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The First Submarines

For the next two centuries, scientists and inventors in America, England, France, Germany, and Italy attempted to create a true submersible warship with little success. An American submarine was used in an attempt to sink an enemy ship during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Submarines continued to be improved, and were again used during the American Civil War (1861-1865).

Early history of submarines and the first submersibles

The first submersible with reliable information on its construction was built in 1620 by Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel, a Dutchman in the service of James I of England. It was created to the standards of the design outlined by English mathematician William Bourne. It was propelled by means of oars. The precise nature of the submarine type is a matter of some controversy; some claim that it was merely a bell towed by a boat. Two improved types were tested in the Thames between 1620 and 1624. In 2002 a two-man version of Bourne's design was built for the BBC TV programme Building the Impossible by Mark Edwards, and successfully rowed under water at Dorney Lake, Eton.

Though the first submersible vehicles were tools for exploring under water, it did not take long for inventors to recognize their military potential. The strategic advantages of submarines were set out by Bishop John Wilkins of Chester, England, in Mathematicall Magick in 1648.

Tis private: a man may thus go to any coast in the world invisibly, without discovery or prevented in his journey. Tis safe, from the uncertainty of Tides, and the violence of Tempests, which do never move the sea above five or six paces deep. From Pirates and Robbers which do so infest other voyages; from ice and great frost, which do so much endanger the passages towards the Poles. It may be of great advantages against a Navy of enemies, who by this may be undermined in the water and blown up. It may be of special use for the relief of any place besieged by water, to convey unto them invisible supplies; and so likewise for the surprisal of any place that is accessible by water. It may be of unspeakable benefit for submarine experiments.

The first military submarine was Turtle (1775), a hand-powered egg-shaped device designed by the American David Bushnell to accommodate a single man. It was the first verified submarine capable of independent underwater operation and movement, and the first to use screws for propulsion. During the American Revolutionary War, Turtle (operated by Sgt. Ezra Lee, Continental Army) tried and failed to sink the British warship HMS Eagle, flagship of the blockaders in New York harbor on September 7, 1776.
The First Submarine

In 1800, France built a human-powered submarine designed by American Robert Fulton, the Nautilus. The French eventually gave up on the experiment in 1804, as did the British when they later considered Fulton's submarine design.

During the War of 1812, in 1814, Silas Halsey lost his life while using a submarine in an unsuccessful attack on a British warship stationed in New London harbor.

In 1851, a Bavarian artillery corporal, Wilhelm Bauer, took a submarine designed by him called the Brandtaucher (incendiary-diver) to sea in Kiel Harbour. This submarine was built by August Howaldt and powered by a treadwheel. It sank but the three crewmen managed to escape. The submarine was raised in 1887 and is on display in a museum in Dresden.

The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley was built in 1862 to aid the South in breaking the Union Navy's blockade of its ports during the Civil War. The Hunley went into action against the Union steam sloop USS Housatonic, which was anchored off Charleston, South Carolina. The Hunley carried an explosive charge attached to a long pole, or spar, affixed to the front of the craft. The mission was successful but the explosion inadvertently sank the Hunley as well.

During the latter half of the 19th century, many attempts were made to develop an adequate means of submarine propulsion. Inventors experimented with compressed air, steam, and electricity as power sources. American inventor John Philip Holland, who used a dual-propulsion system, developed the first practical submarine with an efficient source of power. Launched in 1898, his submarine was equipped with a gasoline engine for surface cruising and an electric motor for underwater power. In 1900 the U.S. government purchased the boat, which had an overall length of 16.2 m (53 ft), and named it the USS Holland. 2021.