Today, Robert Fulton tries to build a submarine. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
David Bushnell, a student at
Yale, built a small hand-cranked submarine called the
Turtle early in the American Revolution.
He tried to blow up the English navy with it, but he
failed. Yet he planted the idea of workable
submarines in a lot of minds.
Bushnell got his idea from
the English Gentleman's Magazine in the
Yale library. One issue sketched a submarine very
much like his Turtle. He wrote a
master's thesis on the Turtle, but he
didn't publish it until 1799. Long before that, one
of Bushnell's classmates had become a close friend of
So in 1797 -- long before he built his famous
steamboat -- Fulton was to be found in France raising
money for his own submarine. The French wanted no
part of such dirty warfare. Sneaking about underwater
was not how gentlemen waged war.
When Napoleon came to power, Fulton tried another
tack. He argued that a French submarine would create
universal peace by ending naval warfare forever.
Napoleon shrewdly let Fulton use his own money to
start the work, and then he sanctioned the effort.
In his search for French funding, Fulton claimed his
machine was original. He also cursed the terrible
English who had to be destroyed. At the same time, he
sent a friend to London to see if the English would
be more receptive. To French objections about
undersea warfare, he said, "It is certainly the
gentlest and least bloody method the philosopher can
imagine to overturn war."
Fulton finished his first sub in 1800 and tried to
sink English blockade ships with it. It was a
scaled-up version of Bushnell's Turtle,
with most of the same features. Like Bushnell, he had
trouble locating an enemy ship once he was
underwater. His plan of dragging a floating mine into
a vessel as he passed under it proved to be
Finally the hope of support looked better in England.
So Fulton went to London, where he tangled in years
of negotiations with the Admiralty. How much would he
charge, for example, to keep his sub out of American
hands? By now, Bushnell's account of the
Turtle was in print, so Fulton could no
longer claim to be original.
Effective submarines had to wait for the invention of
battery-powered motors. But while Fulton was in
England, a workable steamboat was built in Scotland,
and steamboats had also been on Fulton's mind. He
finally went back to America without having ended
naval warfare. He turned his inventive energies on
Passenger steamboats, like military submarines, were,
of course, spun from the dreams of many people.
Fulton may have been willing to say whatever he
thought potential patrons wanted to hear. But in the
end, he too was dream-driven. And he finally did make
a boat so successful that it changed history.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Flexner, J.T., Steamboats Come True.
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978.
To learn what became of David Bushnell after
he built his Turtle, see Episode 638
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Artist's conception of Bushnell's
Turtle, 56 year after the fact
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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