The history of the submarine reaches surprisingly far into the past -- the first descriptions of this submersible aquatic vehicles appeared in the 16th century, and the first sketches appeared even earlier. The idea of traveling and breathing underwater, like the notion of flying, seems to be almost built-in to humankind's psyche. But while the idea of a submarine appeared early on, it took hundreds of years for inventors to bring the concept into its modern state.
An invention cannot occur with a seed of an idea. For the submarine, those seeds were first planted in 1580, when English innkeeper William Bourne wrote of a submersible ship that worked on the principle of expanding and contracting its volume in order to float and sink. Conceptually, sketches of submarines made by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1400s predate Bourne's plans, but they do not go into detail about the vehicle's operation.
Outside of descriptions, plans and ideas, the very first operable submarine appeared in 1623. Cornelius Drebbel, a court inventor for King James I of England, created a vessel that reached depths of about 15 feet underwater. Twelve oarsmen powered the rowboat-like craft. Captain Brayton Harris, author of “The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social and Military History,” speculates that forward momentum created by the rowers, coupled with a downward-sloping foredeck, kept the boat just under the surface. When the rowing stopped, the vessel rose.
A Notion Evolves
After Drebbel's first submarine, inventors continued to streamline the concept of a submersible vessel. In 1643, French priest Marin Mersenne first presented the idea of a cylindrical, copper vessel with tapered ends. The "Rotterdam Boat" of 1654 was the first underwater vehicle commissioned and built for military use, though it ultimately failed to launch. Professor Denis Parin's 1696 vessel relied on an air pump to regulate internal and external pressure and produce buoyancy, but his unconventional vehicle used above-surface sails and underwater oars for locomotion.
Military Use and Modernity
Where the “Rotterdam Boat” failed, American inventor David Bushnell's “Turtle” succeeded -- partially, anyway. This one-man sub, piloted by Sergeant Ezra Lee in 1776, operated via foot pedal and hand crank powered propellers and valves, the former of which moved the vessel and the latter of which let water in or out. Although the “Turtle” failed its mission -- attaching a keg of gunpowder to a British warship -- it moved just fine, making way for military submarines of the future. After this milestone, inventors around the world continued to iterate the submarine, but it wasn't until the period between 1878 and 1899 that Irish-American John Holland's “Holland Boat” series of subs would come to define modern submarine design. These undersea crafts featured torpedo-like iron bodies and ran on a combination of electric and gasoline engines, principles that would carry the submarine well into the Cold War.
- World Submarine History Timeline: Part One: 1580-1869
- United States of America Department of the Navy: Undersea Warfare: John Holland, Father of the Modern Submarine
- United States Naval Academy: Submarine History
- University of Houston: Engines of Our Ingenuity: No. 60: Submarine
- George Mason University: Submarine
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