A Deep Dive Down the Research Rabbit Hole!

TurtleSubmarineAndrea here. Those of you who are regular readers of our blog know that I take great delight in jumping down research rabbit holes for my Wrexford & Sloane mystery series. Early scientific technology innovations play a big role in the plots of the books—the early part of the 19th century, including the Regency era, is considered the birth of the modern world, as fundamental changes in so many aspects of life occurred—including the Industrial Revolution. So each book requires some deep dives.

Murder at the Merton Library-315I love learning about the momentous inventions that changed the course of history. But what’s even more fun are the fascinating things I find by pure chance because I didn’t even know they existed! In my upcoming book, MURDER AT THE MERTON LIBRARY, which releases this month on the 26th, the plot revolves around a nautical innovation (no spoilers!) and in the course of my research stumbled such an interesting fact that I couldn’t resist giving it a cameo appearance on the plot, as it did relate to the main innovation.
Who knew that America invented submarine warfare during its Revolutionary War for independence from Britain! This was news to me, I was tickled pink to learn that it was all because of the cleverness of a fellow graduate of my alma mater.
Turtle 1David Bushnell, a student at Yale, invented Turtle, the first submersible vessel ever used in naval combat. During his time in college, he experimented with how to explode gunpowder under water. At first, he managed to ignite only two ounces, but with further work on refining the technology, he was able to set off two ponds—which creates a hell of a bang. Enough, apparently, to sink a large ship.
The news of the battle at Lexington and Concord stirred patriotic fever in Connecticut. Bushnell became an ardent supporter of independence, and he got to thinking . . . After graduating in 1775, he returned to his home in Saybrook, Connecticut, and he and his brother set to work on the idea of a submersible craft that would be able to sneak up on a British warship and fasten a bomb with a timing mechanism on it hull set to blow up once the sub had time to escape. (image below courtesy of the Library of Congress Photo Archives)
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Bushnell was aided in his quest by Isaac Doolittle, a New Haven clockmaker and inventor with an expertise for fabricating complex brass workings for complicated timepieces. Phineas Pratt, another clockmaker from Essex also joined the team and together they designed an ingenious ignition system for the gunpowder based on the flintlock firing method use by a musket.
As for the submarine itself, Bushnell and his brother designed a small circular craft based on the concept of a turtle’s two shells. Boatbuilding was common along the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound, so they had access to both materials and skilled labor. Turtle was made of iron-banded oak, and had a small glass skylight set into its top for illuminating the interior. It was just big enough to fit a single person, and was powered by a hand crank and a foot treadle that turned a propeller, the design of which was also invented by Bushnell. Breathing tubes, which were closed when the craft was fully submerged, supplied the air—Turtle could stay submerged for a half hour at a time before having to surface.
Bushnell appealed to Thomas Jefferson, a fellow inventor, for funds to finance his sub. Intrigued, Jefferson convinced Washington to cough up some funds, even though Washington was dubious about the project. (A Yale acquaintance also reached out to Benjamin Franklin, who also found the idea appealing.
Turtle_(1775)_007Once the sub was built, tests were conducted the Connecticut River and results were promising. The decision to deploy Turtle came when a large fleet of British Navy  warships arrived in New York harbor under the command of Admiral Richard Howe. Howe intended to sail up the Hudson and take control of the vital river. The Turtle was transport by land to to take up o position for an audacious attack on Eagle, Howe’s flagship.
Alas, illness had made it impossible for Bushnell to captain Turtle and so his replacement, Ezra Lee was in charge of the historic attack. The crosscurrents were fierce that night, and Lee was exhausted by the time he reached Eagle. He tried to drill a hole in the hull in order to attach the explosives, but he couldn’t penetrate the wood. He then tried another spot, but with dawn approaching, he was forced to abort the mission. (There is speculation that he was disoriented from carbon monoxide poisoning as the air ran out in the sub.) A subsequent attempt to sink a British ship also failed to attach the bomb. And several days later, the transport ship carrying Turtle was sunk.
So submarine warfare didn’t begin with a bang. But David Bushnell and his Turtle proved the concept was viable and he is consider the father of underwater combat. (all images courtesy of WikiCommons except as noted above.)
I get such a kick out of discovering these special moments in history. There are SO many of them and it’s a source of endless wonder—and a testament to imagina
tion and ingenuity. What about you—do you enjoy hearing these little known stories in history? Do you have any favorite historical discoveries of your own?

18 thoughts on “A Deep Dive Down the Research Rabbit Hole!”

  1. Andrea, I do love rabbit-hole tales, the more the better in books. Everything has a starting point that makes us realize how amazing it is that “we” got from there to here, and often how lucky we are that it did. (Or in some cases, how we wish the OP had stumbled and given up!) Thanks for this one.

  2. I love these bits and pieces of history. Poor Turtle. Didn’t have its moment of glory. I can’t imagine being inside and pedalling that thing!

  3. These little nuggets of rabbit hole adventures are one of the reasons, among many, why I love your books so much, and these posts. I’m not much for going down the holes myself, but I thoroughly lap up the fruits of others.
    One has to wonder how the course of the Revolutionary War might have changed had Ezra Lee been successful.

  4. imagine the surprise of the British if the Turtle had been successful in sinking the ship! It would have changed the course of the war and history!
    I have always been fascinated by these little known stories in history. This is one of the many reasons i love your books. You integrate these little known nuggets of history into your plots so well. It has always amazed me that while so many
    attempts were made to invent things we take for granted now, their origins have been largely forgotten. History is endlessly fascinating.

  5. Neither can I, Pat. I’m sure Turtle would be WAY more famous if the its captain had managed to attach the explosives to Eagle. But its still a testament to human ingenuity—just an idea a little ahead of its time!

  6. So glad you enjoy my “dives”, Alison. I have so much fun working these little things into a book. I hope it reminds readers how richly textured history is, and how many fascinating things were happening, though they don’t make the “headlines.”

  7. Thank you, Jane! I’m so happy that you enjoy seeing the the lesser-knowwn events woven into a story. For me it makes the past really come alive. There were SO many interesting things going on—and as you point out, ones that could have changed the course of history!
    Imagine a whole fleet of Turtles lurking in the Hudson and the coastal waters!

  8. I always associated subs with the Civil War. My husband seemed to know all about it though. Love your books and rabbit hole research. Can’t wait for the next one!!!

  9. I am a fan of rabbit holes. I used one of those yesterday and found out information about my dog’s health that no vet had told me.
    So, Mr Bushnell was not only a great mind, but he was ahead of his time by quite a few years. It is always amazing to me to find out that there are people who imagine something that turns out to be such a wonderful idea. I think that no fresh air would have made a huge difference in success. But, considering what ultimately happened. his idea was a terrific one. Thank you so much for the great post. It is good to see another fan of rabbit holes.


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