1624 – 1st submarine tested (London)
The concept of a submarine has roots deep in antiquity. The first known military use occurred during the siege of Syracuse (about 413 BC), where divers were used to clear obstructions according to the History of the Peloponnesian War.
Although there were various plans for submersibles or submarines made during the Middle Ages, the Englishman William Bourne designed one of the first workable prototype submarine in 1578. This was to be a completely enclosed boat that could be submerged and rowed beneath the surface. Comprising a completely enclosed wooden vessel sheathed in waterproofed leather, it was to be submerged by using hand operated wooden screw thread adjustable plungers pressing against flexible leather bags located at the sides in order to increase or decrease the volume of water to adjust the buoyancy of the craft. The sketch (left) appears to suggest that the depth adjustment was by means of some sort of crankset projecting above the surface. There is no obvious accommodation for crew.
The first successful submarine was built in 1620 by Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel, a Dutchman in the service of James I of England – it may have been based on Bourne’s design. It was propelled by oars and is thought to have incorporated floats with tubes to allow air down to the rowers. The precise nature of the submarine type is a matter of some controversy; some claim that it was merely a bell towed by a boat. Two improved types were tested in the River Thames between 1620 and 1624.
The first military submarine was built in 1720 by carpenter Yefim Nikonov by order of tsar Peter the Great in Russia. Nikonov armed his submarine with “fire tubes” – weapons akin to flame-throwers. The submarine was supposed to approach an enemy vessel, put the ends of the “tubes” out of the water, and blow up the ship with some combustible mixture. In addition, he designed an airlock for aquanauts to come out of the submarine and to destroy the bilge of the ship. With the death of Peter I in January 1725, Nikonov lost his principal patron and the Admiralty withdrew support for the project.
The first American military submarine was Turtle in 1776, a hand-powered egg-shaped device designed by the American David Bushnell, to accommodate a single man. It was the first submarine capable of independent underwater operation and movement, and the first to use screws for propulsion.
In 1800, the French Navy built a human-powered submarine designed by Robert Fulton, the Nautilus. It also had a sail for use on the surface and so was the first known use of dual propulsion on a submarine. It proved capable of using mines to destroy two warships during demonstrations. The French eventually gave up with the experiment in 1804, as did the British, when Fulton later offered them the submarine design.