Today, a new look at a Colonial technology. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Historian Alex Roland suggests
that colonial inventiveness was not exactly as we
often represent it. He begins by directing our
attention to Bushnell's invention of the submarine.
Bushnell was one of our most famous Colonial
inventors. In 1776 he built a one-man,
hand-crank-powered submarine called the
Bushnell enlisted a soldier to take the
Turtle under the British ship
Eagle and plant a charge. Once there,
the man couldn't anchor the charge to the copper-clad
hull. It exploded harmlessly in open water. But the
potential of the new weapon was clear enough.
Bushnell abandoned submarines a year later and went
after British ships moored at Philadelphia with
floating mines. Again, he was more impressive than
successful. Colonial composer Francis Hopkinson wrote
about the reaction on the British-occupied shore:
Some fire cried, which some denied,
But said the earth had quaked.
And girls and boys, with hideous noise,
Ran through the streets half-naked.
Bushnell has ever since been hailed as the father of
the submarine and as a great American technological
genius. But Roland points out that the Colonies were
well-informed about European technology. Bushnell
worked on the Turtle at Yale University,
and in the Yale Library was the English
Gentleman's Magazine. That was a kind of
18th-century Scientific American.
I've looked at the 1747 volume of the Gentleman's
Magazine, and, sure enough, there's a short
article with sketches of European ideas as to how a
submarine might be built. It shows all the essential
features of Bushnell's Turtle.
It becomes easy to embroider this theme. American
successes with the steamboat, the electric light, the
telephone and the telegraph -- they all followed
European inventions of those technologies. Roland
argues, and most historians agree, that the United
States didn't actually originate significant major
new technologies until the twentieth century.
Yet Americans put flesh and blood on those skeletal
ideas. Bushnell was first to put a man under water in
combat. The confident go-and-do-it mentality of
Colonial and 19th-century America was infused with a
different kind of inventiveness. It carried its own
component of genius.
Lately we've seen this drama replayed. Just after
WW-II, we sneered at Japan for making second-rate
copies of our technologies. By the 1980s we were
asking how on earth they developed Western inventions
so rapidly and so well. Now original new ideas are
coming out of Japan. I hope we've caught on to the
need for regaining that raw, driving, adaptive
Colonial mind in our modern technologies. We must, of
course, if we don't want to see the twilight of
American technical greatness.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Abbot, H. L., Beginning of Modern Submarine
Warfare. (facsimile of an 1881 pamphlet, Frank
Anderson, ed.) Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1966.
Roland, A., Bushnell's Submarine: American Original
or European Import?, Technology and Culture,
Vol. 18, No. 2, April 1977, pp. 157-174.
For more on early submarines, including the Turtle,
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Artist's conception of Bushnell's
Turtle, 56 year after the fact
Note added August 7, 2017: Wikipedia now has an
excellent article about Busnell's Turtle
which includes this scale model of the machine.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
Schematic diagram of a submarine from the 1747
taken from a sketch by Denis
Papin based on a design by the Dutch/English
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.