A Damned Un-English Weapon
Submarines Before 1914
Mankind has been fascinated with the idea of travelling in underwater vessels since ancient times. Several works of art depict Alexander the Great submerged in what appears to be a diving bell in 332 B.C., although there is no historical record of such a feat. A more useful contribution to future submarine development came from the Greek scientist Archimedes, who jumped out of his bathtub and ran naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” when he discovered the principle of buoyancy in 212 B.C.
Much later, around 1500 A.D., Leonardo da Vinci claimed he designed an underwater vessel for military use. He suppressed his drawings because he believed waging war from the depths of the sea was immoral. He was not the first – nor would he be the last – to question the morality of submarine warfare. From the time of Leonardo to the beginning of World War I, over 200 designs for submarines were conceived. Fewer than 50 of these models were actually built.
The first verifiably successful test of a submersible boat occurred in 1623. A Dutch inventor, Cornelius Van Drebbel, built a wooden vessel in England that rowed down the River Thames from Westminster Bridge to Greenwich at a depth of about 15 feet. The crew’s oars passed through watertight sleeves. Air tubes ran up to the surface. Ballast water flowed into leather bags to submerge and the bags were squeezed out to surface.
America got involved with submarine development during the War of Independence. David Bushnell was primarily interested in underwater explosives. He invented the Turtle – an ingenious one man submersible craft – as a delivery system for a 150 pound keg of gunpowder. The wooden Turtle, shaped like a flattened egg standing on end, was designed to approach an enemy vessel with only its brass air tubes above water. It would then submerge, drill into the enemy ship’s hull, attach the gunpowder keg to the hull, start the timing fuse and get out of the area. There was enough air for the operator to remain submerged for up to 30 very busy minutes.
New York harbor was full of British warships in August of 1776. The Turtle managed to approach one, but the operator could not get the drill to bite into the hull and had to abandon the attack. News of Bushnell’s efforts reached the British, who then took evasive action. But the Turtle has the distinction of being the first submersible craft to attack an enemy warship. It also established the purpose of the submarine: harbor defense. That purpose did not change until World War I.
Inventor Robert Fulton designed a more sophisticated version of Bushnell’s Turtle for the French during the Napoleonic Wars. His boat, the Nautilus, would attack by submerging and towing floating explosive charges (which he called “torpedoes” but we would recognize as mines) into contact with an enemy ship. The Nautilus was on station, but was never in position to launch an attack on the British fleet. Significantly, the Nautilus was equipped with a tank of compressed air that enabled its crew of four to remain submerged for up to four hours. When peace came, Fulton gave up submarines and returned to America, where he made his fortune developing steamboats.
During the American Civil War, the Union fleet blockaded the Confederacy’s major ports. Horace Hunley, a wealthy sugar broker from Alabama, hired a team to design and build a submarine, which he believed could be a blockade buster. His boat would get its chance at the South’s most important harbor: Charleston, South Carolina.
The Hunley, named for its financier, was an estimated 30 to 40 feet long. An iron steam boiler was refashioned into a cigar shaped hull. Ballast tanks – located at the bow and stern, requiring careful coordination – were opened by sea cocks and pumped out manually. For emergency resurfacing, a heavy drop keel could be unbolted and released. At the end of a long spar attached to the bow was a single torpedo. The crew of eight manually cranked the propeller shaft and the air tubes (used when running just beneath the surface). When fully submerged, the crew had enough air to survive up to 30 minutes. The interior was lit by candles. When the candles burned too low or started to go out, it was the signal to surface. The Hunley sank several times – with the loss of crew – during trials.
On the evening of February 17, 1864, the Hunley attacked the Union steam sloop Housatonic, which was anchored in Charleston harbor. The explosion of the torpedo made little noise, but the Housatonic sank to the shallow bottom in less than five minutes with the loss of five men. The rest of the crew climbed into the rigging, where they were rescued the next morning. In response, the Union fleet withdrew from the harbor but continued the blockade at a greater distance.
