Greg Goebel's In The Public Domain
Click on this banner to see the site home page.

Index | Home | SiteMap | Updates | Email Comments

The Invention Of The Submarine

v1.0.2 / 01 sep 02 / greg goebel / public domain

* The submarine was not invented by a single person. It was developed in many slow, and as it proved sometimes very painful, steps. This document outlines the evolution of the submarine from a concept to a working system.



* The concept of a boat that would sail under water goes back at least as far as the 16th century. In 1573, an Englishman named William Bourne published a design for a submersible boat that featured a mast that could operate as a snorkel. It does not appear that Bourne ever actually built the vessel, but his ideas influenced others.

In 1620, a Dutchman living in England named Cornelius van Drebbel built several wooden submarines that could sink just under the surface of the water, where they were propelled by oars and obtained air through tubes to the surface. Details of van Drebbel's submarines are sketchy as he was an extremely secretive man, but reports indicate that he made a number of submarine trips up and down the Thames.

In the following century and a half, many people made boats that could sink and, sometimes, come back up again. These experiments were often the nautical equivalent of tying on wings and jumping off towers in attempts to fly. Nonetheless, by 1727 at least 14 patents had been issued for submarine designs in England alone.

These were generally just submersible rowboats, but a few useful features were developed. In 1747, an Englishman named Nathaniel Symons, working from an idea suggested decades earlier, developed a vessel that could sink by letting water into leather bags, and then rise again by twisting the water out of the bags. This was the first known use of the concept of a "ballast tank".

* The first attempt at a submarine that actually seemed worthy of the name was the TURTLE, designed during the American Revolution by David Bushnell, a student at Yale involved in resistance against the British. The precise details of Bushnell's design are not known, as all he left behind was a written description. The most common illustration of the TURTLE was drawn over a century later from that description, and some of the features in this illustration are implausible.

The TURTLE was a one-man craft, shaped like two bowls with tapered lips joined together, with a brass "conning tower" on top that provided portholes to allow the operator to see. The conning tower was capped by a hatch. The submarine was propelled by hand-driven horizontal and vertical propellers, and carried a 68 kilogram (150 pound) black powder charge. The charge was to be attached to a warship with a hand-driven screw, and detonated by a clockwork timing mechanism that released a spring-loaded hammer to strike a percussion cap.

The little submarine was kept upright by a lead weight in the bottom, which could be jettisoned in an emergency. The operator could make the craft sink by letting water into a tank, and rise again by pumping it out. He obtained air through pipes with valves that closed when the submarine bobbed completely under water. There was enough air to allow it to stay under for about half an hour. The TURTLE was steered by a rudder, and had a compass and barometer for navigation. Handling the propellers, rudder, and all the other gear kept the operator extremely busy.

Bushnell proposed to use the TURTLE to attack British vessels that were blockading American ports. Although Bushnell himself wanted to pilot the craft, he fell ill, and substitutes were found. In August 1776, Sergeant Ezra Lee of the American Army took the TURTLE to sea.

The little submarine was towed towards the British blockaders by two longboats, and then released to move forward on the tide. The tide swept him past his target, the warship HMS EAGLE, and Lee had to wait for the tide to reverse before he could make his way to his target. The screw used to attach the charge could not penetrate the copper sheathing covering the warship's hull, and Lee was forced to give up the attack.

While he was struggling to return the TURTLE to shore, the British noticed the strange little vessel bobbing on the surface and sent out a boat to investigate. Lee released the charge, activating the clockwork timer. The charge exploded and the British decided to give up the chase. Lee escaped, but the TURTLE never managed to get close to another British warship, and was eventually found by the British and sunk.

Bushnell rebuilt the TURTLE during the War of 1812, and used it once more in unsuccessful attacks on British blockaders. Despite the failure of the TURTLE in combat, much later another submarine pioneer, John P. Holland, wrote that it was "the most perfect thing of its kind constructed before 1880." Considering the technology available, the little submarine was remarkably clever and well thought out.

* A few decades later, an expatriate American living in Napoleanic France named Robert Fulton tried to build a more advanced submarine. Fulton was anti-military at heart, and did not want the new United States to spend large sums on a big fleet to counter the British. He felt that a submarine would be a cheap equalizer that would undermine the usefulness of big, expensive warships.

France was under blockade by Britain at the time, and Fulton believed the French would be interested in funding development of a submarine. In late December 1797, he proposed construction of such a craft to the French Minister of Marine. The French turned Fulton down. The main reason was that the rules of war as existed at the time said nothing about submarines, and use of such craft might undermine the existing arrangements, leading to an expanding spiral of brutalities between combatants.

