The Attack of the Turtle
A man of scientific vision, in the early 1770’s David Bushnell was only a college freshman, yet he was developing ideas that were centuries ahead of his time. In between his college studies at Yale, Bushnell studied two revolutionary subjects; underwater explosives and submersible vehicles. By 1775 he had developed two new important inventions, a explosive mine that could be detonated underwater, and a functioning submarine named the Turtle. The Turtle was a submersible built from watertight wooden planks and reinforced steel bands. It was a very small submarine, only large enough for one person. Atop the Turtle were six glass windows which provided natural light. In case it was dark, all of the instruments of the Turtle were covered in foxfire, the ooze from a certain type of fungus which glowed in the dark. The Turtle was propelled forwards and vertically by two hand cranked propellers and steered with a rudder. A water tank filled by a hand pump served as ballast, as well as 200 pounds of lead weight. In calm waters, the Turtle could swim around three miles an hour. It only had enough air for a thirty minute journey.
Bushnell intended to use the Turtle and his explosives to attack British warships that were blockading American ports during the American Revolution. Thus Bushnell and his invention caught the attention of Gen. George Washington in 1776, who provided funding for the testing and preparation of the Turtle. The plan was to stealthily enter a harbor, sneak up on an expecting warship, bore a hole into it’s hull with which to attach a charge of timed explosives, then swim out of the way before the warship exploded. Bushnell himself could not pilot the sub, as he suffered from a number of debilitating illnesses. Instead, three volunteers from the Continental Army stepped forward to conduct the daring mission.
On the night of Sept. 6th, 1776, the Turtle, piloted by Sgt. Ezra Lee, quietly swam in New York Harbor and approached the British flagship HMS Eagle. Coming up against her hull, the Turtle went unnoticed as it bored a small hole in the warship’s hull. However he was not able to drill into the hull as he struck a large iron plate. Abandoning the attempt due to low oxygen, he made his way to safety but was followed by the British in a rowboat. Releasing his explosives, the British turned back to avoid being blown up.
Although the attack by the Turtle failed, it would go down in history as the first act of submarine warfare. On October 9th, Sgt. Lee and the Turtle tried again, this time targeting a British frigate near Manhattan. Again, the attempt failed when British lookouts spotted the submarine and open fire on it, forcing it to retreat. Some days later, the British found the Turtle’s anchorage in New Jersey, sinking it and the barge it operated from.
After the sinking of the Turtle, Bushnell was made a captain in the Continental Army, although he never saw combat. Instead, he built his famous “Bushnell mines”, naval mines which were deployed in ports all over the colonies and became the terror of besieging British warships. Bushnell claimed to have salvaged the Turtle after the war, however its fate remains unknown.