Inventing the Submarine

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Inventing the Submarine


In 1623 Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebbel (1572-1633) invented the first submersible that could remain underwater for an extended period of time, be propelled through the water, and be steered. Although this invention was not capitalized upon for more than two centuries, Drebbel's submersible marked the first step towards submarine warfare and caused quite a stir in many circles at the time. Today, nearly four centuries later, the submarine is a powerful tool for research and a potent weapon in war.


As legend has it, in 332 b.c. Alexander the Great descended to the bottom of the sea in a glass diving bell, accompanied by two companions and lunch. Although likely a legend only, this is the first record of anyone entering the water for longer than they could hold their breath, and it was not to be repeated (or at least, not written about) for nearly 2,000 years.

The next mentions of submarines (or, more properly, submersibles) was not until Leonardo da Vinci (1451-1519) mentioned a military diving system in the late fifteenth century, although he gave no details because of "the evil nature of men who practice assassination at the bottom of the sea." Following the passage of a few more centuries, William Bourne (1535-1583) described the principles by which a ship could operate submerged, although he did not propose building such a vessel or provide any drawings for one. After Bourne, only another 40 years were to pass before Drebbel's invention made its appearance.

Drebbel made a few significant advances, some of which are unfortunately lost to us because of his penchant for guarding his secrets. Perhaps the most important of these was his apparent discovery of a method for replenishing the atmosphere of his tiny vessel while remaining underwater. This was important on a few levels. For starters, Drebbel was one of the first to realize that part of the air is necessary for life and the rest is not. We now know that about 20% of air is comprised of oxygen, termed the "quintessence" by Drebbel. It is unlikely that Drebbel actually succeeded in separating oxygen from air; this was not to be accomplished for another century. However, it is possible that he stumbled upon a method of scavenging carbon dioxide from the air; prolonging the time a vessel could remain submerged. Unfortunately, while there seems little doubt that Drebbel did make use of a chemical reaction to do so, exactly which chemicals he used is not known. Many modern "scrubbers" use either lithium hydroxide or complex chemicals for this task; however, these did not exist in the seventeenth century and could not have been used by Drebbel.

There is some doubt, too, that Drebbel's craft actually submerged fully, as a modern submarine does. The scheme described for submerging the boat, by changing the volume of water contained within goatskin sacks inside the boat, seems implausible at best. It is more likely that Drebbel designed the craft to float with the upper deck just awash, counting on the vessel's forward momentum to carry it beneath the water, in a manner similar to that used by many submarines today. Yet another innovation was the ability to propel and steer the craft. This was successful to the point that, according to contemporary accounts, it "could be rowed and navigated under water from Westminster to Greenwich, the distance of two Dutch miles: or even five or six miles, or as far as one pleased." It was demonstrated to a number of people, and Drebbel may have even built additional craft. And, invariably, one of the first thoughts was about the military advantage that could be enjoyed by any nation building a fleet of submarines.


Since the first voyage of Drebbel's machine over three centuries ago, the submarine has exerted three primary impacts on science and society. These involve military advantage, scientific exploration and discovery, and inciting the public imagination.

"Assassination at the bottom of the sea" was probably the first and most important outcome of developing a successful submarine. The immediate impact of Drebbel's invention was to spur a flurry of activity among submarine designers, both serious and crackpot, each trying to find some way to exploit this invention for purposes of warfare or exploration. One of the first recorded uses of submarines in warfare was David Bushnell's (1742?-1824) boat, the Turtle, which made a total of three unsuccessful attacks on British warships during the American Revolution.

In subsequent years, many nations experimented with submarines, including the French, Germans, British, and Americans. All nations shared several problems: keeping the air fresh, navigating underwater, and affixing explosives to the hulls of ships (or finding some other way of causing damage). And all struggled with these problems for similar reasons: because the potential military value of a warship that could approach and sink a vessel undetected was so great that it was worth the investment in time and money.

Eventually, around the beginning of the twentieth century, these problems were either solved or sidestepped. The German navy took a terrible toll on Allied shipping during the First World War, forcing the Allies to learn some lessons, although they were largely forgotten by the start of the next great war. However, the ability of German submarine wolfpacks to interdict Allied shipping during the Second World War, and the similar impact that U.S. submarines had on Japanese shipping during the same war, forced military strategists to make future plans with submarines in mind. The further refinement of submarines by the addition of nuclear reactors, nuclear weapons (in some cases), air regenerating equipment, and advanced diesel engines (in some cases) turned them into one of the most formidable—and revolutionary—naval and strategic weapons of the twentieth century.

Submarines and submersibles have also seen much use in oceanographic and marine biological explorations for at least 200 years. Edmund Halley (1656-1742) described some excursions to the sea floor in a diving bell in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and the use of bathyspheres and bathyscaphs also came into practice. Submarines have played, and continue to play, a vitally important role in the exploration of the ocean and its inhabitants.

This exploration, in turn, has led to a vastly increased understanding of the Earth, the oceans, and the role played by the oceans and their inhabitants. For example, the theory of plate tectonics was developed based on data from both the land and seas. However, some of the most interesting information confirming and elaborating on this theory depends on marine data. Research submersibles have returned with photos of "black smokers," where the oceanic crust is being formed. These same submersibles have brought back observations of extensive colonies of bacteria, tube worms, and other organisms living completely divorced from the surface—the first ecology found on Earth that did not rely, even indirectly, on solar energy for sustenance. Other submersibles have returned with countless geologic and biologic specimens, archeological data, sunken treasure, photos of the Titanic, and more.

Submarines do not seem to have appeared in the consciousness of the general public until several centuries later, when Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1869-1870), but this and the use of unrestricted submarine warfare by the German navy in the First World War quickly brought them to the attention of the public. In fact, in the world of the seventeenth century, Drebbel's submarine was the talk of the town, assuming the "town" consisted of those with enough spare time to watch or talk about it, or those who were sufficiently literate to read the accounts. Although those who were informed (or could read) found it important and fascinating, they comprised a small minority of the total population. Most people lived a bookless life of hard work, narrow perspectives, and little or no formal education. In addition, in spite of the stir caused by Drebbel's submarine in Europe, Europe is only a small part of the world. In Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas, the inhabitants (largely tribal aboriginal populations, with the exception of parts of Asia) were oblivious to happenings in Europe. Drebbel's submarine caused a stir among a small group of the educated elite in a few of the nations of Europe, and had absolutely no impact whatsoever on the rest of the world.

As time went on, however, technology caught up with the sporadic military interest in submarines. Once a successful military weapon was produced and used, the public could not help but pay attention. The romance and mystery of submarines, which existed primarily because they could attack unseen from beneath the waves, caught the attention of an increasingly literate and engaged public. This interest was enhanced during World War II, with the successes of the German and, later, American submarines. The publicity surrounding the development of nuclear submarines and, later, ballistic missile submarines further encouraged public interest in these ships, as did popular books and movies, such as Ice Station Zebra, Run Silent, Run Deep, The Hunt for Red October, and others. Although slow in starting (over 300 years passed between Drebbel's craft and Ice Station Zebra), the public seems fascinated with submarines and their uses, both military and scientific.

It is likely that Drebbel would have expected submarines to have enormous military value, although he would probably not have imagined the missions they have turned out to have. However, it is likely that he would be amazed or disbelieving at the range of scientific applications developed for them, and he would likely be even more amazed at the level of interest on the part of the general public.


Further Reading

Harris, Brayton. The Navy Times Book of Submarines. New York: Berkeley Books, 1997.

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Inventing the Submarine

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