When Napolean was installed as First Consul three years later, Fulton proposed his plan once more, and this time was awarded money to develop an experimental submarine. His submarine, the NAUTILUS, was completed in May 1801. The NAUTILUS was bigger than the TURTLE, at 6.5 meters (21 feet 4 inches) long, and somewhat more elegant. It was shaped somewhat like a fat fish, with a rounded conning tower towards the front fitted with a porthole to provide visibility. The vessel was made of copper sheathing over iron ribs.

The little submarine had a folding sail to propel it on the surface, and was powered by a hand-cranked propeller underwater. The submarine could dive to 7.6 meters (25 feet) by filling ballast tanks with water. A horizontal "rudder", much like the diving plane of a modern submarine, helped keep the NAUTILUS on an even keel underwater. The vessel contained enough air to keep three men alive underwater for an hour, and was later fitted with compressed air tanks to improve its underwater endurance to five hours.

Fulton used the NAUTILUS to sink an old schooner with a gunpowder charge. Fulton called the charge a "torpedo", after a type of ray fish that gave an electric shock. In modern terms, such a weapon would be known as a naval mine, but the term "torpedo" would stick to it for much of the rest of the century.

Despite this successful demonstration, by this time the French were returning to their misgivings about the propriety of submarine warfare. In early 1804, Fulton received a letter from the French government terminating their support.

Fulton went across the Channel to promote his vessel. Prime Minister Pitt showed a little interest. Fulton sank another vessel for the British as a demonstration of his submarine, but the Royal Navy did not want to encourage a mode of warfare that might make their fleet obsolete. Ironically, both of the world's great powers of the day did not want a new weapon because they feared it would be too destructive.

Fulton attempted to profit from the Royal Navy's distaste for his submarines by asking for a hundred thousand pounds to cease development work on them for 14 years. Unsurprisingly, the British government had no taste for extortion. They turned Fulton down, and he went back to America in 1806, empty-handed.

There he would make a name for himself in the design of steamships and in painting. Fulton did manage to obtain support from the US government for the design of a large submarine named the MUTE that was powered by a steam engine and had a crew of a hundred. Work on the vessel was abandoned when Fulton died in 1815. The MUTE was at least 50 years ahead of its time, but it was left to rot and sink at its moorings.

An English smuggler, privateer, and soldier of fortune named Captain Thomas Johnstone who had worked with Fulton built several experimental submarines, one of which he demonstrated in the Thames in 1815. However, he had no more luck than Fulton in interesting potential buyers in submarines.



* After Fulton, submarine development stagnated for several decades. In 1851, a Bavarian artillery corporal named Wilhelm Bauer took his primitive submarine BRANDTAUCHER or LE PLONGEUR MARIN ("Fire Diver") to sea, more or less, in Kiel harbor. His treadwheel-powered submarine sank, and Bauer and his two crewman went to the bottom with her. They escaped death after several desperate hours underwater by waiting until water leaking into the vessel equalized the pressures inside and outside, allowing the hatches to be opened. The BRANDTAUCHER remained on the bottom until she was raised in 1887, and is now on display in Dresden.

After this fiasco, Germans lost interest in Bauer's ideas. More timid or wiser men would have decided that submarines were better left alone, but Bauer went to England to sell his submarine concepts. After killing several men in his experiments, he left England to build a submarine for the Russians named SEETEUFEL or LE DIABLE MARIN ("The Sea Devil") in 1856.

The Crimean War was in progress, and the Russians were looking for a weapon to use against Royal Navy blockaders. SEETEUFEL was 16 meters (52 feet) long, was powered by crewmen walking on a treadwheel, and managed to sink and rise again over a hundred times, more or less safely. In 1856, the primitive submarine actually carried musicians under water to play the Russian national anthem for the coronation of Tsar Alexander II.

However, the Russians didn't like the blunt and tactless Bauer, and sensibly did not see much potential in his submarine. It finally ran aground and Bauer had to repeat his previous escape. He designed more sophisticated submarines, but never managed to get them built, and died in Bavaria in 1875.

* By the middle of the 19th century, the French had become leading innovators in the design of warships, and accordingly began an ambitious effort to build a submarine, based on a design by a Captain Bourgois and built in 1863 by a manufacturer named Brun.

This submarine was a swordfish-like craft named LE PLONGEUR ("The Diver"), and was a remarkable 43 meters (140 feet) long, with a displacement of 380 tonnes (420 tons). The vessel was armed with a torpedo charge on a pole, or "spar torpedo", and was in principle powered by compressed air, stored in 23 tanks at a pressure of 12.4 bars (180 PSI). In practice, LE PLONGEUR was unmanageable underwater and unsurprisingly had poor speed and endurance.

The French didn't give up on the submarine, but for the moment the most spectacular efforts in the field were taking place on the other side of the Atlantic.

During the American Civil War, the Southern Confederacy developed their own primitive submersible vessels, though details on these craft tend to be sketchy and contradictory.

