Skip to main content
No. 381:
Civil War Submarine

Today, we invent the submarine, against all odds. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Bushnell's Turtle was the first submarine used in war. His one-man, hand-cranked machine did little harm to the English in 1776, but it made the point. One person who got the point was Robert Fulton. Years later, he made a submarine for the French and tried without success to sink the enemy with it.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy made a far more serious, far more desperate, try at submarine warfare. They launched a boat called the David in 1862 and sent it at the Union Goliaths. David wasn't a pure submarine, but it came close. Civil War ironclads had lowered themselves further and further down into the protective water. Some exposed only inches of hull. The steam-driven David couldn't burn fuel to make steam if it was fully submerged. Its fire burned too much air. So her smokestack and breathing tube protruded above the surface.

David's claim to the title submarine is flimsy, but her offensive weapon was a spar torpedo. A long underwater pole held an explosive charge out in front. The trick was to ram it into the enemy and hope you suffered less damage than he did.

The David attacked a Union ironclad and managed to blow a hole in its side. But the hole was above the waterline and the ship survived. The South built twenty more Davids, and some of them damaged Union boats.

The first real submarine was the Confederate Hunley. It was made from a steam boiler forty feet long and less than four feet in diameter. An eight-man crew turned a hand-cranked propeller in that terrible small space. A single candle served two purposes. It cast some light, of course. It also warned the crew by flickering out when too little oxygen was left.

The Hunley's weapon was also a spar torpedo. The South hurled it into battle over and over. Crews died again and again during dives. Finally, in 1864, the Hunley sank the ironclad Union sloop Housatonic. But it never came back to the surface from that Pyhrric victory. That was the first time a sub destroyed an enemy ship. It was also the last until this century.

The Union made only one submarine. They called it the Intelligent Whale, but they didn't use it in combat. Perhaps that was a tribute to the Whale's intelligence. They also bought a French submarine, the Alligator. They lost it at sea in 1862.

So the Civil War was the great proving ground for modern submarines. The South scored one victory and paid a kamikaze price in human life. But who notices that in the full flush of either battle -- or invention?

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Gibbons, T., Warships and Naval Battles of the Civil War. New York: Gallery Books, 1989.


Photo by John Lienhard

Replica of the Hunley in Charleston


Photo of a display at the Dallas Museum of Art