Today, we talk about fantasy, reality, and
submarines. 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.
In 1870, Jules Verne wrote
about his Nautilus submarine in
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
He gave us a great yarn; but submarines go back long
before Jules Verne. Quite a lot of subs had been
built by 1870. One had even sunk an enemy ship.
The dream of traveling the ocean deeps is as old as
it is powerful. That fascination hangs over the story
of Jonah. It fuels the legend of Atlantis. It drives
our literature in every age. Greeks and Romans wrote
about diving bells, and so did medieval writers. An
English inventor described a workable submarine in
A Dutch inventor finally built several oar-driven
subs in the early 1600s. And by the early 1700s,
England had issued at least 14 patents for
submarines. During the American Revolution, Bushnell
built his Turtle submarine and tried to
sink a British warship. By then he was using an
established technology. The Turtle was
hand-powered, and so too was Fulton's submarine a few
When the German builder Wilhelm Bauer made two large
submarines in the 1850s, they were still man-powered.
Bauer sold his subs to the Russians, and he did so
with a fine sense of theater. In 1856 he put one
under Kronstadt Harbor with a small orchestra in it.
Men in the ships at anchor that day heard the Russian
National Anthem welling up from the ocean floor.
For a while submarine builders tried to use steam
engines, but their fires drank air at a terrible
rate. You had to either pull air through a breathing
pipe or build a head of steam in the boiler and then
run on it with the fire put out. Although that never
worked for more than a few minutes, the Confederate
military did build a series of fifty-foot-long
cigar-shaped steam-driven submarines. However, it was
their human-powered Hunley that actually
sank the Union sloop Housatonic in 1864.
Practical submarines had to wait for the invention of
compact batteries and electric motors. After the
French started that technology in the 1880s, it
didn't take long for Jules Verne's dream to become a
nightmare. In a few years the slaughter of commercial
shipping was a routine part of war.
Yet the dream revives when submarines turn the sunken
Titanic from a memory into reality --
when you and I can ride sight-seeing submarines
through landscapes that might have been imagined by a
madman. Most of the earth's surface and most of its
living beings make up that fantastic world. We'd be
impoverished indeed if that great unknown didn't
drive us to risk, and to invention.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Encyclopaedia Britannica article on
Jensen, A., Why the Best Technology for Escaping from
a Submarine is No Technology. American Heritage
of Invention and Technology, Summer 1986, pp.
Image courtesy of Sims McCutchan
Stereopticon photos of some of the first American
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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