The first was the DAVID, which was a cigar-shaped, steam powered craft, about 6.1 meters long and 1.5 meters wide (20 by 5 feet), armed with a 61 kilogram (134 pound) spar torpedo. The vessel was designed under the direction of General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, in command of Confederate forces defending the port of Charleston, South Carolina.

The DAVID could not completely submerge and can only be regarded as a primitive torpedo boat that rode very low in the water. The torpedo was fitted with several percussion detonators so it would explode on contact with the target.

The DAVID carried a crew of four. During an early attempt to attack Union blockade vessels, the DAVID was swamped by a passing steamer and went down with three of her crew. The DAVID was recovered for the rebels to try again.

On the night of 5 October 1863, the DAVID attacked the Union ironclad NEW IRONSIDES. The crew of the submersible killed an ensign on watch with a shotgun, and then detonated the spar torpedo below the warship's waterline. The water thrown up by the explosion doused the DAVID's steam engine, and the four crewmen were forced to abandon ship when they came under rifle and grapeshot fire.

Two of the crewmen were captured, including the captain. The other two men managed to regain control of the DAVID after the shooting stopped, and returned to her moorings under her own power. The two men who were captured were sent North in chains to stand trial for using such a fiendish weapon. They were presently sent back home in a prisoner exchange, however, without having been brought to court.

The only effect of the torpedo blast on the NEW IRONSIDES was a few leaky seams. The ship steamed a short distance up the South Carolina coast for repairs at the Federal blockade base at Port Royal, and then quickly returned to service.

There are records that two other DAVIDs attacked and damaged Union ships, and that work was done on several more that were not completed. The DAVIDs never did the Union Navy any serious harm, but they manage to keep Federals lookouts edgy and nervous at night, quick to see any floating plank as a possible threat.

* The second Confederate submersible was an actual submarine, or at least started out as one. The H.L. HUNLEY was a man-powered submarine, designed in 1862 by a prosperous engineer and Confederate States Army captain from Mobile, Alabama, named Horace L. Hunley.

Sketchy records indicate that Hunley built several submarines for the Confederacy, but his last design, the HUNLEY itself, would become the most famous, or infamous, of all the early submarines. It was little more than a big steel boiler, about 12 meters (40 feet) long with two hatches on top, one fore and one aft. The vessel was hand-cranked by a crew of eight, directed by an officer who peered through a porthole to see where the craft was going.

Ballast tanks were used to submerge the HUNLEY, and the water was pumped out to return to the surface. A keel weight could also be unbolted in an emergency. A rudder controlled horizontal direction, while a set of diving planes controlled vertical direction to the extent buoyancy allowed.

The HUNLEY was armed with a 40 kilogram (90 pound) torpedo charge with contact detonators, dragged behind it on a 61 meter (200 foot) line. The idea was that the HUNLEY would swim underneath a Union blockader and then rise again, dragging the line underneath the target's keel until the torpedo made contact and exploded.

Tests in Mobile Bay demonstrated that the HUNLEY was potentially useful. The vessel could stay underwater for up to two hours, and trial attacks on flatboats demonstrated that it could in fact do damage to an unsuspecting and cooperative target. The crude submarine was partly dismantled, loaded on freight cars, and shipped to Charleston along with its creator.

General Beauregard was enthusiastic about the new weapon, but his optimism proved to be misplaced. On her first trial, the HUNLEY foundered when a squall came up and sank. Only two of her crew got out. The Confederates raised her, but not long afterwards, the submarine was moored to a steamer that got underway unexpectedly, turning the vessel over and sending her to the bottom. Only three of her crew escaped.

The Confederates wrote off the incident as a freak accident and raised the HUNLEY again. After being cleaned out and put back into serviceable condition, the submarine was again cruising under the waves of Charleston harbor. Then, on 15 October 1863, the HUNLEY went for a dive. Bubbles came to the surface, but the HUNLEY did not. All hands, including Horace Hunley himself, were lost.

The vessel was found by a diver and raised a few days later. Beauregard was present when the submarine was opened up, and reported: "The spectacle was indescribably ghastly. The unfortunate men were contorted into all sorts of horrible attitudes ... the blackened faces of all presented the expression of their despair and agony."

The HUNLEY was nonetheless put back into service, though Beauregard gave orders that it never submerge again. It was fitted with a spar torpedo for operation as a torpedo boat. It nonetheless sank again after it fouled a cable on a ship, and seven men were lost.

For whatever mad reason, the Confederates raised it once more. On the night of 17 February 1864, the vessel crept out into Charleston harbor in the darkness and made for the Union screw sloop HOUSATONIC. At 8:45 PM, the HUNLEY was spotted as she approached the HOUSATONIC, but the ship didn't have time to escape. The HUNLEY struck the HOUSATONIC squarely, setting off a magazine, and sent the ship to the bottom. Five Union sailors died, but the water was shallow and the rest managed to hang on to the rigging, which remained upright long enough to allow them to be rescued.

