The History of Submarines


332 BC Aristotle described a type of submersible chamber used by the sailors of Alexander the Great during the Blockade of Tiros.

200 BC There is evidence that there was a primitive submarine in China that was able to move by the bottom of the sea.

1578 AD Much later in time, the first actual design for a submarine was presented by William Borne. In this design was the concept of ballast tanks (I will go into more depth on these later) used to submerge and surface. This design, however, was never actually built.

1620 AD A Dutchman, named Cornelis Drebel, built the first successful submarine with a wooden frame that was encased in leather. This craft was able to carry 12 rowers and eight additional people, totaling the people in the craft to 20. This vessel was capable of diving to depths of 20 meters and could travel 10 kilometers at a time. This submarine was tested in the Thames River, and would often remain submerged for hours. This submarine was the first to address the problem of oxygen shortage.

1775 AD David Bushnell, an engineering student at Yale, invented the “Turtle”. This egg shaped submarine was driven by two, hand-cranked screw propellers; one controlling forward movement, and the other for side-to-side motion. This submarine only held one person, and was intended to be used in warfare. This craft was equipped with a detailed system of valves, air vents, ballast pumps, lead weights to keep upright, and a mine that was to be attached to enemy’s ships with a detachable screw.

This was the first combat submarine and on September 6, 1776 it was put to test against a British flagship, HMS Eagle in New York Harbor. When the “Turtle” attempted to attach the mine to the ship, it was deflected by the copper sheathing on the ship.

1798 AD Robert Fulton used the same concepts exercised in the design of the “Turtle” to build his own submarine, the “Nautilis”. It used two forms for power for movement, diving planes, shape, armament, and air replenishment. There was a sail to use while on the surface, and a hand-cranked propeller to use while submerged. This craft was streamline to increase agility and featured diving planes to control the angle of descent. It was 24 feet long and carried a crew of four. It had one weapon, called the torpedo; which at the time, existed as a box of dynamite. It is unclear how long this vessel could stay submerged (somewhere around 12 hours). The “Nautilis” was the first submarine to experiment with compressed oxygen.

1850 AD Germans constructed a submarine called the “Sea Devil”. This craft made over a hundred diving’s and held a crew of 14.

1864 AD Overlooked during the civil war is the fact that the first successful use of a submarine in battle was executed during this time. The confederates built four submarines, the Hunley being the most famous for its adventure. This Submarine rammed into USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. A torpedo on the Hunley exploded, consequently sinking both vessels.

After the war was over, two men began to work with submarines. Simon Lake came up with the idea of submersing and surfacing using buoyancy, which is used in today’s submarines. John Philip Holland worked on developing adequate means of propulsion. Both of these men also worked with compressed air, steam, and electricity as means of power in the submarine.

1870 AD A man by the name of Whittehead contributed to the rapid success of submarines in major country’s navy’s, when he invented the first automobiled torpedo, giving submarines a lethal weapon.

1886 AD The naval country of Greece acquired a submarine built by the Swiss. The “Nordenfelt” was steam powered and could travel as fast as nine knots. This craft measured 33 meters in length and weighed 160 tons. The submarine was equipped a torpedo and was not retired from use until 1901.

1898 AD The United States Navy’s first submarine, the USS Holland, built by J.P. Holland, was launched. This craft was 53 feet long and weighed 75 tons. The USS Holland used a gas-powered engine while on the surface and an electric motor once submerged.

United States was involved in World War I, partly due to the German’s unruly use of submarines. They would use their vessels to sink any allied ships, including passenger and merchant ships. The use of a periscope and self-propelled torpedoes allowed submarines to play a major role in

In between wars, submarines were improved, and given a thicker hull, allowing them to increase depths by 100 feet. There was 122 submarines of this class built.

1943 AD During World War II, the German Navy invented a snorkel mast. This feature allowed the submarines to run on diesel power while slightly submerged, while recharging their batteries. The Germans were also able to come up with an alternative power source; which they found to be hydrogen peroxide.

The U.S. Navy remodeled their submarines by streamlining them more, and increasing battery power, so they could run longer and faster. During this war submarines proved to play a key role in the Navy, as they were credited with sinking 50% of Japanese naval and merchant ships.

1953 AD A new submarine with a hull resembling a blimp was launched called the USS albacore. The hull design on this craft was so successful that nearly all submarines built afterward followed in its footsteps.

1954 AD The USS Nautilus was launched an was the most technologically advanced submarine of its time. It was the first nuclear powered submarine. It could travel 20 knots while submerged and remained underwater for an indefinite period of time.

1960 AD Submarines began using solid-propellant ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in the US. These missiles were capable of reaching targets 2500 miles away when launched from a submerged submarine.

1970 AD A new class of submarines were built with 24 launching tubes for ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles), each having a range of 4600 miles!

On to the Uses of Submarines

Intro Page History Uses How They Work Sources