The History of Submarines: From Science to Stealth

Submarines have been a common feature in navies around the world for over a century, but their invention goes back many centuries before the era of modern conflict.

May 4, 2023By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History
history of submarines

 

With an emphasis on the most extreme forms of silence and stealth, most submarines stalk their prey deep below the surface of the world’s oceans, conducting military operations in utmost secrecy.

 

In other fields, submarines are science vessels, plumbing the deepest reaches of the sea and collecting data to expand our knowledge of the aquatic realms. They are versatile machines that can also be used for salvage and rescue operations.

 

The image we have in our mind of submarines is a far cry from their first incarnations. Here is the history of submarines, from little wooden spheres to the high-strength alloyed steel of today’s cylindrical behemoths.

 

The Earliest Submarines

submarine history cornelis drebbel
An illustration showing a Cornelis Drebbel submarine, via History

 

The earliest use of submersibles goes back surprisingly far, although the stories are legends and cannot be verified. The Mughal poet Amir Khusrau, almost two thousand years after the event, described through illustration how Alexander the Great descended into the sea via a diving bell during the Siege of Tyre in 332 BCE.

 

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In 1578, the Englishman William Bourne designed a prototype for a submarine, but it is unknown if the submersible was ever built. The design was for an enclosed wooden boat covered in leather. It would have been mechanically complex for the time and included screw threads, adjustable plungers, and cranksets.

 

The first confirmed building of a submarine comes from 1620, with a submersible designed and built by Cornelis Drebbel, a Dutchman in the service of King James I of England. His device used oars to steer, and between 1630 and 1624, two improved versions were tested in the River Thames. These submarines were highly advanced for the time and went beyond the accepted limits of scientific capability at the time. Drebbel made use of a quicksilver barometer to measure depth and utilized a chemical process involving saltpeter to refresh the air and provide oxygen.

 

Later that century, Frenchman Denis Pain designed and built two submarines, the first being a square shape which was accidentally destroyed, and the second being an oval shape. Both were made of metal. It wasn’t long before numerous inventors started patenting their own designs, and it was clear that submarines could have a military application.

 

The Submarines of the 18th & 19th Centuries

submarine history the turtle
A cutaway model of The Turtle used in 1776, via maritimecyprus.com

 

Yefim Nikonov built the first military submarine in 1720 on the orders of Peter the Great of Russia. The vessel was designed to approach an enemy ship undetected and launch a combustible mixture at the target via tubes that ran to the water’s surface. Nikonov also included an airlock in his submarine design. The project, however, was canceled due to the death of Peter the Great in 1725.

 

In 1776, America built its first submarine, named The Turtle. It was a small design and made use of a screw that was intended to bore holes into the hull of the enemy ship. The Turtle was supposedly employed in 1776 against the HMS Eagle, but there are no British records of the attack. It has been suggested that the story was either an extreme exaggeration or a complete work of fiction.

 

The French built the first successful combat submarine in 1800 after a design provided by an American engineer, Robert Fulton. The submarine was called the Nautilus and proved successful in combat trials, but the project was nevertheless abandoned.

 

submarine history plongeur
Plongeur was the first submarine that used mechanical power. It measured 146 feet in length; via mnm.webmuseo.com

 

Various experiments with submarines continued throughout the 19th century. In 1834, the Russians built the first rocket-equipped submarines. In 1837, Submarino Hipopótamo was the first submarine built in South America and was successfully tested in Ecuador, but the project was canceled due to a lack of interest from the government.

 

In 1850, Bavarian inventor and engineer Wilhelm Bauer built the Brandtaucher, a submarine designed to end the Danish blockade of Germany. Funding restrictions forced the Brandtaucher to be smaller and less capable than was originally envisioned, which was a possible contribution to the failure which led to its sinking. All three crew members escaped, and the submarine was later retrieved and is now the oldest submarine still in existence.

 

In 1863, the French built the first submarine, Plongeur, which did not rely on human power for propulsion. Instead, it used compressed air. Plongeur, however, was difficult to handle and was not very maneuverable.

 

Launched in 1864 and originally human-powered, the Ictineo II was built by Catalan inventor Narcís Monturiol. In 1867 the sub was retrofitted to become the first submarine powered by a combustion engine.

 

During the American Civil War, both the Union and the Confederacy used submarines. The Confederate H.L. Hunley was the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel. Between 1863 and 1866, The Sub Marine Explorer was built by German-American engineer Julius H. Kroehl. This submarine was the first to have modern features, such as a lock-out chamber that addressed the problems of pressure stabilization and crew safety. It could dive over 31 meters, deeper than any other submarine had dived before.

