Ten important dates in submarine history


To read a comprehensive history of submarines would take hours of your time, so instead here we have provided a quick summary of some of the pivotal moments in submarine history:

1578: the idea of an underwater boat is thought to have been contemplated as early as the 16th Century as a method of approaching the enemy during battle without being seen, allowing one’s navy to seemingly emerge out of nowhere. Despite many similar ideas occurring during the Middle Ages, the first prototype is believed to have been created by an Englishman called William Bourne in 1578. Essentially it was a wooden vessel cloaked in waterproof leather that could be rowed within water​

1648: in this period, engineers increasingly recognised the military potential of these vessels. Bishop John Wilkins of Chester reported in his book, Mathematical Magick, the privacy and potential safety that a submarine might bring in comparison to a conventional boat. An enemy who could not see one’s army approaching could easily be blown up unexpectedly.

1776: the first military submarine, the Turtle (right), was designed by an American Yale graduate called David Bushnell. Its name came from its appearance which resembled a turtle floating vertically. The invention was a hand-powered device which used screws to propel it through the water. It worked via a foot-controlled valve which opened to allow enough water in so that it would sink but close once it was beneath the surface and then be driven by two propellers.

1800: Robert Fulton, a member of the French Navy, built a human-powered submarine called the Nautilus, an elongated version of the Turtle with a larger propeller. He used it to make several (unsuccessful) attempted attacks on the British navy. A sail was used on the surface as a form of dual propulsion.

1863: the first submarine that did not use human propulsion was introduced in the form of French Naval submarine, the Plongeur. Unfortunately it proved to be difficult to manage underwater, providing poor space and being tricky to control.

1867: Narcis Monturiol invented the first air-independent, combustion-powered submarine. Initially propelled by human beings, it was developed so that it converted peroxide propulsion into steam. It held two people and could be underwater for up to 2 hours. The process that drove it released oxygen into the main body of the craft so that the crew could breathe. A type of steam engine was used which solved problems with stability that had occurred with previous inventions.

1878: British born George Garrett built a 14-foot submarine named Resurgam which he developed further the following year. Made of iron, with the central section covered in wood, it was 45 feet long and a steam engine propelled it for up to 4 hours. Although it was flawed – it became too hot inside because of the steam boiler – Swedish industrialist Thorsten Nordenfelt noticed it and together they developed it into the first steam-powered submarines which could use torpedoes in the event of war.

1914: in the early 1900s Diesel Electric propulsion became commonplace and useful accessories such as the periscope were installed onto most submarines. By the beginning of the Great War the Royal Navy had more submarines than any other navy in the world, with 74 altogether; a huge number in comparison to the Germans’ 20. These modern submarines could travel 2500 nautical miles. With massive improvements to armament, they were designed to be resilient and to allow wireless transmittance.

End of 20th Century: some submarines were fitted with pump-jet propulsors rather than propellers; although heavier and more expensive, they were much quieter than traditional propellers which meant a greater advantage over the enemy.

World War II: during the Battle of the Atlantic the German navy attempted to cut off Britain’s supply routes by sinking British ships so that British access to food and industry was dramatically reduced. Famously, Germany communicated using the German Enigma cipher machine (before Turing successfully cracked it). For the first few years Germany’s U-boats enjoyed unprecedented success at sea but were eventually tackled with developments in radio technology and the Enigma Machine.

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