Andrea 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.
I 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.
David 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)
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.
Once 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?