How a Scholarly Farm Boy Attempted to Take Down the British Navy with A Turtle
Painting depicting the unsuccessful attempt by USS Turtle to attach a 'torpedo' to the bottom of HMS Eagle. Governor's Harbor, New York, USA. 7 September 1776. Source: (Fotosearch/Getty Images).
At the start of the American Revolutionary War, the British military seemed like an unbeatable foe. The rebel colonists could not hope to match the Brits’ naval superiority…at least, not by conventional ways. But one outside-the-box inventor…a Connecticut farm boy turned Yale student named David Bushnell…had an audacious idea. If he could create a vessel that could carry a person under the water undetected, an explosive could be attached to the unsuspecting warships. Although Bushnell’s Turtle, the world’s first submarine, did not complete its task of blowing up British ships, it did usher in a whole new aspect of war…submarine warfare.
David Bushnell Traded Farm Life for Yale
David Bushnell was born in Connecticut in 1740. He was a creative problem-solver and inventor from childhood. He appeared to be a confirmed bachelor. At age 26, he was still living at home and unmarried when his father died. Bushnell and his younger brother, Ezra, took over the farm, but the older brother’s heart was not in farming. He sold his share of the farm to his brother and prepared himself to take the entrance exam for Yale. He was accepted into the University when he was 31 years old.
Bushnell had Unusual Pet Projects
As a student at Yale, Bushnell dedicated himself to his unusual science project. He wanted to find a way for gunpowder to explode underwater. In addition to religious and mathematics classes, he took a number of science courses and studied the properties of gunpowder. He often conducted field experiments to test his findings and his inventions. The sudden explosions in campus ponds caught the attention of his frightened classmates.
Bushnell’s Senior Year was Cancelled Because of the War
In April of 1775, while in his last year of college, Bushnell and his fellow Yale classmates got word that the American colonists and the British soldiers engaged in fierce fighting in nearby Concord and Lexington. For the safety of the students, the University was closed and the students were sent home. Bushnell returned to his family farm to stay with his brother, Ezra.
Back Home, Bushnell Continued His Work with Explosives
Raged in earnest, Bushnell dedicated himself to his work with underwater explosives. He hoped that he could use his research and his education to help the war effort in an unconventional way. He began to draw up plans in a way to deliver underwater explosives to his targets. Together with his brother, Ezra, Bushnell designed the first submarine.
The Birth of the Turtle
Designing and building an underwater boat was challenging. To be able to deliver an explosive and then get out of the way of the blast, the craft needed to be able to submerge, propel itself forward, turn, and resurface. This was all quite different than the tethered diving bells that were occasionally used by divers. Bushnell’s first submarine was made of oak with gears and pumps made by a local clockmaker. It was dubbed the Turtle.
Bushnell also Designed and Built a Bomb
The Turtle was built to deliver explosives to the hull of enemy warships. The bomb that Bushnell designed was roughly the size of a keg and packed with about 150 pounds of gunpowder. The submarine pilot would have to affix the bomb to the hull of the British warship with a long metal screw that resembled a corkscrew. The weight and size of the explosive meant that the Turtle could not carry excess oxygen for the pilot. He would have to travel at the surface until he was close enough to be seen, then submerge to deliver the bomb.
The Bomb Needed a Timer Ignition
In order for the Turtle and pilot to get out of the blast zone before the bomb exploded, Bushnell needed to work out how to ignite the gunpowder. Again, he turned to two local clockmakers to help him. Phineas Pratt and Isaac Doolittle designed an ignition device from clockworks that counted down until it struck a flintlock to create a spark. The spark would light the pan full of priming powder, which in turn, would ignite the whole keg. The Turtle’s pilot would need to set the timing mechanism after he attached the bomb and then hurry out of the way.
The Turtle in Action
Bushnell tried three times to blow up British naval ships in New York Harbor using his Turtle. Each time was unsuccessful. In the first attempt, the Turtle’s pilot grew exhausted from rowing the craft in the choppy seas and was only able to reach the enemy ship at daybreak so the mission was aborted. In the second attempt, the pilot could not get the corkscrew to penetrate the hardwood of the ship’s hull to attach the bomb. So he set the timer on the bomb and left it next to the ship. Unfortunately, it drifted away from the boat by the time it exploded so it only served to scare the British. In the final try, the element of surprise was lost. The British sailors spotted the Turtle before it could get near the boats.
The Turtle was a Failure, But it Launched the Age of the Submarine
After three unsuccessful attempts to blow up British warships, the Bushnell brothers retired the Turtle. Ezra Bushnell returned to farming, but David Bushnell continued working on perfecting his submarine. In time, his work was recognized by high-ranking people in the military who, like Bushnell, recognized the potential of submarine warfare. Although the Turtle was not successful at completing its missions, David Bushnell is credited with being the father of submarine warfare.
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