from article published in Sea Frontiers , July-August 1976)
CHAPTER of early American maritime history that has often been
overlooked is that of early submarines and, in particular, the
story of the first American submarine in the War of Independence.
She was called Turtle and was designed by David Bushnell, who
also developed the naval mine. Turtle's first engagement was
also the first naval battle in history involving a submarine
and took place in New York Harbor in 1776.
While pondering the
idea of a vessel to transport and attach timed explosives to
enemy warships, Bushnell considered using a submarine. There
were, however, many engineering and design problems, which he
had to solve with the limited technology of that time-problems
such as building a watertight, pressure-proof hull, providing
for vertical and horizontal propulsion, vertical stability, variable
ballast, steering controls, and a weapons-delivery system, to
name a few. Bushnell eventually solved these problems and introduced
some innovations. For example, he was the first submarine designer
to equip such a vessel with a snorkel breathing device and to
use a two-bladed propeller for ship propulsion.
Although the submarine
that Bushnell designed and built has been called many different
names by historians, Turtle is the one most commonly used. Turtle
had an unusual appearance, resembling two upper tortoise shells
of equal size, joined together. She measured 7 feet in depth
from the bottom of her detachable keep to the top of her upper
"shell,' and was constructed of oak timbers, which were
carefully shaped, joined together, and caulked at the joints.
To insure watertightness, the vessel was bound with iron bands
and entirely covered with pitch on the outside.
A LITTLE EGG-SHAPED
wooden submarine held together by iron straps, Turtle bobbed
like a cork in rough surface winds and seas even though she was
lead weighted at the bottom. In this hand- and foot-operated
contraption, one person could descend by operating a valve to
admit water into the ballast tank and ascend with the use of
pumps to eject the water.. Two flap-type air vents at the top
opened when the hatch was clear of wafer and closed when it was
as not. The air supply lasted only 30 minutes.
Propelled by Pedals and Cranks
The submarine was capable
of carrying one person who sat upright on a seat resembling that
of a bicycle. Turtle s supply of air, in the submerged state,
would last about 30 minutes. Located at the bottom of the submarine
were a lead weight for ballast and an aperture with a valve to
admit water for descent. Two brass forcing pumps served to eject
the water from within for ascent. In front of the seated operator
was a screw type oar for propelling the vessel forward or backward
while, above him, there was a similar oar for ascending, descending,
or maintenance of depth. The rudder, located behind the operator,
was operated by foot. Furthermore, Turtle was equipped with a
depth gauge, a compass to direct the course, and a ventilator
to supply the vessel with fresh air at the surface.
was built at Saybrook, Connecticut, by David Bushnell and his
brother, Ezra. After the vessel's completion in 1775, they tested
her in the Connecticut River. Unfortunately, the tests indicated
that Turtle was not ready to be used against the ships of the
British fleet which were blockading Boston Harbor. Problems ranged
from the failure of a ballast pump to the need for phosphorescent
fox-fire to light the interior of the submarine.
A Vain Attempt
In the spring of 1776,
Turtle was ready to be transported by a sloop to Boston to fight
the British fleet. By that time, however, the news was received
that the British had broken off their blockade there and had
moved their ships north to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since there
were still British warships in New York Harbor, Turtle was secretly
transported there and stationed at The Battery in Manhattan,
which was still under the control of America's General Putnam,
with his army of about 9,000 men.
The waters of New York
Harbor, between The Battery and Governor's Island, had complex
patterns of currents and tides, presenting navigational problems
completely different from those in the Connecticut River. Ezra,
who operated Turtle, trained through June, 1776 until he and
David were satisfied that he was familiar with the tidal conditions.
General Putnam gave them permission to attack the 64-gun British
warship Eagle at the first opportunity.
The opportunity presented
itself on July 12 when Lord Howe, the commander of the British
naval forces, anchored Eagle off Staten Island, but one adversity
followed another. Ezra Bushnell became ill with fever and was
unable to operate Turtle. Since General Putnam and George Washington
agreed that the submarine should be tried against the enemy,
Sergeant Ezra Lee of Old Lyme, Connecticut was selected from
a group of volunteers to operate her. For the next two months,
Ezra Lee trained intensively.
Near midnight of September 6,
the moon and the tide were favorable for attack. Turtle was towed
by a small rowboat toward Eagle. Halfway to Staten Island, the
rowboat stopped, and Lee entered Turtle and fastened the hatch
over his head. For the first time in the history of naval warfare,
a submarine was engaged in a war against an enemy ship.
HMS Eagle at the Port
of New York
After diligent pedaling,
Lee brought Turtle on the side of Eagle. After taking some ballast,
he submerged completely. When he thought he was under his target,
he pumped out a small quantity of water from the ballast tank,
until a jarring bump indicated he was beneath Eagle. For the
next few minutes, Lee vainly tried to attach a torpedo to her
hull. When the air in his little cabin was almost used up, Lee
had no choice but to abandon his attempt and surface. After replenishing
the air in the cabin and resting, he again descended underneath
Eagle to try to affix a torpedo on her hull. He failed. A metal
plate covered the area where he was trying to drill. Having consumed
his air, he was forced to abandon his goal and surface.
An Inglorious Victory
Lee was exhausted,
and the outgoing tide threatened to take the small craft out
to sea. Desperately, he ejected all the ballast water and began
pedaling with all his remaining strength. With the ballast water
pumped out, one third of Turtle's hull stuck out of the water,
making it clearly visible in daylight. In fact, as dawn broke,
two British soldiers set out from Governor's Island in a patrol
skiff to investigate the floating object. To divert the patrol
and to lighten his craft, Lee released a time operated 250-pound
(250 pounds = 113 Kilograms) torpedo and, picking up speed, reached
The Battery and safety.
Soon thereafter, the torpedo exploded,
shattering the silence of the early morning and arousing the
British fleet. Quickly, the British raised their anchors and
hurriedly moved their ships to the safer waters of lower New
The Turtle attempting
to attach a torpedo on HMS Eagle's hull.
Although Turtle' s
original mission was unsuccessful, some historians claim that
the venture was not a complete failure. They suggest that the
incident drove the British ships to a new location from which
they could not maintain an effective blockade of New York. Also,
although Turtle inflicted no damage to any British vessel, an
intangible psychological victory might have been attained, simply
through her use as a weapon.
Turtle was equally
unsuccessful in two subsequent efforts against Eagle and another
British frigate. In both instances, the tides and tricky currents
of New York Harbor frustrated the ventures. In an effort to move
the submarine to areas where attacks could occur under more favorable
conditions, Bushnell loaded Turtle aboard a fast sloop, hoping
that the sloop could slip unnoticed past the British into Long
Island Sound and back to Connecticut. A British frigate discovered
the sloop, however, and, according to the British, sank her and
her precious cargo. The Americans claimed that she was dismantled
and moved inland to keep her out of enemy hands. Whatever the
final fate of Turtle, as the first American war submarine, she
came to a premature end and closed a not-so-glorious chapter
of maritime history in the American Revolution.
George. Turtle: A
Sea Frontiers, Vol 22, No. 4, pp. 234, July-August, 1976.
Links to other
1963-2007 George Pararas-Carayannis / all rights reserved / Information
on this site is for viewing and personal information only - protected
by copyright. Any unauthorized use or reproduction of material
from this site without written permission is prohibited.
from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other major bookstores. A signed
by the author copy can be also ordered by contacting directly
by email Aston
Miscellaneous Non-technical Writings