Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Think the U-boat was the beginning of submarine warfare? Think again

19th-century diagram of the Turtle (from A History Of Sea Power by William Oliver Stevens, Allan Westcott, Allan Ferguson Westcott published by G. H. Doran company, 1920)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Turtle (submersible)

A replica of the Turtle, at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Museum and Library in Groton, CT. (Wikipedia/divemasterking2000; https://goo.gl/xZ03N2)

What it’s about: War rages around the world. Britain has the world’s greatest navy, but it faces a perilous threat from beneath the waves. The leader of a rival nation has at his command a ship that can pass unseen and unheard underwater, bringing death at any moment. Hitler? The Kaiser? Sub-Mariner? Close. It was George Washington. Yes, one of the Revolutionary War’s lesser-known fronts was fought under the sea, as the colonies tried to put the world’s first submarine—the Turtle—into battle.

Strangest fact: The greatest inventor of the era—Ben Franklin—could have had a hand in the Turtle’s design, but blew it off. First-year Yale student David Bushnell had already had success experimenting with underwater explosives (which puts the freshman year you spent getting high and playing Call Of Duty into some perspective), but he needed some help for the delivery system.


A few years after he finished school, Bushnell successfully created an explosive charge that would detonate underwater. But he needed the help of clock-maker Isaac Doolittle to build a manned submersible that would attach the charge to the hull of a ship, using a musket’s firing mechanism to detonate. He reached out repeatedly to Franklin, particularly with the instrument panel—it was lit with foxfire, a bioluminescent fungus, but the illumination failed in the cold. Franklin ignored the project, and no solution was found except to only use the ship in warm weather.

Biggest controversy: There were so many conflicting reports about the Turtle; even now it’s hard to know what’s true. While Bushnell tried to work in secret, his entreaties to Franklin drew some notice, and both sides fighting the war became aware of his project. A British spy reported that the Turtle was already in Boston harbor and ready to attack, when in fact it was still being tested in a river.


When the sub was put into action, the pilot reported a massive explosion, but the British recorded no explosion and no attack, and one modern British historian claims the Turtle never existed and was in fact a rowboat. (The British would say that)

Thing we were happiest to learn: Despite being very low-tech by modern standards, the ship actually worked. The world’s first submarine was essentially a barrel—a round wooden frame, sealed with tar and reinforced with steel bands. The Turtle was barely bigger than its sole occupant, had only 30 minutes’ worth of air, and sailed at a blistering 3 mph. It dove by filling up with water and rose again when either water was pumped out of the ship or some of its 200 pounds of lead ballast was dropped. The water pump and propellers were all turned by hand. But it all worked. And on the night of September 6, 1776, the Turtle glided under the surface of New York Harbor (the British had already been driven out of Boston) and went on the attack.

Another Turtle replica, from the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. (Wikipedia/Geni)

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The attack failed. The Turtle, piloted by Sgt. Ezra Lee, was dispatched to bomb Adm. Richard Howe’s flagship, the HMS Eagle. The sub successfully snuck up on the Eagle, but Lee was unable to attach the explosive charge. It was designed to be screwed into the wooden hull of the ship, but the drill hit solid metal—probably an iron plate that held the rudder in place. With limited air, he had to return to shore. On the way, British soldiers spotted the sub and rowed out to investigate, so Lee abandoned the charge (again, he claims it exploded; the British made no record of that).


A month later, Lee tried again, with a different ship as the target, but the ship’s watch spotted the Turtle, and he again aborted the mission. Four days later, the larger ship that deployed Turtle was sunk by the British, and the sub was lost.

A cutaway replica of the Nautilus, from la Cité de la Mer (City of the Sea), Cherbourg, France. (Wikipedia/Ji-Elle)

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The Turtle was only the first of many submersibles from the pre-industrial era. The steampunk-sounding hand-cranked submarines page links to several, including the Nautilus from 1800, which was named after Jules Verne’s fictional submarine from 30 years earlier and “considered to be the first practical submarine” (emphasis mine on Wikipedia’s bit of shade toward the Turtle); Confederate submarine the Bayou St. John; Union counterpart the Alligator; and the wonderfully named “intelligent whale.”

Further down the Wormhole: The Turtle did not strike the blow to the United Kingdom’s naval power that Washington hoped. In fact, the U.K. maintained worldwide naval superiority for well over a century afterward and still have a military presence on remote outposts including Gibraltar, Singapore, the Falklands, and Cyprus. That eastern Mediterranean island has long combined neighboring Greek, Turkish, and Arabic cultures and has a long tradition of folk music, featuring instruments like the bouzouki, violin, and lute. While popular in antiquity, the lute fell out of favor until it was revived in the 20th century, in large part due to efforts of Soviet composer Vladimir Vavilov, who was also known for perpetrating several musical hoaxes. These hoaxes generally involve a piece of music written by one person masquerading as someone else. We’ll try to uncover some of those perpetrators when we look at a list of musical hoaxes next week.


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