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Meet the Turtle: The First Submarine Ever (Developed by American to Fight Britain)

Warfare History Network, Brandt Heatherington


A technological breakthrough

Key point: Risks lead to innovations.

The world’s first combat submarine was something of an afterthought on the part of its creator. The revolutionary craft, known as the Turtle for its odd profile, was the progeny of David Bushnell, who was born in 1742 in West Saybrook, Conn. Bushnell did not start his career as an inventor, engineer, or even as a seafarer. In fact, he was a farmer for most of his early life. Bushnell’s father passed away when he was 29, and he eventually decided to sell the family farm. At the relatively advanced age of 31, Bushnell elected to pursue a higher education and entered nearby Yale College to study mathematics.

Bushnell graduated from Yale in 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution. He was a fervent patriot who felt strongly that technology would be the key to winning the war, so he and fellow inventor and Yale intellectual Phineas Pratt set to work. The powerful British Navy would have to be dealt with in order for the Revolution to be successful, and it was apparent that America’s fledgling navy would hard-pressed using conventional tactics. One of the pair’s first concepts was an underwater bomb with a time-delayed flintlock detonator, a forerunner of modern naval mines. The idea met with considerable skepticism as to whether gunpowder could be made to explode underwater, but Bushnell successfully proved that it could. The only dilemma facing the inventors was how to deliver the mines, or “time bombs,” to their intended target. For this purpose, Bushnell and Pratt developed a one-man, hand-propelled submersible vehicle to transport their bombs to an enemy vessel. The Turtle was born.

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