Submarines Throughout Early History

Long before Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, ‘The Hunt For Red October,’ and “Yellow Submarine” were cultural staples, it was more sink than swim for submarines. The concept of navigating under the sea dates all the way back to ancient times, but it took until the 1700’s for a submarine to become integrated into military forces. 

The first submarine followed years of fascination with the idea of exploring what lay beneath the surface of some of our largest bodies of water. History notes that the ancient Athenians employed divers for military operations that they wished to keep secret, first around 415 BC. They were also used less than a century later by Alexander the Great. Legend also describes (and one painting even depicts) an instance where Alexander the Great was lowered into the sea in what would be today considered to be a diving bell, made of glass. 

Throughout the Middle Ages, the idea of submarines was recurring, but never executed. It wasn’t until 1578 that William Bourne actually designed a prototype of a submarine. The wooden vessel would be covered in waterproof leather and could be rowed underwater. 

It wouldn’t be until 1620 though, that the first submarine was successfully built and tested. That vessel was designed and built by Cornelius Van Drebbel, who was in service to King James I of England. It was tested in London’s River Thames. 

The submarine’s development wouldn’t make another significant jump until next century. During the American Revolution, submarines officially became a part of military action. The Turtle was the first combat submarine, designed by inventor David Bushnell and mechanic Issac Doolittle. It was round, and egg-shaped, built of oak, and wasn’t all too successful. Initially deployed to destroy the British Navy’s flagship in 1776, it was unable to complete that task and later sunk during another mission attempt. It did, however, mark the first submarine attack in history. George Washington called it “an effort of genius.” 

In 1800, Robert Fulton designed The Nautilus for the French Navy. It is widely considered to be the first modern-day submarine, utilizing dual propulsion. During America’s Civil War, both the Union and Confederacy built submarines that could attach explosive devices to enemy ships. The Confederacy claimed a rare victory here: their submarine H.L. Hunley successfully sank the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor. The victory was short-lived, with the submarine sinking on its way home. 

Submarines moved into mechanical power when naval officers Simeon Bourgeois and Charles Brun designed Le Plongeur (French for The Diver) in 1894. Another huge leap occurred in 1897 when American engineer Simon Lake’s Argonaut completed the first open ocean voyage by a submarine, from Norfolk, VA to Sandy Hook, NJ. 

The 20th century would be monumental for submarines. Not only were they advanced by leaps and bounds, but they became an integral part of wartime naval fleets, and a cultural fixation across all mediums of entertainment. 

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Posted on April 11 2022 in Blog

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