Bushnell’s Turtle

In the mid 1770’s David Bushnell, an inventive guy, created the world’s first attack submarine. Using whiskey barrel technology, he made a watertight clam shell shaped vehicle with barely enough room for one man. The thing, nicknamed the Turtle, was placed in New York Harbor one night containing Sgt. Ezra Lee, a 45-year-old man who was stronger than the frail inventor. He had two hand-operated propeller vanes, one for forward travel, the other for directional control.

Sgt. Lee cranked his way toward the British flagship of Admiral Richard Howe, called the Eagle. David Bushnell provided for instrument guidance in the underwater darkness, even though it was 1776 and electric lighting was still 100 years into the future. Inventor Bushnell’s solution was ingenious. He lit the primitive instruments, a compass and a depth gauge, with foxfire, a moss that glows in the dark. Still, navigation was difficult, because it was cold in the Turtle, and therefore the foxfire was dim. Ezra Lee missed the battleship entirely and cranked himself out to sea. Realizing his error just in time, he cranked furiously against the tide and finally arrived under the ship. Now it was time to do his dirty work.

The plan was to turn a crank mounted in the ceiling of the Turtle, which would screw an eye-hook into the underside of the Eagle. Attached to the hook was a bomb. After several attempts at attaching the bomb, Ezra finally realized it couldn’t be done. The ship was probably coated in copper plating to keep barnacles from growing on the ship, and the hook wouldn’t drill into the ship. (Historians are not sure about why the bomb couldn’t be attached, this is their theory.)

Dawn was coming, and Sgt. Lee had to get away quickly before he would be discovered. Again, he cranked furiously, but some sailors on the ship saw him. Realizing he was in trouble, he released the bomb, which floated to the surface and blew up harmlessly. But it saved his life. The ship’s men had never seen anything like the Turtle and weren’t even sure it was a human-invented thing. It might be a monster. After the little explosion, they were truly afraid. And Ezra Lee sailed to harbor, his submarine was opened, and he was safe.

This was the first and last submarine voyage of the 18th century. David Bushnell was quite fascinated with inventions and explosive things in particular. He devoted his mental efforts to the war, but his creations never made any serious contributions. Once, some soldiers found a strange barrel floating in the water. They rowed out to it in a little boat and pulled it out of the water. On the contraption they found gears turning. This would be unusual by today’s standards, but truly weird back in 1776. At about the time they made this observation, the time bomb exploded, killing three of the men and injuring some others. It was supposed to have floated up to a place where several enemy ships were docked and blow them up, but the men intercepted it. This was the only one of Mr. Bushnell’s inventions that came anywhere close to working right.

Bushnell's Turtle
Bushnell’s Turtle

 

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