 

submarine history nordenfelt ii
The Nordenfelt II was sold to the Ottoman Empire and renamed Abdülhamid, via mavivatan.net

 

In South America, the Chilean government used a submarine in its war against Spain, but the vessel sank with all 11 crew members. In 1879, The Peruvians also built an 11-man submarine during the war against Chile. This submarine was scuttled to avoid being captured.

 

From 1878, submarine builders started looking towards steam to power their creations. The first experiments were filled with problems and created excessive amounts of heat, but the Swedish industrialist Thorsten Nordenfelt bought into the idea and produced successively refined versions named Nordenfelt I, II, and III. They carried a single torpedo each. The culmination of Nordenfelt’s efforts was the Nordenfelt IV which had twin motors and was armed with two torpedoes.

 

u boot world war 1
A German U-Boat attack on a British commercial liner by Willy Stöwer, 1915, via the-past.com

 

By the 1880s, electric battery technology had made propulsion systems in submarines far more reliable. With the addition of combustion engines, submarines finally became a viable option for navies to field in large numbers. Diesel was used when the submarine was on the surface. This charged the battery, which was then used when the vessel was submerged. This combination of diesel-electric is still common today in many submarine designs.

 

By the start of World War I, all the Great Powers had submarine fleets, which would play a pivotal role in the war.

 

Submarines in the Two World Wars

submarine history u boat
A Type VII-C U-Boat, via wonderlandmodels.com

 

At the beginning of the First World War, with 74 vessels, Britain had the world’s biggest submarine fleet. The Germans, on the other hand, only had 20, but many more were under construction. Germany also had a much smaller surface fleet and, as such, put an increased value on its submarines which it called “U-Boats.”  They achieved much success against allied shipping until the introduction of convoys, including military vessels, to counter the danger of U-Boats.

 

Learning from their successes in World War I, the Germans put great emphasis on U-Boat warfare in World War II. Again, they enjoyed great successes against Allied shipping in the Atlantic. They introduced the “wolfpack” tactic, which saw submarines stalking and hunting their prey, calling in larger “packs” of U-Boats to attack the target. By the end of the war, the Germans had built well over a thousand U-Boats.

 

Learning from the Germans, the Americans also achieved great success with their submarine fleet against the Japanese in the Pacific.

 

Submarines Since World War II

submarine history typhoon
A Russian Typhoon Class submarine, via thedrive.com

 

The end of World War II brought the world into a new atomic age defined by the ideological differences between the United States and the Soviet Union as the two main belligerents during the Cold War.

 

Technological advancements led military submarines to become not just dangerous to ships. Submarines became missile platforms, able to launch a variety of missiles, including Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) armed with nuclear warheads. Their propulsion also became nuclear, which was quieter than diesel-electric engines.

 

Technological developments also allowed oxygen to be distilled from seawater, and distillation processes turned seawater potable. As a result, submarines are now able to stay submerged for months at a time, with the only limitations being food and morale.

 

Modern military submarines have also grown considerably in size. With a length of 574 feet and two inches (175 meters) and a beam of 75 feet and six inches (23 meters), the Russian Typhoon class submarine is the biggest in the world.

 

During the Falklands War in 1982, the HMS conqueror became the first nuclear-powered submarine to sink another ship and the first submarine to do so since World War II. The target was the light cruiser ARA General Belgrano of the Argentinian Navy. Three hundred twenty-three lives were lost in the sinking of this ship.

 

As world politics become increasingly strained, the emphasis on military submarines is increasing even further.

 

submarine history kursk memorial
A monument to the victims of the Kursk disaster, via bellona.org

 

The nature of submarines also means that there have been several disasters that have befallen these vehicles. None of them are pleasant for the crew involved. In 2000, the Russian submarine Kursk sank to the bottom of the Barents sea. All 118 crew died in what has become the worst submarine disaster in history.

 

On other fronts, however, submarines have proved their worth as well. In 2019, Victor Vescovo piloted his submarine, DSV Limiting Factor, to 35,849 feet (10,927 meters) below the surface. The journey was conducted in the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean. This was the deepest dive, but not the first time a submersible had reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard achieved the feat in 1960 for the US Navy. Director James Cameron also managed to reach the bottom in 2012 in the Deepsea Challenger. At the very bottom of the lowest point of the sea, Victor Vescovo discovered a plastic bag.

 

submarine history limiting factor
The DSV Limiting Factor, which took Victor Vescovo to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, via hackaday.com

 

Military and scientific needs have considerable use for these vessels, and submarines are sure to be prowling the world’s oceans for many years to come. In the military sphere, submarines are getting far more dangerous as they become faster and quieter, and their ordnance becomes deadlier.

 

In the realms of science, however, tougher building materials and more sensitive equipment mean that submarines will be plumbing the depths and venturing far beyond the current limits of human exploration.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African History and prolific author of over 100 articles, with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.