Bushnell, David (1742?-1824)

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David Bushnell (1742?-1824)



Background . David Bushnell must have seemed an unlikely student when he entered Yale College in 1771. For one thing, he was almost thirtytwice as old as the other students. He and his only brother had worked on their fathers secluded Saybrook, Connecticut, farm until the senior Bushnells death in 1769, when David was around twenty-seven. David, however, had had enough of farming. He sold his share of the farm, moved to New Haven, and secured a tutor to help him catch up academically and to prepare for entrance to Yale. It was a bold move for him. Bushnell had spent his youth almost entirely on the family farm, where he had devoted all his leisure time to reading, which fueled his desire for knowledge but alienated him from social contact. At college he remained something of an introvert, animated by a simple desire for something more. Despite the much-acclaimed benefits of a country life, Bushnells health was never robust.

A Peculiar Interest . Whatever drew Bushnell to pursue an advanced education, it was clearly physical science that fascinated him. While still a student, Bushnell became involved in a purely theoretical discussion over whether or not gunpowder could explode underwater. Many believed that the lack of an atmosphere and the suffocating properties of water would prevent explosion. Bushnell disagreed and settled the debate by a small demonstration. He must have been working on this and related problems for some time, for in 1775, the year he graduated, he completed his masterpiece, a one-man submarine capable of underwater attack, which he named the American Turtle.

Revolution . By the time Bushnell completed the Turtle, the war between the colonies and Great Britain was already in progress. He demonstrated his invention before the Connecticut Committee of Safety, which approved the use of the Turtle against British warships at the first opportunity. The chance came in 1776, when a British armada descended on New York harbor; on a September night, the Turtle made the first submarine attack in history. Bushnell, however, found himself unequal to the physical effort required to pilot the Turtle, which was powered by human muscle. As a result he found a volunteer, Sgt. Ezra Lee, to pilot the boat. In the waters off New York, with currents and tides to contend with, simply getting from place to place was strenuous. The operator needed to be skillful as well as strong to submerge far enough away from the target to be unseen, find the ship underwater, dive under the hull, attach an underwater bomb called a torpedo, and then escape before his air ran out or the torpedo exploded.

Eagle. The target was H.M.S. Eagle, the British fleets flagship. The Turtles pilot managed to get the submarine under the Eagles hull, but he could not attach the torpedo. After several tries, his air running out and perhaps fearful that he had triggered the bombs timer too soon, Lee abandoned the attempt. The torpedo drifted away on the tide. Its explosion did no damage but caused a minor panic among the British fleet, which then moved to new anchorages. The Turtle made another unsuccessful attempt the next year in the Delaware River. Failure cost Bushnell what support he had; without the means to continue his work and amid general ridicule, he gave up his submarine project. However, he continued to work for the American cause, joining the Continental Army as an officer of engineers. He was stationed at West Point when the war ended in 1783, and once again chose a new life. He opted to receive five years pay for his military services, instead of half-pay for life, and with this money reportedly went to France. There Bushnell witnessed the early years of the French Revolution. In 1795 he reappeared in Georgia, earning a modest living as a schoolteacher, then as the head of a private school. He changed professions once more, practicing medicine in Warrentown, Georgia, until his death in January or February 1826. Apparently solitary to the end, he never married. Bushnell was not a first-rate scientist. He was a talented technician who set his mind to particular problems and found specific solutions to them. Although he was not able to prove the worth of the Turtle in combat, he nevertheless designed and built the first viable submarine in history and proved its potential as a military weapon. Bushnells technical achievement was unmatched until the Civil War, nearly a century later.


Frederick Wagner, Submarine Fighter of the American Revolution: The Story of David Bushnell (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963).

David Bushnell

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David Bushnell

David Bushnell (1742-1824) built the first man-propelled submarine boat with a wooden magazine containing gunpowder and a clock mechanism for igniting it at any particular time. Although he was not successful in his attempts to destroy British ships during the American Revolution, he is recognized as the father of the modern submarine.