The HUNLEY was the first submersible to actually sink a surface ship, but the submarine and all her crew went to the bottom with the HOUSATONIC. The two vessels were discovered still lying there after the war. A total of about 38 men had died in the HUNLEY, and it can only be regarded as a blessing that she was not raised once again.

The HUNLEY could not really be described as much of a step forward from the TURTLE, and in fact the Confederate submarine was a suicide ship that shouldn't have been built in the first place. The Union Navy experimented with similar man-powered submarines, but details are scanty and the only thing that is clear is that they, and other equally obscure submarines built elsewhere during the period, weren't very practical.



* By the end of the American Civil War, development of the submarine had made little progress in almost a century. None of the efforts had been particularly workable, and in fact were generally perfectly crazy and dangerous.

One of the main requirements for a practical submarine was a useful weapon. Planting a torpedo onto an enemy vessel was tricky and dangerous, and almost to impossible if the vessel was moving. Something better was clearly needed.

In the mid-1860s, Captain Giovanni Luppis of the Austrian Navy designed a robot boat that could carry an explosive charge to attack an enemy vessel. The little boat was to be powered by steam or clockwork, and steered by cords trailed behind it to the launch vessel. The robot boat had an ingenious fuzing mechanism, consisting of a pistol-type detonator with a little propeller on the nose. The propeller spun while the boat moved through the water, slowly unscrewing a safety lock on the pistol detonator to ensure that the charge could not explode until the boat had travelled a hundred meters or so.

His superiors had doubts about the usefulness of this weapon, so Luppis teamed up with Robert Whitehead, a Britisher who ran a marine engineering firm in the Austrian town of Fiume on the Adriatic. Their work led in 1868 to the first "auto-motive torpedo", where "auto-motive" meant "self-propelled" and had no other connection to the present concept of an "automobile".

Their new weapon was a torpedo in the modern sense, a streamlined cylinder with a propeller at the end that sped under the waves to a target. It weighed about 135 kilograms (300 pounds), including an 8.2 kilogram (18 pound) dynamite warhead. The ingenious detonator was retained, and became a standard feature of torpedoes for many decades.

The prototype torpedo was powered by a reciprocating motor driven by a tank of compressed air at a pressure of 48 bars (700 PSI), and had a range of 180 meters at 11 KPH (200 yards at six knots). An improved prototype used a tank of compressed air at a pressure of 83 bars (1,200 PSI) and had a range of 270 meters (300 yards).

Test firings of the Whitehead torpedo were performed for the British Admiralty in 1870, leading to a production contract. The Whitehead torpedo was propelled by compressed air driving a reciprocating motor. The weapon was slow and had limited range, but could carry a big warhead, and potentially a small vessel could pack a punch to match the destructive power of a much bigger warship.

These primitive torpedoes had fixed vertical fins to keep them going in a straight line. However, tests with prototype torpedoes showed that they tended to "porpoise", moving up and down in the water erratically. Whitehead devised a feedback control mechanism, which used a hydrostatic pressure valve linked by a lever arm to horizontal fins, with the feedback system moving the fins to keep the water pressure constant. He also developed a torpedo-launching tube, with a cap on the front and a loading hatch at the back, which used compressed air to eject the torpedo.

By 1870, the Luppis-Whitehead torpedo was ready for production. The production model was 4.9 meters (16 feet) long, carried a warhead of 35 kilograms (76 pounds) of guncotton, and had a range of 360 meters (400 yards) with a speed of 15 KPH (8 knots).

Officers from the British Royal Navy visited Whitehead's factory in 1869, and were so impressed with the new weapon that Whitehead was invited to England to demonstrate it. More than 100 test firings were performed in England, and the Royal Navy immediately bought rights to manufacture the torpedo.

By 1877, the first torpedo boats were in operation, and within a few decades every major warship carried torpedoes. They quickly proved their worth in short-range surface combat, and were the most attractive weapon for a submarine. (All further references to "torpedo" in this document will indicate a auto-motive torpedo, rather than a mine.)



* For much of the 19th century, submarine development had been inconclusive and haphazard. While Jules Verne conceived of a ocean-spanning submarine, the NAUTILUS, in his 1870 novel 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, contemporary work in submarines was pathetic in comparison. Progress didn't begin until the end of the 1870s, and then it was one step at a time.

* In 1879, a Liverpool minister by the name of George Garrett built and launched a spindle-shaped submarine named the RESURGAM (Latin for "I Shall Rise Again"), which was steam-powered. The idea was that the vessel would build up steam pressure while on the surface of the water, seal off the furnace and submerge, and then cruise under water for about 16 kilometers (10 miles) at 5.5 KPH (3 knots). However, the RESURGAM sank off the Welsh coast, taking her three crewmen with her.

