Time Machine

1776 225 Years Ago

August 2017


One night in early September, in New York Harbor, a small vessel called the Turtle made the world’s first submarine attack on a warship. The pilot, Ezra Lee, was a sergeant in the Continental Army. He began by riding the tide at surface level to the vicinity of a British ship, possibly the 64-gun HMS Eagle , flagship of Adm. Richard Howe’s fleet. He then submerged and maneuvered his craft beneath the ship, using a paddle-driven propeller.

Lee tried to screw a time-fused mine into the ship’s hull, but his drill would not penetrate, perhaps because it struck an iron bracket supporting the rudder. (The failure is sometimes blamed on copper sheathing, but the drill would have penetrated that.) Running short on air—he could stay submerged for 15 to 30 minutes at most—Lee abandoned the attempt, surfaced, and paddled away. To distract the British sailors pursuing him, he released the mine, which exploded shortly after dawn to the great wonder of everyone in the vicinity. Two more unsuccessful attacks followed later in the month, and, not long afterward, the Turtle and its mother ship were sunk by the British, ending the Continentals’ submarine experiments.

The Turtle had been designed by a recent Yale graduate named David Bushnell. It was egg-shaped and about seven feet tall and rode upright in the water, weighted down with lead ballast. Water could be admitted into a chamber in the bottom to submerge and expelled with a hand pump to surface. Maneuvering, which must have been crude, was accomplished with the propeller and a rudder. A piece of funguscovered rotting wood, which gave off a soft glow known as foxfire, provided the only light inside.

After the Turtle ’s destruction, Bushnell deployed floating and tethered mines against the Royal Navy, with some success, before joining an engineering corps in 1779. Following the Revolution, he moved to Georgia, where he died in 1826. Bushnell had nothing further to do with submarines, but research on the technology continued. Although the man-powered Confederate vessel H. L. Hunley , in 1864, became the first submarine to sink a ship, it took the development of electric and internal-combustion engines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to make submarines into practical weapons of war.