Today, a curious Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde story. 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.
The year is 1824. The town
is Warrenton, Georgia. Gentle Dr. Bush has just
died at the age of 82. He's lived here for 30
years. He practiced medicine for the last 20 of
those years. He also taught both religion and
science at the local Warrenton Academy.
Dr. Bush was respected, but he was a very private
man. We knew he was from New England and that he'd
lived in France before he came here. That's about
all we knew.
Now his executors are in for a surprise. First they
find wooden pieces of a submarine prototype in Dr.
Bush's workshop. His papers are even more
startling. They find that Dr. Bush wasn't really
Dr. Bush at all. He was Captain David Bushnell,
once a member of the Continental Army's Corps of
This gentle doctor was the first military submarine maker.
Bushnell began as a bookish Connecticut farmer.
When he was 29, his father died. So he sold the
farm and went to Yale. For four years he studied
science, and he built his man-powered sub.
He called his boat the Turtle because
he'd made it from two hollowed-out wooden slabs.
They looked like huge turtle shells. David
Bushnell's brother Ezra learned to pilot the
David readied the Turtle for action
against the English in 1776. Then Ezra fell ill.
David had to start from scratch.
He trained Ezra Lee, a gunnery sergeant, to sink
the English man-o-war, Eagle. Lee did
the best he could. He managed to get under the
Eagle. But when he tried to anchor the
torpedo, his drill hit an iron fitting. Dawn found
Lee exhausted. He dumped his warhead in the bay and
ran. The charge went off harmlessly. Still, the
English fleet bolted. It put to sea.
But that didn't satisfy David Bushnell. He turned
his fury and frustration on Lee. Lee fled back to
his outfit, and Bushnell tried to smuggle the
Turtle away from the British on a
sloop. An English frigate spotted the sloop and
sank it. So our first submarine came to rest at the
bottom of the sea.
Bushnell had used up his fortune by now. He
finished the Revolution designing mines. Then he
went to France to sell his submarine design. He
also failed at that. By 1795, thoroughly
disillusioned, Bushnell came back to America, to
Georgia, as Dr. Bush. He gave the rest of his life
over to teaching and healing.
It'd be another forty years before a submarine
would sink a ship -- ninety years before wholesale
slaughter would begin. Gentle Dr. Bush never had to
see the fruit of David Bushnell's bold, visionary
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Abbot, H.L., The Beginning of Modern Submarine
Warfare (Frank Anderson, ed.). Hamden, CT:
Archon Books, 1966. (A facsimile of an 1881 pamphlet)
Submarine historian Brayton
Harris offers the following interesting
footnote to the Bush-Bushnell story:
We presume that Bushnell went to France, and
may even have met with Inventor Robert Fulton who
demonstated his reasonably-practical submarine,
Nautilus, for the French at the turn
of the nineteenth Century. There is some evidence
that he may have been directly or indirectly helped
by Bushnell there or in England.
We know there had to be a pretty strong
connection because Dr. Bush's housemate in Georgia
was fellow Yale grad and former congressman/senator
Abraham Baldwin. Baldwin's brother-in-law was Yale
graduate Joel Barlow,
with whom Fulton had lived for some seven years.
Barlow and his wife had taken Fulton under their
wing while he was trying to find himself. Barlow
worked with Fulton in France, in 1797, on
perfecting a self-propelled "torpedo." Barlow
apparently helped Fulton to get a commission as a
rear admiral in the French Navy in summer of 1800
(to legitimize his planned attack on the British
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Artist's conception of Bushnell's
Turtle, 56 years after the fact
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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