Naval warfare has changed drastically from its beginnings to today. The development of the submarine was one of its pivotal moments. The submarine changed the way wars were fought and the mentality of seasoned naval commanders. The changes were slow in the beginning, but the history of the submarine is one of exponential advancement.

Early History

The first known mention of submarines was a description of an idea by British mathematician William Bourne in 1580. Bourne theorized that by displacing water, a ship could go up and down in the water as it moved. In 1623, Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebble claimed to have built the first workable submarine, which traveled at a depth of 15 feet, and allegedly had eyewitnesses vouch for its viability. French priest Marin Mersenne was the first to speculate that a submarine would be best suited if made of copper and shaped like a cylinder. British wagon-maker J. Day built a submarine that used ballast stones to change depth in 1773. However, the first battle-tested submarine was the “Turtle” in the American Revolution, built by Yale college student David Bushnell.

The Nautilus

Although the submarine "Nautilus" conjures up Jules Verne's sub from "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," published in 1869, an actual submarine named Nautilus was designed by Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat, and built in 1800. It made several dives to depths of 25 feet for up to six hours at a time. Even though it was broken up for scrap, the Nautilus name has appeared on several ships since, including the first nuclear submarine.

Subs in the 1800s

In 1850, William Bauer commissioned a submarine to be built to break the Danish naval blockade of the German Port of Kiel. After several maneuvers, the submarine sank and Bauer and his crew members had to make a torturous escape. During the Civil War, the Confederacy operated a 20-foot-long submarine in Lake Pontchartrain. The first submarine in the service of the United States, the Alligator, operated off the coast of South Carolina, but it sank in a storm in 1863. The Civil War saw several attempts by both sides that ultimately failed. Several prominent submarines were built in the latter part of the century: the Argonaut, the Plunger and the Holland IV.

World War I

The submarine, as an effective weapon of war, was a relatively new concept. The submarine was seen as an unethical tactic, but Great Britain was the first to have a workable fleet, but Germany soon had the most effective subs, largely due to the lack of technology available to detect subs. Germany used the submarine to sink merchant ships and tried to strangle Britain into submission. British Admiral Percy Scott said the submarine drastically changed the face of war.

World War II

World War II witnessed the increased usage of submarines to cut supply lines and destroy enemy ships. Adolf Hitler understood the submarine’s ability and ordered 300 to be manufactured; however. at the start of the war, only 38 were seaworthy. Germany gave submarine commanders permission to sink ships if they did not heed stop orders, and if the ship were running without lights. The submarine’s ability to wreak havoc was diminished in World War II by advancements in technology, such as radar and depth charges.

Advancements in Technology

The submarine has come a long way in engine technology and weaponry. The original submarines were powered by bicycle-type propulsion. Now engines have moved from battery and diesel power to nuclear power. Submarine weaponry started out with a spear for ramming and progressed to torpedoes and nuclear weapons.