The Early Submariners: Van Drebbel

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.

90144881Though modern historians have cast doubts on the account, some believe that the first practical submarine was conceived and built by the Dutch physician Cornelius Van Drebbel in the early 1600’s. He lived amongst the ranks of the journeyman inventor, gaining the sponsorship of English King James the First despite his Dutch heritage. His design was supposedly a redesigned launch, crewed by three men. It was constructed of wood covered by waterproof greased leather, and propelled by two pairs of wooden oars which haphazardly emerged from the sides of the device. The oars would turn horizontally for the forward stroke, and then flatten out to push the most amount of water, gently propelling the vessel forward. Buoyancy would be adjusted by water-filled pigskin bags, which could be filled or expelled by the meager crew. It was, to say the least, not a particularly safe or efficient design, even given the time period in which she was built.

5704617114_68fe102bab_zAccording to historical accounts, throngs of people turned out to witness the strange vessel’s first test, slated to begin in the Thames river at Whitehall. The vessel descended into the water and began her run, eventually reaching Greenwich before she surfaced, her crew alive and well.

There are a number of problems with the physics of the supposed test. Given the free-surface problem and the lack of any effective propulsion, Van Drebbel’s submarine likely just drifted downriver with her freeboard awash, perhaps unseen among the trash and human effuse that polluted London’s central waterway. Had she actually descended into the water column of the river, she had no means of effectively halting her descent, and she would have bounced along the bottom of the waterway until she burst and flooded, killing her crew. Greased leather, perhaps useful in a rainstorm, is not a material known for effective sealant in submerged conditions. Should Dr. Van Drebbel’s vessel descend more than a few feet below the surface, her pigskin ballast bags would burst, or her leather-secured oar-holes leak, or the wooden skeleton itself simply fail. It is likely that the account has gained acceptance over time due to repetition alone, and by the plausibility of the particulars at hand.


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