A Revolutionary Submarine
A CHAPTER of early American maritime history that has often been overlooked is that of early submarines and, in particular, the story of the first American submarine in the War of Independence in 1776, with the American Revolution in full swing. She was called Turtle and was designed by David Bushnell (1742 – 1842).
The LITTLE EGG-SHAPED wooden submarine was held together by iron straps and bobbed like a cork in rough surface winds and seas even though she had lead weighted at the bottom. In this hand- and foot-operated contraption, one person could descend by operating a valve to admit water into the ballast tank and ascend with the use of pumps to eject the water. Two flap-type air vents at the top opened when the hatch was clear of water and closed when it was as not. The air supply lasted only 30 minutes.
The Turtle, operated by Sergeant Ezra Lee, was used in an operation tasked to sink the 64-gun British warship, the HMS Eagle, in New York Harbor on September 7, 1776. The following article describes the attack and the consequences of this operation of this first submarine in history.