Imagine you’re at Disneyland, 2015. You go in, and the first attraction you see is the Finding Nemo ride. You don’t know what the ride is about, so you get in line. Once you’re through the long wait, you see it: a small submarine. You get in anyway, because you waited so long.
But then they shut you in.
And then you feel like you sink.
And then you definitely don’t scream, unbuckle, stand up, and try to get out. You don’t frighten employees, and you definitely don’t run away and cry in Star Wars Land while the people you came to Disneyland with are confused. And you definitely don’t suspect the author of this column did any of these things.
If you’ve ever ridden the civilian death-trap known as the Finding Nemo ride, you’ve benefited from hundreds (or perhaps thousands!) of years of dreaming about underwater adventure. The first underwater adventurers were divers who breathed through reeds, and during the middle ages Europeans took this idea a smidge further: what if you could be in an underwater box? An entire ship, unseen, under the water?
With Middle Age tech, this was going to be a hard beast to figure out. In addition to finding the right buoyancy so the underwater boat would neither sink nor float, there were issues of how to propel it, how to navigate, and this little thing called “how to breathe”. One of the first plausible attempts to answer these questions was made by William Bourne, who was a British Navy guy (of course) and mathematician. The diagrams of his planned submarine were published in the 1578 book Inventions or Devises. These drawings still exist, but the leather-and-wood craft was never built. The buoyancy problem was solved by including leather compartments that could be pulled inside the ship to sink and pushed outward to rise.
This idea solved one of the four major problems: buoyancy. In the early modern period, similar ideas were devised and attempted. The first “successful” submarine ever built was made by Dutchman Cornelis Drebbel for (of course) the British Navy. These boats were oar powered. King James VI/I was interested in these submarines and, apparently, rode in one of these boats as part of an exposition. These boats weren’t useful for much more than show, and it wasn’t for many years that a “useful” one appeared.
That’s because an oar-powered submarine is a joke. It’s not easy to steer, and it’s definitely not easy to row while entirely underwater. You have to fight against the drag all the time. American inventor David Bushnell added the first screw propeller to a submarine, which solved a large problem of the earlier craft: propulsion. With this addition, he was able to design and build a one man craft known as the Turtle. It’s at this point that we must ask the question, “Why did he build it?”
Honestly, it was because he built underwater mines and thought a submarine would be the best way to use them. Yes, the man invented a ship as a ‘side project’ to go along with his bombs. To use against the British, because of course the British would be involved here.
In 1776 during the blockade of New York Harbor, Ezra Lee piloted Bushnell’s craft and tried to attach a mine to the HMS Eagle. He was unsuccessful because the currents were too strong for his single-man craft, and Bushnell was the only one who really knew how to navigate it. Bushnell was frail, however, and couldn’t keep the man-powered-screw propellers going for long.
At this point, it’s clear why navies wanted this invention: to blow things up. The French soon built one, Americans kept trying, British kept trying, and the Russians kept trying, but they still had the problems of steering well and, you know, breathing. The American Civil War saw a lot of development toward solving these problems.
Though it was lost in North Carolina’s Graveyard of the Atlantic and never found, the most famous of the Union submarines was the USS Alligator. It was French-designed (Brits, you’re letting me down!) and American built. Alligator was the first submarine to solve the breathing problem by using compressed air. It didn’t help anyone, though, when it was sunk in tow during a storm. They still haven’t found it.
The Confederate ship CSS Hunley added navigability, control, and greater man-powered propulsion to the list of submarine advancements. (You probably want to be careful clicking that link, not because it’s virusy, but because it’s CLEARLY full of Confederate propaganda and will put you on a list. It’s too late for me, so save yourselves.) The Hunley was the first submarine to sink another ship (the USS Housatonic) in battle. Shortly after it sent the signal that it had succeeded in its mission, however, it sank for unknown reasons. Even after the submarine was found off the coast near Charleston, it’s unclear why she sank. This battle was the sign of things to come.
The next phase of submarine history is more well known. Inspired by recent advancements, the latent dreams of underwater discovery from ancient times, and Verne’s 10,000 Leagues under the Sea, inventors pushed toward perfection of the boats. Metallurgy, engines, chemistry, and more continued to improve all sorts of vehicles – including boats and subs. It wasn’t long before people of many nations were using compressed air, screws, and metal hulls to make underwater boats capable of great destruction. Unrestricted submarine warfare on the part of Germans during WWI made the U-boats (“unterseaboot”) infamous. Continued advancements that came along with many other naval inventions led to the diesel-powered beasts of WWII.
Note the great weakness of the above paragraph: diesel powered. Diesel-cycle engines burn oxygen, and even with compressed air, breathing is still a problem in a submarine. The diesel-powered submarines could go about as far as an ordinary ship, but they couldn’t stay underwater for long and they couldn’t support many sailors.
Enter the deeply controversial Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, so-called “father of the nuclear navy.” He pushed the invention of the pressurized water reactor, or PWR, a nuclear reactor capable of use on a naval vessel. The PWR powered the first nuclear submarine: USS Nautilus, as named after Verne’s fictional submarine. In 1955, Mamie Eisenhower christened her and sent her off on the first of many record-breaking voyages. Nuclear power doesn’t create carbon emissions and doesn’t require oxygen, so a submarine with scrubbers and compressed air can stay underwater an almost infinite amount of time. The (American, anyway – Soviets were kind of crazy) nuclear submarines were safe and effective despite this author’s horrible fear of
deathtraps submarines. Aside from additional improvements in navigation and communication from computers, nuclear submarines are the current technologies we have today.
(The nuclear engineer spouse reading over my shoulder wants me to remind you that Rickover’s push for PWRs scrapped development of sodium fast reactors, for which he blames the Admiral – not that anyone reading this probably cares).
About the Author: H.R.R. Gorman is a PhD chemical engineer with expertise in biotechnology and making drugs. Following science, Dr. G’s greatest passions are writing and history. Dr. G has never cried at Disneyland and will vehemently deny it if you try to push the matter. If you want to know more about this white-trash-turned-excessively-bourgeois maniac, you can go to https://hrrgorman.wordpress.com/.