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Bushnell Turtle (1775) Midget Submarine (1775)

Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Updated: 4/7/2014

The Bushnell Turtle essentially became the worlds first attack submarine.

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The Turtle was the world's first submarine to ever be used in warfare. It was designed and built in Connecticut in 1775 by David Bushnell for the purpose of approaching "Men of War" while submerged and attaching an explosive mine below the water line to sink the enemy ship. Governor Trumbull of the Colony of Connecticut was a friend and advisor of General Washington throughout the revolutionary period. Washington, in turn, affirmed Trumbull as a true patriot and took high stock in his advice. Trumbull wrote to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington with the recommendation of Bushnell and his "Turtle" concept. Jefferson, an inventor himself, liked the idea but Washington maintained his doubts, ultimately agreeing to provide funds to build and test the machine. Bushnell was himself a graduate of Yale with a degree in engineering while having a natural interest in nautical design concepts. As such, inspiration and critical thinking on the subject was not in short supply. This seafaring interest during the revolutionary war gave him what he needed to propose to design the world's first combat submarine. This was a "true" invention in every sense of the word, with no preexisting template to fall back on whatsoever - in itself, the Turtle was a new revolutionary design and technological model.

As one can expect, one problem after another had to be overcome. Such issues arose as how the one-man crew could breathe when submerged, how to navigate with or against the current, propulsion techniques, how to submerge/resurface, basic buoyancy and how would the operator see anything once inside the submerged Turtle especially at night. Bushnell not only had to conceive a device that never existed but he also had to design and build it himself.

Bushnell proceeded by building into the hull six smallish thick-glassed windows to provide natural lighting and considered using a candle while the vessel was submerged. Experiments with the candle proved inadequate because of the confined spaces - the candle flame would eventually consume the operator's oxygen supply. He wrote Benjamin Franklin about this dilemma and Franklin, intrigued with the problem, suggested using bioluminescent foxfire fungi found on decaying trees. During the natural decaying process the fungi would produce a bluish-green "glow" in the dark. This produced just enough illumination for the operator to read his compass and depth meter.

With internal navigation resolved, propulsion proved the next major hurdle. Sails, oars and poling were the current types of propulsion used on water so there was very little to go on in terms of powering a submarine. In the Turtle, the operator became the horsepower output and a hand crank was devised to spin two propellers, one for vertical movement and the other for forward progress. This was the first recorded use of a screw propeller on any sea-going vessel. To submerge the Turtle, Bushnell needed a process for the water to enter a bilge tank at the bottom of the vessel. Conversely, to surface he installed a hand pump to push the water out into an outside spare tank. In case of an emergency he installed up to 700 hundred pounds of lead that could be quickly released to surface the vessel.


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Specifications for the
Bushnell Turtle (1775)
Midget Submarine


Country of Origin: United States
Initial Year of Service: 1775
Operators: United States (American Colonies)


Crew: 1


Length: 8ft (2.44m)
Beam: 3ft (0.91m)
Draught: 6ft (1.83m)
Displacement: 0tons


Machinery: 2 x hand-operated propellers generating approximately 3 horsepower; 1 x hand-operated rudder.

Surface Speed: 3kts (3mph)
Submerged Speed: 3kts (3mph)
Range: 1miles (2km)


Armament:
1 x limpet keg mine containing between 130 and 150lbs of gunpowder (slung outside).


Ship Class: Turtle
Number-in-Class: 1
Ships-in-Class: Turtle