Today, we look at a suprising claim about 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 created them.
Historian Alex Rowland
suggests that Colonial inventiveness was less than
it's cracked up to be. 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
Turtle. The Turtle swam
under the British ship Eagle and
fastened a charge to its copper-clad hull. When the
charge exploded, it did little or no damage, but
the potential of this new instrument of war was
made clear enough.
Still, Bushnell abandoned the Turtle a
year later, and this time he went at the British
ships moored at Philadelphia with floating mines.
Once more 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 quak-ed.
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
Rowland points out that the Colonies were very well
informed about European technology. Bushnell, it
seems, worked on the Turtle at Yale
University; and the Yale library had the
English Gentleman's Magazine -- 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 European
sketches of how submarines might be built. They
have many of the features of Bushnell's
It's all too easy to start embroidering this theme.
American successes with the steamboat, the electric
light, the Erie canal, the telegraph -- they all
followed European inventions of these technologies.
Rowland argues that the United States didn't
actually originate many major new technologies
until the 20th century.
And yet we put flesh and blood on those skeletal
ideas. Bushnell was first to put a living,
breathing man under water in combat. The confident
go-and-do-it mentality of Colonial and 19th-century
America displayed real inventiveness -- and a real
component of genius.
Do we see this drama being replayed today? Forty
years ago we sneered at Japan for making
second-rate copies of our technologies. Today, we
ask how on earth they develop our inventions so
rapidly and so well. Tommorrow, if we don't
rediscover our own childlike verve and enthusiasm
for both invention and development, we'll be
looking to Japan for seminal ideas.
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 (Frank Anderson, ed.). Hamden, CT:
Archon Books, 1966 (Facsimile of an 1881 pamphlet).
Roland, A., Bushnell's Submarine: American Original
or European Import? Technology and
Culture, Vol. 18, No. 2, April 1977, pp.
This episode has been revised as Episode 1385.
From the 1832 Edinburgh
Artist's conception of Bushnell's
Turtle, 56 year after the fact
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
Schematic diagram of a submarine from the 1747
probably based on a design by the Dutch/English
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