The RESURGAM might have been just another dead-end suicide ship, except for communications between Garrett and the Swedish munitions manufacturer Thorsten Nordenfelt. Nordenfelt decided to build a steam-powered submarine based on Garrett's designs, with one major improvement: the Nordenfelt submarine was to be armed with a torpedo.

By this time, torpedoes were being used by relatively small and fast surface torpedo boats, but operations by such vessels on large warships were restricted to night. The torpedoes of the time had short range, and a torpedo boat would certainly be blown to splinters before it got within range during a daylight attack. However, a submarine would be able to get in close without being detected, even in broad daylight.

Nordenfelt launched his first submarine in 1885. It was a cigar-shaped vessel built from iron plate, 19.5 meters (64 feet) long and 2.75 meters (9 feet) in diameter, with a displacement of 55 tonnes (60 tons). It had a range on the surface of 240 kilometers (160 miles) and a range underwater of 24 kilometers (15 miles). It had a small conning tower and twin vertical propellers on sponsons amidships to push it under the water to a maximum depth of 15 meters (50 feet).

After initial trials and resolution of some problems such as carbon monoxide leaks, the vessel was given a single external torpedo tube and a small gun, and named the NORDENFELT I. Following further trials conducted in England, with Garrett as captain, the Greek government was impressed enough by the NORDENFELT I to purchase her for their fleet.

Encouraged, Nordenfelt went on to develop an improved NORDENFELT II submarine, which was 30 meters (100 feet) long and had a more powerful engine, twin external torpedo tubes, and twin deck guns. The Turks ordered two of them to keep ahead of their enemies, the Greeks, but only one was delivered. The Turkish vessel was unable to stay on an even keel underwater, and was far too easy to swamp when on the surface. The Turks could not find a crew that was willing to serve on the primitive submarine, and it ended up rotting at dock. The second NORDENFELT II was not completed.

Nordenfelt went on to build a third steam-powered submarine, the NORDENFELT III, which was 38 meters (125 feet) long, could cruise for 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) on the surface, and introduced (twin) internal torpedo tubes. The NORDENFELT III was launched in 1887 and was sold to the Russians. However, it ran aground off of Jutland while on its delivery voyage. The crew escaped without harm and the vessel was recovered, but the Russians had second thoughts and refused to accept it. The NORDENFELT III was finally scrapped.

Nordenfelt had made a significant advance in building the first submarines to be armed with torpedoes in the modern sense of the word, and he had also done much to excite interest in the technology. However, he hadn't solved the difficult problems of propulsion, rapid submergence, and maintaining balance or "trim" underwater.

* The problem of propulsion, or at least half of the problem, was being addressed by that time. The only practical means of propelling a submarine underwater was with an electric motor running off batteries. Inconclusive experiments with electric-powered submarines had been conducted as far back as the 1850s, but the necessary electrical technology wasn't really available until the late 1880s.

A number of all-electric submarines were built by Waddington and the team of Ash and Campbell in Britain, Drzewiecki in Russia, and Peral in Spain. None of their efforts proved particularly practical. The French also built electric submarines. They achieved no more success with them at first, but the French were more persistent. A civil engineer named Claude Goubet pioneered their electric boats with a pair of submarines named GOUBET I and GOUBET II. He was also one of the first submarine designers to use a periscope.

Goubet's work influenced other submarine designers, largely under the encouragement of a French Navy admiral with the colorful name of Hyacinthe Theophile Aubet, a visionary who believed strongly in the potential of the submarine despite opposition from many senior navy officers.

Following Goubet, Gustav Zede built an advanced 18.3 meter (60 foot) long electric-powered submarine named the GYMNOTE ("Electric Eel"), which was launched in 1883 and had a single torpedo tube for armament. The GYMNOTE was also unstable underwater, but was put into service as an experimental test-bed for improved submarine concepts.

After Zede's death, his assistant Romazzotti designed an ambitious follow-on vessel named the GUSTAV ZEDE that was launched in 1893. This spindle-shaped vessel was 45 meters (148 feet) long, and was fitted with a small conning tower that gave her some resemblance to a modern submarine. Like the GYMNOTE, the GUSTAV ZEDE was unstable when submerged, and like the GYMNOTE was used to advance the state of the art through modifications and experiments.

* Electric power was, as mentioned, only half the solution to the propulsion problem. The all-electric boats had to be recharged from a surface vessel or shore station. Their only possible military use was for harbor defense.

