Today, we invent the submarine, against all odds.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Turtle was the first submarine used in
war. His one-man, hand-cranked machine did little
harm to the English in 1776, but it made the point.
One person who got the point was Robert Fulton.
Years later, he made a submarine for the French and
tried without success to sink the enemy with it.
During the Civil War, the Confederacy made a far
more serious, far more desperate, try at submarine
warfare. They launched a boat called the
David in 1862 and sent it at the Union
Goliaths. David wasn't a pure
submarine, but it came close. Civil War ironclads
had lowered themselves further and further down
into the protective water. Some exposed only inches
of hull. The steam-driven David
couldn't burn fuel to make steam if it was fully
submerged. Its fire burned too much air. So her
smokestack and breathing tube protruded above the
David's claim to the title submarine
is flimsy, but her offensive weapon was a spar
torpedo. A long underwater pole held an explosive
charge out in front. The trick was to ram it into
the enemy and hope you suffered less damage than he
The David attacked a Union ironclad
and managed to blow a hole in its side. But the
hole was above the waterline and the ship survived.
The South built twenty more Davids,
and some of them damaged Union boats.
The first real submarine was the Confederate
Hunley. It was made from a steam
boiler forty feet long and less than four feet in
diameter. An eight-man crew turned a hand-cranked
propeller in that terrible small space. A single
candle served two purposes. It cast some light, of
course. It also warned the crew by flickering out
when too little oxygen was left.
The Hunley's weapon was also a spar
torpedo. The South hurled it into battle over and
over. Crews died again and again during dives.
Finally, in 1864, the Hunley sank the
ironclad Union sloop Housatonic. But
it never came back to the surface from that Pyhrric
victory. That was the first time a sub destroyed an
enemy ship. It was also the last until this
The Union made only one submarine. They called it
the Intelligent Whale, but they didn't
use it in combat. Perhaps that was a tribute to the
Whale's intelligence. They also bought
a French submarine, the Alligator.
They lost it at sea in 1862.
So the Civil War was the great proving ground for
modern submarines. The South scored one victory and
paid a kamikaze price in human life. But who
notices that in the full flush of either battle --
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gibbons, T., Warships and Naval Battles of the
Civil War. New York: Gallery Books, 1989.
Photo by John Lienhard
Replica of the Hunley in Charleston
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Photo of a display at the Dallas
Museum of Art
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