The Hunley disappeared. The fate of its crew was unknown for 131 years. In 1995, the craft was found on the bottom about 1000 yards from where the Housatonic sank. The first submarine to sink an enemy vessel in combat was also the first submarine to be lost in action with all hands.
The real world of submarine development was superseded by the world of fiction in 1870 with the publication of Jules Verne’s immensely popular novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Verne conceived the Nautilus – an intentional nod to Robert Fulton’s vessel – a submarine far more advanced than the primitive craft that actually existed. Until World War I, nearly all civilians saw submarines as the stuff of science fiction, not reality.
Back in the real world, small, muscular men were still needed to fit inside these tiny craft and provide propulsion using oars, foot treadles and hand cranks. By the late 19th century, technical innovations allowed developers of submarines to address key priorities: propulsion, armaments and seeing while submerged.
For propulsion, they first turned to steam power, which normally required connection to a launch bearing the engine on the surface. If the steam engine was placed within the sub’s hull, the interior quickly became too hot for the crew to endure. French inventors experimented with compressed air and rechargeable batteries, but battery powered motors could only run a few hours before returning to port to re-charge. Irish born American John Holland pioneered the use of the new internal combustion engine. Eventually, engineers and inventors agreed the best propulsion could be achieved by running on battery powered electric motors while submerged and petroleum fired internal combustion engines on the surface. The advantage of this dual system: the petroleum engines could also re-charge the batteries.
For armaments, they adopted a weapon developed for surface vessels. The first successful self propelled torpedo was designed by Englishman Robert Whitehead for the Austro-Hungarian navy in the late 1860s. Within a decade, other navies began purchasing his torpedoes. Early versions ran on compressed air, but Whitehead soon found that his torpedoes would run significantly faster with an alcohol fueled steam turbine. The warhead contained gun cotton. Directional accuracy was improved with the invention of the gyroscope in 1885. Despite competition from other inventors, Whitehead’s torpedoes were the standard in most of the world’s navies by the 1890s, the same decade they began to be used on submarines.
For seeing while submerged, retractable periscopes – initially called “seeing pipes” or “omniscopes” – were developed. If they were too short, the boat risked breaching the surface. If too long, they would vibrate, providing the operator below with a shaky, useless image. The first ones were fixed, facing forward. If the commander wanted to see 40 degrees to starboard, he had to change course accordingly. It took several years to develop a periscope that could rotate 360 degrees as a fully rotating periscope required enlargement of the conning tower.
More improvements followed. Double hulls became common. Tanks for ballast, trim and regulating were outside the protected inner hull, as were fuel tanks. Manually operated fore and aft hydroplanes reduced – but did not eliminate – the hazards of diving and returning to the surface.
The year 1900 was a turning point. After decades of many failures and a few successes, John Holland sold a submarine to the U.S. Navy and signed a contract to build six more. His company then went international, building boats for Great Britain, Japan, Russia, Italy, Norway, Austria and Chile. In 1901, French President Emil Loubet became the first head of state (perhaps since Alexander the Great) to take a ride on a submersible vessel.
Britain’s Royal Navy ruled the waves, but the British did not take a leading role in developing submarines. These new craft were viewed with suspicion or disdain by most in the tradition bound Admiralty. A notable exception was Admiral John Arbuthnot “Jacky” Fisher, who understood the potential of undersea vessels. When Fisher became First Sea Lord in 1904, he set about bringing the Royal Navy into the 20th century. He made a successful case for increasing the shipbuilding budget, part of which went to submarines. Thanks to Fisher, the Royal Navy entered World War I with the world’s largest submarine flotilla – over 70 vessels. Germany entered the war with barely two dozen. If those numbers had been reversed, Germany may have won the war.
When the war began in August 1914, no one expected submarines to play an important role. But on September 5, the German boat U-21 sank the British light cruiser Pathfinder with one torpedo. A week later, the British sub E.9 sank the German light cruiser Hela. On September 22, U-9 sank three British armored cruisers and the world sat up and took notice. Headlines blared on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. The submarine had arrived.
(The principal source for these highlights of submarine history is Brayton Harris’s The Navy Times Book of Submarines.)