The Early Submariners: Bushnell’s Turtle

The development of the submarine weapon was a product of many different minds, all with varying intentions. Some were patriots, seeking the ultimate counter to the naval super-weapons of first-rate powers. Others were schemers, betting their lives and fortunes on unproven vessels of their own design, seeking riches and renown beyond measure. There were, of course, those who explored the physical universe through the mind, men who could conceptualize the vastly complicated interaction of man-made materials and the physical nature of the abyss. These men oftentimes never sought to bring their drawings and writings from the confine of paper or parchment, but inspired generations of dreamers to follow. The most important group, however, was that of the journeyman inventor, men of the mind who traveled from country to country seeking patronage for their radical dreams.

Turtle_submarine_1776It was not long after this spectacular disaster that great leaps in submarine development took on a decidedly American flavor. As she fought a war of independence against the first-rate naval power of Great Britain, military and civilian thinkers immediately realized the new nation would never win a traditional war. The colonial armies and navy simply could not compete against the money, professional soldiers, tall ships and ordnance of the British armed forces, even if they managed to tie down the vast empire by the involvement of other world powers. It was within that context that David Bushnell developed the Turtle, a one-man egg-shaped craft. It’s possible that Bushnell never intended to build a true submarine craft, as the hand-powered vessel would not have been able to truly descend below the surface and successfully navigate. She instead ran nearly awash, and was designed to stealthily approach a harbor blockade, attach a gunpowder mine, and slip away before detonation.

Turtle+Right+FThe small craft was designed with a 200-pound keel, and 700-pounds of fixed lead ballast, a tremendous amount of weight for one man to actuate by use of hand-powered propellers. Her development took too long to utilize her in Boston harbor, the theater of battle for which she was originally conceived. Instead, she was shipped to New York, under the distant command of General George Washington, and then ordered to attack the HMS Eagle, one of the British warships blockading the harbor. The Turtle did manage to approach the Eagle, but her exhausted pilot was not successful in actually attaching the mine. Some historians theorize that he was attempting to drill through an iron rudder plate—but whatever the reason for failure, the pilot attempted to retreat. Cautious lookouts from the Eagle spotted the craft and ordered pursuit, forcing the pilot of the Turtle to drop the mine. It soon exploded spectacularly, but without causing any damage to any nearby vessels. The Eagle and her accompanying ships moved their fleet to a slightly more distant position, and the Turtle was never again able to get close enough to attempt attack. Soon after, the Turtle’s mothership was sunk out from underneath her. The primitive submarine was salvaged from the wreck, but never again participated in any military action.


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