The Early Submariners: John Day

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.

The year 1774 made for another major milestone in the history of submarine development—the first major, very public, very embarrassing catastrophe, the first of many to follow. Suffolk wagon-maker John Day was an unlikely candidate as a man to be forever remembered to posterity. Accounts of the time portrayed him as unable to read or write, without a permanent home, prone to reservedness and bouts of depression, quick to lose his temper, and broke. Despite these disagreeable personal characteristics, some in his community actually believed him when he reported to them that he’d built a watertight compartment within the bowels of a disused fishing boat, filled the rest with large stones, and dove to a depth of 300 feet for an entire 24-hour day. Satisfied with the completion of his journey, he claimed to have then released many of the stones via a clever rope release system of his own design, re-establishing the buoyancy of the sunken craft, and raising him to the surface. Naturally, there were no witnesses to his demonstration.

The outlandish claim caught hold, and despite John Day’s bullheaded nature and reluctance to share his newfound fame with others, he still managed to attract the financial backing of a locally-renowned gambler. Together, they agreed to test Day’s submarine on a larger scale and in public. With the gambler’s financial backing, Day purchased a 50-ton sloop, much larger than that of his original vessel. He endeavored to again create a box-shaped watertight compartment for himself, and overloaded the vessel with thirty tons of ballast, twenty of which could be dropped using a similar system to his previous creation. Naturally, he painted the submarine bright red and publicly vowed that he would descend with it to a depth of 300 feet for an entire day. Prior to the actual test, this staggering number was reduced to just 130 feet, and the time to 12 hours.

John Day completed his masterpiece, and on June 20th, 1774 arranged for the strange vessel to be towed into Plymouth Harbor. A large crowd had gathered, accompanied by a hired brass band. Men sounded the harbor until they found the agreed-upon patch of 130 feet in depth, and John Day entered through the wooden hatch with a candle, biscuits and drinking water, closed and sealed it behind him. Men moved about the sloop, preparing it for her scheduled sinking. They released seacocks to flood the vessel, which began to sink immediately. It plunged into the dark waters so quickly that the men scarcely had time to throw themselves free of the sinking ship before it vanished in a foamy white patch of wave-tossed bubbles.

The curmudgeonly wagon-maker was never seen again. Twelve hours passed, and the sloop did not resurface. Knowing something had gone terribly wrong, men scoured the bay with grapples, but none caught on the vessel. Eventually, the rescuers gave up hope, realizing that the abyss had claimed the brave (albeit stupid and generally disagreeable) John Day forever. One local doctor theorized that Day had simply frozen to death due to the theoretical cold of the depths, and was therefore unable to release the ballast and resurface. The doctor was, of course, completely wrong. It is likely that John Day’s fragile craft never survived the descent, much less the 72 pounds-per-square inch water pressure at 130 feet. The seams of his “watertight” compartment would have first seeped, then the erosion of water at the pitch-sealed cracks would have come away, turning the trickle into a torrent. Frantic attempts to release the drop ballast would have slowed down the descent for a few moments, but the inrush of water would have soon outweighed the ballast, dragging him and his craft to the bottom, drowning him in the flooded, sealed compartment. If his compartment was truly well-built and watertight, his end would have been even more catastrophic. The timbers would have groaned as they bent inwards, until one of the six walls surrounding him failed, killing him within moments in a explosion of seawater and splintered hardwood.


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