By the mid-1890s, however, a practical submarine appeared to be within reach. In 1896, the French Minister of Marine announced an international competition for submarine designs. The specifications stipulated a vessel with no more than 180 tonnes (200 tons) displacement, a cruising range of at least 160 kilometers (100 miles), a speed on the surface of 22 KPH (12 knots), and a speed underwater of 15 KPH (8 knots).

At least 29 designs were submitted for the competition. The winner of the competition was a breakthrough design named the NARVAL, built by a Frenchman named Maxime Laubeuf. The NARVAL was launched in 1899.

The 34 meter (111 foot 6 inch) long NARVAL had two propulsion systems, a 220 HP oil-burning steam engine for surface running, and an 80 HP electric motor for underwater propulsion. The NARVAL could cruise on the surface for up to 800 kilometers (500 miles) at 15 KPH (7.5 knots), or up to 400 kilometers at 20 KPH (11 knots). She could cruise underwater for 40 kilometers (25 miles) at 15 KPH, or 115 kilometers at 9 KPH (5 knots).

The most important feature of the NARVAL's propulsion system was that the steam engine could recharge the batteries for the electric motor while the vessel was under way on the surface, running the electric motors in reverse so that they would act as dynamos. This clever and efficient scheme would be the basis for later submarine design.

The propulsion problem was not entirely solved, since a steam engine tended to be too hot to put inside a small and cramped submarine, and shutting down the burners for submergence and then trying to build up a head of steam again after coming to the surface was far too time-consuming.

The NARVAL was one of the first double-hulled submarine designs, with an inner hull that held the crew and an outer one that contained ballast tanks. Such a double-hull design was extremely strong, and did much to improve the reliability of submarines. Four torpedoes were carried in external tubes, two on each side of the prow, which was fitted with a ram. Diving remained a difficult and tedious procedure.

Despite its defects, the NARVAL was close to the right answer. However, at the same time, two American inventors were developing submarines that were at least or even more advanced.



* The American military had become interested in submarines, and in the mid-1890s, the US government initiated a submarine design competition of its own. The entries in the contest included designs by two submarine pioneers, Simon Lake and John Holland.

While Lake had some good ideas and would follow up on them, the US Navy was more interested in a design by John Philip Holland, an Irish schoolteacher who had emigrated to America in 1873. Holland had been been thinking about submarines since 1869 and had began work in earnest in 1873, obtaining funding in 1876 from the Fenian Brotherhood, a group of Irish revolutionaries. Like many 19th-century submarine inventors, he wanted to build an "equalizer" that could take on the British Royal Navy.

After starting with a small man-powered submarine, Holland then built the FENIAN RAM, launched in 1882. This 9 meter (31 foot) long submarine had a crew of three. Its design was partly modeled on the Whitehead torpedo, and like it had cruciform control fins near the tail.

The FENIAN RAM did not simply take on ballast and sink slowly under the waves like other contemporary submarines. It maintained a slightly positive buoyancy, and simply tilted the horizontal fins to let the submarine's forward motion send it diving under the waves. In a sense, Holland's ideas for submarines used aerodynamic concepts in a hydrodynamic environment, and involved careful attention to balance and the effect of control surfaces on motion.

Holland finally cut his ties with the Fenians, and further submarine development led to interest from the US Navy. After some wavering, in 1895 the Navy awarded a contract to Holland and his Holland Boat Company of New Jersey to build his seventh submarine, the PLUNGER. The PLUNGER was launched in 1897, and featured an electric motor for underwater operation and an oil-fired steam engine for surface propulsion.

The steam engine made the little submarine much too hot, and Holland encountered other troubles, many due to changes made at the Navy's insistence. Since the PLUNGER could not successfully complete its trials, Holland abandoned the design and returned the money awarded to him to the Navy.

He then obtained backing from the Electric Storage Battery Company to build a more satisfactory submarine, which was launched in 1897 and was simply named the HOLLAND. This vessel was 16.5 meters (54 feet) long, with a tubby streamlined hull that was deliberately modeled on a porpoise. It could cruise underwater at 11 KPH (6 knots) under electric power, and at 13 KPH (7 knots) on the surface using a 50 HP gasoline internal combustion engine.

The gasoline engine could run the electric motor in reverse as a dynamo to recharge the batteries, as well as compress air into four tanks for breathing, blowing ballast tanks, charging torpedoes and firing them, and even for use with a small compressed-air cannon fixed at an angle in the vessel's prow. This gun could throw a dynamite charge about a kilometer, but the HOLLAND's main armament was a single internal torpedo tube. The submarine carried three torpedoes. While Holland had considered a periscope for the PLUNGER, the HOLLAND navigated through portholes, and had to pop to the surface to attack an enemy vessel.

The HOLLAND was a single-hull design. The ballast tanks inside the hull were particularly well thought out. There was a main ballast tank that was filled to capacity to allow the vessel to sink. This contained most of the mass of water, and since it was full it wouldn't slosh back and forth, disturbing the submarine's equilibrium while it cruised below the surface.

