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Submarines: History - Submarines & the American Revolution

Model of Turtle
Model of Turtle (U.S. Navy photo)

In the next hundred years, several other industrious inventors attempted to build crafts for underwater travel, but none were used for military efforts until the American Revolution. In the 1770's, David Bushnell designed and built the first submarine used during a war. The watertight oak Turtle held one person and was propelled by a handcrank. The submarine would sink and rise by admitting and releasing water into ballast tanks with a pump. The small Turtle held enough air to last one person a half-hour. The idea was to submerge below a British ship and drive a long screw into the ship's hull. A watertight oak cask filled with gunpowder would then be attached to the screw, and a timed fuse would ignite the explosion.

On Sept. 6, 1776, Turtle, operated by Army Sergeant Ezra Lee, was used against a British warship anchored in New York Harbor. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the British aboard the HMS Eagle), the submarine's screw hit an iron plate and was not able to penetrate the hull. Two more dives were unsuccessful. All was not a total loss for Bushnell and his creation, however, which became known as the first submarine used during a war.

In 1801, Robert Fulton built the submarine Nautilus. It had two forms of propulsion: a hand crank for when the submarine was submerged and a sail to be used on the surface. The submarine held two people and because it carried compressed air, could stay underwater for more than an hour.


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