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Efforts to build submersible boats began in Europe over 500 years ago. Although the technology was not sophisticated enough to create a successful submersible craft, several attempts were made with varying degrees of success. The English scientist William Bourne in 1578 wrote of the possible use of ballast tanks to enable a submersible craft to descend and rise to the surface, though he never built one himself.

In 1620 Cornelis Drebbel, a Dutch inventor, created several prototype submersibles resembling two wooden rowboats, one atop the other and bound with leather for a watertight skin. These were propelled by oars that emerged from the hull through resilient, watertight openings. According to contemporary accounts, Drebbel tested his crafts several times below the Thames River in London, England. Historians consider Drebbel’s tests the first practical use of a maneuverable submarine. The first published prescription for a submarine came from the pen of WILLIAM BOURNE, an English innkeeper and scientific dilettante. Bourne first offered a lucid description of why a ship floats – by displacing its weight of water -- and then described a mechanism by which:

"It is possible to make a Ship or Boate that may goe under the water unto the bottome, and so to come up again at your pleasure. [If] Any magnitude of body that is in the water . . . having alwaies but one weight, may be made bigger or lesser, then it Shall swimme when you would, and sinke when you list . . . ."

In other words, decrease the volume to make the boat heavier than the weight of the water it displaces, and it will sink. Make it lighter, by increasing the volume, and it will rise. He wrote of watertight joints of leather, and a screw mechanism to wind the volume-changing "thing" in and out. Bourne was describing a principle, not a plan for a submarine, and offered no illustration.
Bourne's scheme Submarine

Some years later, this drawing purported to be Bourne's scheme: leather-wrapped pads which can be screwed in toward the centerline to create a flooded chamber, and screwed out to expel the water and seal the opening.

However, Bourne wrote of expanding and contracting structures, not flooding chambers – and submarines built in England in 1729 and France in 1863 conformed with his idea exactly.
Rotterdam Boat Submarine

The "Rotterdam Boat." Propulsion: a spring-driven clock-work device to turn a central paddle wheel. The device was so underpowered that, when the boat was launched, it went – literally – nowhere.
GIOVANNI BORELLI Submarine illustration

There is no evidence that Italian GIOVANNI BORELLI ever built a submarine, but this illustration continues to appear in books and magazines – in several variations – as if were a real boat, sometimes erroneously linked with Drebbel's or Symons's (below) efforts. Borelli did understand the basic principle of volume vs weight (displacement), but he illustrated a totally impractical ballast system by which weight would be increased or diminished by allowing a bank of goat-skin bags to fill with water, then by squeezing the water out to rise again.
Turtle - Archimedes screw

"Turtle," as drawn in 1875 from the best information the artist could gather. There are several important errors. It shows ballast tanks when there were none; it shows an Archimedes screw (helical) for locomotion instead of the propeller like the "arms of a wind mill" or a "pair of oars"described by Bushnell and others.

It also shows -- but this we may forgive -- the operator wearing a rather foppish late 19th-century outfit.
The innovation: Steering Submarine Propller

Phillips was granted an 1852 patent for a "Steering Submarine Propller." The innovation: steering, as well as up-and-down movement, was controlled by a hand-cranked propeller on a swivel joint.
War-era submarine - Pioneer - Louisiana State Museum

A Civil War-era submarine -- which was long thought to be "Pioneer," but is not -- was discovered and raised in 1878 and is on display at the Louisiana State Museum. True origin? A mystery.

VILLEROI obtained a contract from the U. S. Navy for a larger submarine: the 46-foot-long "Alligator." Propulsion: originally sixteen oarsmen with hinged, self-feathering oars; improved, a three-foot diameter hand-cranked propeller. Weapon: an explosive charge to be set against an enemy hull by a diver.

"Alligator" was placed in service on June 13, 1862 – the first submarine in the U. S. Navy, all reports to the contrary notwithstanding. Towed South from Philadelphia for operations in the James River, the boat proved to be too large to hide and support divers in the relatively shallow water. It foundered and sank in a storm, 1863, while being towed to a potential operating area off South Carolina. ©2021.