A smaller auxiliary ballast tank was filled to the level needed to acquire a slight positive buoyancy given the number of crew, which ranged from seven to nine men, and amount of stores carried by the HOLLAND during a sortie. There were also two trim tanks, fore and aft. Water could be transferred from one trim tank to the other using compressed air. The submarine's attitude was monitored with a bubble level amidships.

The HOLLAND's control surfaces, or "hydroplanes", were used to make the vessel dive and surface. If the submarine stopped, it slowly rose to the surface under its slight positive buoyancy. Ballast tanks could be blown out with compressed air to make it rise faster.

The US Navy was impressed enough with the HOLLAND to purchase it in 1900. John Philip Holland then went into mass production. The Electric Storage Battery Company, now the Electric Boat Company, built the Holland submarines, and continued to supply submarines to the US Navy into the nuclear age.

* Simon Lake also produced some significant advances in submarine design, but his submarines were more the ancestor of research submarines than military designs. After early experiments, in 1897 he launched the ARGONAUT, but failed to interest the US Navy in the design.

The 11 meter (36 foot) long ARGONAUT had a set of large wheels to allow it to drive over the ocean floor, portholes in the prow to allow underwater observation and a searchlight, and an air tube connected to a float that the submarine dragged along on the surface that fed its gasoline engine. It did not have an electric motor.

The US Navy was not enthusiastic and preferred Holland's work, but Lake was undiscouraged and came back with an improved design, the PROTECTOR, that was surprisingly modern in form. The PROTECTOR was powered by gasoline and electric engines, though it still had a breathing tube to allow the gasoline engine to be run underwater. It had wheels, but they were much smaller and were retractable. It had a distinct conning tower, which had an airlock for sending a diver out into the sea, or for escape in an emergency.

The PROTECTOR had three torpedo tubes, including one in the stern. It also had an innovative double-hulled design. The main hull of a submarine needed to have a tubular cross-section to withstand pressure, but once on the surface such a vessel tended to wallow miserably in rough seas. Lake's external hull was boat-shaped, which made it much more seaworthy in surface cruising. However, this external hull was vented, allowing it to flood when the vessel was submerged, and so did not have be built to withstand high pressure.



* The main features of proper submarine engineering were established by 1905, though anachronisms would persist for a few decades. By 1905, a competently designed submarine featured the following elements:

By 1905, the torpedo was a much more formidable weapon than the original Luppis-Whitehead design. It was bigger and had a bigger warhead, longer range, and greater speed. Improved performance had been achieved by using compressed air at greater pressures, up to 155 bars (2,250 PSI), an alcohol burner to heat the air, and advanced motors such as turbines.

The most advanced torpedoes of the time could carry a warhead weighing 135 kilograms (300 pounds) up to 3.65 kilometers (4,000 yards) at a speed of 11 KPH (6 knots). They had gyroscopic guidance for greater accuracy at their extended ranges.

Such a weapon made a submarine potentially a very dangerous adversary, though submarines still had many problems to deal with. Most were being designed for coastal or harbor patrol, and had limited speed and endurance, particularly underwater. They were all cramped and uncomfortable, poorly suited to long cruises at sea.

Gasoline was a dangerous fuel, due to its noxious and explosive fumes. Diesel fuel was much less volatile, but diesel engines were still too crude to be practical. No matter what kind of internal combustion engine was used, exhaust leaks into the submarine could be noxious and deadly. If battery electrolyte mixed with sea water, poisonous chlorine gas could result. While diesel engines would be perfected and eventually become the norm, the problems with exhaust and battery leaks would always be a hazard with non-nuclear submarines.

* The navies of the world quickly acquired their own submarine fleets. The French followed up their early lead by adopting submarines as part of their formal naval strategy in 1899, quickly building two identical submarines, the FRANCAIS and the ALGERIEN. This was followed by four submarines of the FARFADET class, and then 20 of Romazzotti's NAIDE class.

The French continued to develop the submarine with innovative prototypes, beginning with the X, Y, and Z submarines built in 1904:1905, followed by four more prototype designs. By 1906, the French were planning submarines with displacements of 725 tonnes (800 tons) and ranges of 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles). They also were experimenting with diesel engines.

The US Navy ordered four Holland submarines in 1900, named ADDER, MOCCASIN, GRAMPUS, and PIKE. Three more were ordered in 1901. Holland went on to an improved Mark II submarine, and the US Navy ordered four in 1905. The Navy also ordered a small number of Lake submarines, beginning the big (49 meter or 161 foot long) SEAL, launched in 1912.