David Bushnell was a descendant of Francis Bushnell, an Englishman who joined the New Haven Colony in 1639 and subsequently helped to found Guilford, Connecticut. David was born on his father's farm in Saybrook, Connecticut. The home was located in an extremely secluded portion of the township and here young Bushnell grew up, helping his father with the farm duties, devoting his leisure moments to reading, and shunning all society. When he was twenty-seven his father died, and, as his mother had died some years before, the farm descended to David and his brother. David immediately sold his inheritance, moved into town, and began to prepare for college. He secured as tutor, the Reverend John Devotion, pastor of the local Congregational church. Two years later Bushnell entered Yale, and completed the four-year course in 1775.

Bushnell's Turtle

On one occasion, as a result of a discussion with members of the faculty, Bushnell demonstrated the fact that gunpowder could be exploded under water. This is thought to have suggested to him the idea of a submarine mine or torpedo. Apparently he gave much time and attention to this during his college years, for in 1775 he completed at Say-brook a man-propelled submarine boat on the outside shell of which was attached a wooden magazine containing gunpowder and a clock mechanism for igniting it at any particular time. The boat, built entirely of heavy oak beams, had the shape of a top. In fact, its exterior appearance was said to resemble a structure that would result from joining together the upper shells of two turtles and weighting the whole so that the tail end pointed downward and the head skyward. For this reason it was called "Bushnell's Turtle." The vessel was equipped with a vertical and horizontal screw propeller and rudder, operated by hand from the interior. It also contained a water gauge to indicate the boat's depth; a compass for direction, lighted up with phosphorus; a foot-operated valve in the keel to admit water for descending; and two hand-operated pumps to eject the water for ascending. The magazine, or torpedo, was located above the rudder and was connected by a line with a wooden screw, turned from within, which could be driven into a ship's hull. A further arrangement was contrived so that as the submarine moved away the clockwork in the mechanism was set in motion, having been previously set to ignite the charge at a certain time, the maximum being twelve hours. Bushnell successfully demonstrated his idea to the governor and Council of Safety of Connecticut who approved of his plan and suggested that he proceed with further experiment if necessary, with the expectation of a proper public reward.

During 1776-77 Bushnell attempted to blow up British ships but was never successful, owing entirely to his inability to obtain a skilled operator, he personally being too frail. Attempts were made in Boston Harbor; off Governor's Island, New York; and in the Delaware River above Philadelphia. After the failure at Philadelphia, in December 1777, Bushnell gave up further attempts amidst general popular ridicule, although today he is recognized as the father of the submarine.

Commanded Corps of Engineers

Bushnell's inability to prove the merits of his invention in actual warfare did not entirely discredit him. When General Washington organized companies of sappers and miners in 1779, Bushnell was made a captain-lieutenant. He was promoted to captain in 1781, and was stationed at West Point in command of the Corps of Engineers on June 4, 1783. In November of that year he was mustered out of service, receiving the commutation of five-years' pay in lieu of one-half pay for life.

During the following ten or twelve years it is believed that he went to France. In 1795, however, he appeared in Columbia County, Georgia, as a schoolteacher, under the name of Dr. Bush. He lived with a fellow soldier, Abraham Baldwin who was the only person who knew his real identity. Through him Bushnell became head of a private school. Several years later he settled in Warrenton, Georgia, and began the practice of medicine which he continued until his death in 1824, at the age of eighty-four. As far as is known he never married.


Abbot, Lieut.-Col. Henry L., Beginning of Modern Submarine Warfare, 1775.

Dexter, F. B., Biographical Sketches of the Graduates of Yale College, vol. III, 1903.

Howe, Henry, Memoirs of the Most Eminent American Mechanics, 1844.

White, George, Historical Collections. of Georgia, 3rd ed., 1855, pp. 406-09.


American Journal of Science, April 1820.

Connecticut Historical Society Collections, vol. II, 1870.

Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, vol. IV, 1799, No. 37. □

David Bushnell

views updated Jun 11 2018

David Bushnell


American inventor who designed the first military submarine. Before he graduated from Yale, Bushnell had learned how to detonate gunpowder in water and he planned how to construct a submarine. He secretly built a submersible wooden vessel, named the American Turtle, to use offensively against British naval forces during the American Revolution. Thwarted by alert British sentries, Bushnell then built mines that frightened the British into indiscriminately firing at Delaware River debris in an action called the Battle of the Kegs.

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