Dreams and Deathtraps: The History of Submarines

Written by H.R.R. Gorman

Chemical engineer seeking out new adventures in science and speculative fiction.

January 5, 2021

Welcome back, y’all.

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?

Image: William Bourne’s submarine design was very clever but never built. The principle seems sound, but would you want to take a trip on a thing with only a leather pouch between you and a watery grave? Image by William Bourne, 1578, Inventions or Devises. Public Domain.

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.

Image: Cornelis Drebbel invented an oar-powered deathmobile that navigated the Thames and thrilled the British heart. Because of course it did. The artist who drew this seems to be unknown.

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.

Image: I wouldn’t be caught dead in this machine because look at it – dead is where I’d end up. This is Lieutenant Commander F.M. Barber’s 1875 drawing made based on David Bushnell’s descriptions.

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.

Image: The CSS Hunley, built and financed by deathtrap designer Horace Hunley, was the first submarine to blow up another ship. This 1864 painting was made by Conrad Wise Chapman. Common Domain.

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.

The nuclear age of submarines arrives with the Nautilus, and everything gets bigger, better, faster, more secret. I mean, look at that Turtle image, that Hunley image, then this one. Look at the size of the people in/on/next to them. SHIVER AT THE POWER OF HUMANITY. Image: USS Nautilus Launching into the Thames, released by the US Navy.

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/.

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  1. robbiesinspiration

    An excellent post, H. I learned a lot about submarines when I read a book about the Cuba Missile Crisis. It was written from the perspective of the Russians which made it even more interesting.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Ooh, that sounds interesting! There’s not much in English about the Russian perspective of the cold war.

      • robbiesinspiration

        It’s called The Last Saturday of October by Douglas Gilbert. I found it very interesting.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Well, I’ll have to look into it!

  2. floridaborne

    Nice historical moment.

    I have to say that I saw no Confederate propaganda when I looked at the USS Hunley. Looks like a site for preserving artifacts.

    I vaguely remember the Nemo ride. We went there for the kids, though we were bored to tears. Had I known anything about submarines I might have shuddered a little. 🙂

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Haha, the propaganda may be more subtle than I realize. I guess it’s more an element of omission and the fact they’re trying to get you and your kids to come celebrate a Confederate… glory? I guess I’ve been to too many Confederate things in my wee life and know what goes on there.

      I can’t imagine the Nemo ride as boring, haha!

      • floridaborne

        I’m not into “reimagining” history. Perhaps in another life, I’ll be far more passionate about delving into learning about history instead of watching all of us repeating it.

        First of all, I think slavery is horrendous. Present day slavery, “Human Trafficking,” uses the same techniques to create the chains of hopelessness as were used in slaves coming from other countries to the US. I hear people talk about how we shouldn’t glorify slavery, but isn’t ignoring it just as wrong?

        There is more slavery today than there was at the time of the civil war. In the 1700’s and 1800’s — during the time that the US had slaves — Britain was fighting against the Barbary Coast slave trade. There’s a book called “White Gold” by Giles Milton that talks about white slaves in north Africa that tells about it.

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Slavery is always a problem – and probably will. Ignoring slavery as the actual root cause of the Civil War is a major problem with exhibits like these and monuments like Stone Mountain. That’s why my link came with the warning.

  3. tnkerr

    I love submarines and spent many years of my life boring holes in the worlds oceans – riding on submarines.
    As far as that Disneyland business; we’ll just rig ship for ultra-quiet.
    Nice post.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Thanks! And you’re brave.

      • tnkerr

        Not really, but thank you for saying so.

  4. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    I enjoyed this article very much. The history is interesting and the conclusion clear- submarines are no place to be, not for me anyway. I’ll remain topside with you. Nemo can remain lost. Fun fact, my books are sailing in the library of the USS Vermont, a nuclear sub that was launched last April. And they can’t chuck them out the window.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      They can chuck them out if they’re enterprising with an acetylene torch and are ok with dying, I guess?

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        Haha, your books aren’t bad! Just I can’t imagine living on a sub and being happy, haha.

