1776, David Bushnell and Turtle
The story of the Submarine goes further back in time than the
100 year history of the American Submarine Force. The first recorded incidence
of a submarine type apparatus being used was by Alexander the Great (350
years BC). At that time, it was said that Alexander himself was lowered into the
sea in a "Diving Bell".
For what reason, this was never reported.
David Bushnell had always had a great interest in ships and gadgets and began to experiment with exploding gunpowder underwater. Eventually his research produced the first underwater mine which was exploded using a clockwork detonator. At the time of Bushnell's experiments, America was in turmoil with the British and Bushnell hoped to use his idea's to destroy some of the blockading British fleet. All Bushnell needed was a means of getting one of his exploding mines attached to a British ship undetected. He began to design and build a submarine that he would name the Turtle, because of that crafts rather similar appearance to two turtle shells stuck together and stood on their ends.
The Turtle Replica, built to Bushnell's specifications.
David and his brother Ezra found a site for a building shed near Sill's Point, in the Connecticut River. To keep secrecy, they let it be known their intentions of becoming fishermen. The Turtle began to take shape and by June of that year the craft was nearly finished. The Turtle measured seven and a half feet long, eight feet in depth and four feet wide. Made of oak planking held together with iron hoops, the craft was just large enough to hold one operator and air for half an hour. All of the controls were hand operated and it can be imagined that the sole occupant would have been very busy in deed when under water and attacking a target.
The next few months were spent in getting the Turtle into an operational condition, and with the addition of a compass, depth gauge and something to see the instruments with, the vessel was ready for trials.
By this time the British Fleet were starting to gather in New
York Bay and it was decided to test the Turtle.
Unfortunately, Ezra Bushnell, who had trained for almost a year to operate the vessel, became sick with a fever and could not man the craft. David searched for weeks to find a replacement and eventually chose Sgt. Ezra Lee, who seemed to be more proficient in handling the Turtle than others who had tried.
Just after midnight on September 6, 1776 the Turtle was prepared for her assault on the British Fleet. The exploding mine, carrying 150 pounds of gunpowder, was attached to the craft, just above her rudder. After a lot of trouble fighting the currents, Sgt. Lee was in sight of his intended target, the Eagle. Submerging his craft in the early morning dawn, Ezra Lee approached the hull of the Eagle and attempted to use the vertical auger to penetrate the ships' wooden planking, but found that he could not do so. Suspecting that he had hit copper sheathing that was put on these vessels to protect against marine worm, he tried again, but with no success.
Realizing he had very little air or strength left, he decided to abandon the attempt and surfaced, where upon he was sighted by the British and given chase. Lee set the mechanical timer of the mine and jettisoned the explosive on the surface. The British realized what it was and to all intents beat a hasty retreat. Lee made it back to safety and was just explaining what had happened when the gunpowder exploded. This was enough for the British to be convinced to move else where and the vessels' Bo's'ns cut the ropes attached to the anchors and the ships were set adrift.
After this incident occurred, the Turtle disappeared and Bushnell changed his name, moved and lived out the rest of his life in anonymity.