking in humor.

Japan, when it began to equip its navy with submarines, purchased thirteen directly from Holland’s company.

Holland, like Fulton, believed that the submarine would eventually end naval warfare. It would place all navies on an equality, so far as sea control is concerned. The perplexing problem, he said, could have but one solution : “Nations with seaports will have to refrain from making war.” The next few months should show what basis there is for this prophecy.