Five Holland submarines were obtained by Japan in 1904, and Russia similarly obtained several Lake submarines in the same timeframe, though the Russians had been pursuing a mix of other designs as well. However, these vessels did not see any operational use during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904:1905.

* The British Royal Navy had its doubts about the submarine, with one senior naval officer proclaiming the submarine as "underhand, unfair, and damned un-English." The brilliant and eccentric Sir John "Jacky" Fisher, however, founder of the modern Royal Navy, saw submarine warfare as the way of the future.

The Royal Navy ordered five Holland submarines in 1901, to be built under license in English shipyards. The Royal Navy's first submarine, the HOLLAND I, was launched in 1902. The British Hollands were all fitted with periscopes.

The Royal Navy used Holland technology as a springboard for larger and more sophisticated submarines, beginning with the "A" boats; followed by the "B" class, which had a proper conning tower; then the "C" class, the "D" class, with diesel instead of gasoline engines, though these engines proved unreliable; and finally the "E" class of 1913, which was the first satisfactory British blue-ocean submarine. A total of 130 Holland-type boats were built.

Interestingly, the HOLLAND I survived and is on exhibit at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum near Portsmouth. It sank without loss of life off of Portsmouth in 1913 while being towed to the breakers to be scrapped, and was located in 1981 by a minesweeper.

The Holland types were all single-hull designs. In 1913, the Royal Navy departed from this course with the "S" class, based on a double-hull Italian design.

* The Germans had been even more hesitant in submarine development, in spite of Wilhelm Bauer's designs, construction of some Nordenfelt-type submarines, and other efforts. However, if Britain was committed to building submarines, Germany had no choice but to follow.

The first operational German submarine, the UNDERSEEBOOTEN 1 ("U-1"), was launched in 1906. This vessel was built by Krupp, based on three submarines the company had built for the Russians from a French design. The U-1 was 42.4 meters (139 feet) long and had a single torpedo tube. It had a kerosene-powered engine, rather than a gasoline engine. Kerosene was less volatile and safer than gasoline, though it left a trail of white smoke that marked the presence of the U-boat.

The German Navy then evolved through several improved classes of submarines. The "U-2" was a slightly scaled-up version of the U-1, but with two torpedo tubes in the bow and two in the stern. The "U-3" and "U-4" slightly scaled up in turn, and the "U-5" through "U-18" were the first with a deck gun. Each successive class in general was bigger and had greater capability.

By 1914, the German Navy had the "U-19" class, which were impressive vessels, with heavy armament, diesel power for surface running and electric power for underwater running, and a range of 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles). These U-boats were fully capable of conducting blue-water naval operations.

* By the second decade of the twentieth century, the submarine had come from the status of an unreliable contraption to that of a potentially formidable weapon.

There were still substantial doubts as to its value. One of the big problems was the "Prize Regulations" or "Cruiser Rules", international rules going back to the time of Henry VIII by which nations conducted sea warfare. The Prize Regulations ruled out indiscriminate attacks on unarmed merchant shipping, or mistreatment of the crews and passengers of merchantmen. A submarine's only real advantage was its stealth, and following the Prize Regulations threw that advantage away. Submarine warfare implied attacking and sinking unarmed vessels without warning.

As long as this constraint remained in place, submarines seemed of limited usefulness in sea warfare. With the beginning of World War I on 1 August 1914, the world's military powers began an experiment in naval combat that still remains a work in progress.



* Sources include:

This document was a nuisance to write. The early days of the submarine are not thoroughly documented in contrast with, say, the evolution of aviation, and trying to put together even an outline history is frustrating. I searched through various encyclopedias and the World-Wide Web for various items, but was unable to find much of consequence from these sources.

Unfortunately, the records of early submarine experiments are clearly sketchy and would likely remain so no matter how much research was done on them. Determining exact priorities of who developed what feature first was futile, as was attempting to do more than generally reference the large number of inconclusive experiments and dead ends in the field.

While the outline of early submarine development is clear, it is also clear that there are gaps, misinformation, and even a certain amount of outright lying in the records, and the exact details should be taken with a bit of skepticism.

* This document was originally published in the spring of 1999. A year later, I added chapters on the submarine in World War I, thinking I would continue to add chapters on an incremental basis until I had a full history of the submarine.

However, the task continued to grow and I decided it would be better to build the history on the installment plan. In the summer of 2002, I broke the document down into this current document and a separate document on the submarine in World War I, and I intend to build other stand-alone documents in the series until I complete the thread and can weave them all together.

* Revision history:

   v1.0   / 22 apr 99 / gvg / Originally published as stand-alone document.
   v1.1   / 01 apr 00 / gvg / Went to multichapter document, polished.
   v1.0.2 / 01 sep 02 / gvg / Went back to stand-alone document, polished.
Index | Home | SiteMap | Updates | Email Comments
counter last reset 01 sep 2003