  5. Jules

    As always an informative and enlightening read. Happy New Year Dr. G! Hope you are staying safe and sane.

    There’s not all that much I’m afraid of… though I can do without roller-coasters, and one has to be careful with fire.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I’m doing well! And I definitely love roller coasters, so there’s a little plus on the bravery side!

      • Jules


  6. trentpmcd

    Nice bit of history. I bet I’d run off the Finding Nemo ride screaming, and deny it (I’m very claustrophobic), but, that being said, I did spend a summer on a nuclear submarine between my Freshman and Sophomore years in college. I once had dreams of being a nuclear engineer, like H. R. R.’s husband, but that summer on the nuclear sub cured me… Hint – if you walk several miles every day you may discover that there are no hiking trails underwater ????

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Lol – at least I’m not alone! My bigger fear is having no escape route and becoming trapped, then caves due to a Nova show I watched in 1st grade (there was a fake underwater cave on the ride, which was when I finally lost it).

      I know a lot of my husband’s coworkers who were inspired by a stint in the navy to become a nuclear engineer. My husband claims he doesn’t want to be “dark side” and is doing civilian power plants (though he thinks he’d be ok with ship power plants – just not bombs).

  7. denmaniacs4

    Oh, so very informative. Well done. I am personally not a big fan of submarines…too tall. Also, raised a Mormon, one of the notions I had trouble with was the belief that thousands of years ago, America was populated by Europeans who navigated to America underwater. (This sounds ridiculous now and I may have misheard…) In any event, I rarely watch Submarine movies, even the excellent ones like Das Boot and Run Silent Run Deep (which I saw back in the fifties when it came out and that kiboshed my interest.) All my issues aside, an informative column.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      I can do movies and stuff pretty easily. For me it’s more a fear of being trapped than claustrophobia – and really only spaceships are more trapped than subs!

  8. explorereikiworld

    An informative article, Dr. Gorman. I’ve been on a submarine once, and am in awe of how man has built it.
    The history helped me understand it better.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Yay! Glad you liked the article.

  9. Norah

    What a fascinating dive into the depths of the history of undewater vehicles. I’m not surprised to learn of early inventions though I wasn’t aware of any of them. I tend towards claustrophobia so would have reacted the way you described to Nemo’s ride and would never survive in a submarine or on any naval vessel for that matter. I’ll leave that up to braver folks than me.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      That’s the spirit! I was morbidly interested in subs after the Nemo ride, hence the article.

      • Norah

        It is interesting what sparks our interest in different things.

      • reading journeys

        Very interesting article re history of subs.
        No sub rides in my life but I became “morbidly” fascinated by subs & novels about them after reading Jules Verne’s sci-fi; and Tom Clancy’s film & novel “The Hunt for Red October.” And Das Boot was riveting!

      • H.R.R. Gorman

        I totally intend to read both of those books! Oh man, the ever-lengthening to-read list is such a curse!

  10. suespitulnik

    Thank you for sharing the history of submarines and how they came to be powered.
    While attending a recent Memorial Day observance I overheard three former Navy men discussing their first dive in a submarine. One said he loved it, one said he had his own reservations, and the third admitted he almost needed hypnosis because he couldn’t imagine the water pressure from the outside not collapsing the vessel. The descriptions took me by surprise mostly because I hadn’t thought about it before. I decided trying it for myself wouldn’t be on my bucket list.

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Haha, something more than the Nemo ride evidently isn’t on mine.

  11. Chel Owens

    I may have faced “Nemo” (and its predecessor, the un-branded version) without crying, but am absolutely positive I would be scratching at the walls in terror if anyone stuffed me down into a submarine. It’s literally my two fears in one.

    On that note, very informative article. Thank you for writing it. (Husband o’Gorman would also be good to remember how the automotive peeps pushed the trains peeps out by collaborating with road-makers…)

    • H.R.R. Gorman

      Hmm… can’t get around progress being stunted/changed by politics and convenience for the wealthy!

      • Chel Owens

        Happens all the time! I’m sure the RRs were sad to lose their pretty pennies.

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