Posts Tagged ‘Turtle Submarine’

A Revolutionary War Requires a Revolutionary Submarine!

And now for something completely different... | Posted by Rebekah
Jul 04 2015

In order to get this done by the 4th I had to forgo the pictures.  I’ll add those soon. For my American readers: Happy Independence Day!  For my international readers, I hope you had a good Saturday!  RJH.

In 1776, the British blockaded New York Harbor. It looked like a forest of trees sprouted just offshore.  The message was clear: nobody in, nobody out, without the King’s men knowing.  New York, and everyone it in, belonged to the crown, and soon everyone else rebelling against the crown’s authority would be forcefully reminded of that fact.

But an audacious plan, with an equally bizzare-looking boat had been hatched. Theflagship of this armada, the Eagle, would be sunk from a timed bomb beneath the water. A new invention, a new weapon, a new method of warfare in what was now, a new country. Many hopes were pinned on the tiny ship, and its new, volunteer pilot. Everything about her, from her construction to her weapon, was invented by one man.

David Bushnell, who wanted to avoid all fame and acclaim for his work.


Bushnell, and his Brother

Born to Connecticut farmers Niamiah and Sarah Bushnell in 1740, David Bushnell was quickly followed by four siblings.  As the oldest, and as was customary at the time, David shouldered a large amount of farm chores as he grew. But David wasn’t the farming type. The boy loved books and machines and any sort of mechanical works he could get his hands on (and probably drove his father crazy taking things apart.)

By all accounts, David was a quiet, introspective, though determined boy. He wanted to go to college, and worked at a shipyard in addition to his family’s farm to make money.

By the time he was 31, he was still at home in Old Saybrook. His father had died five years earlier, followed soon by two of his sisters. His mother remarried, and moved to her new husband’s home, leaving the Bushnell farm to David and his brother Ezra. (I have been unable to find the fate of the fifth sibling, or the names of the sisters. If anyone knows, feel free to contact me or leave a comment!)

David sold his half of the farm to Ezra, and with his savings, finally entered Yale. He was, by far, the oldest freshman there.

At this time, Yale students studied religion, history, natural sciences, mathematics, and a variety of subjects. Bushnell loved science in all its forms, and tried to figure out whether gunpowder could be detonated underwater. The only place to experiment was the school pond—and he apparently terrified a number of onlookers. Shortly after that, he figured out how to create a bomb triggered by a clock, which could be set to blow at a pre-determined time.  The timed bomb had been born.

Bushnell’s senior year was cut short by a little event now called The Battles of Lexington and Concord. While his former classmates enlisted, Bushnell believed he could use his inventions to sink the enemy ships that were continually arriving, if he could invent an underwater delivery device.

An Underwater Turtle

Diving bells, raised and lowered by ropes and winches, were already known. What the Bushnell boys were looking for was a vessel that could raise and sink and move independently.  David’s shipbuilding skills would come in handy, but there were a number of special problems this underwater ship would have that weren’t even touched on the sailing ships David knew!

After all, making a watertight hull was one thing: how to you read depth? And once you invent a depth gauge, how do you make it so you can see it in the dark underwater?

Once David and Ezra figured out how to attach two oars to make a device “that looked like the arms of a windmill” to propel the submarine (one of the first propellers!) , they had to figure out, how do you create water-tight bearings so the man inside can turn it?

How do you get air without opening your hatch? A snorkel complete with self-closing valve that worked to seal the snorkel once submerged.

They decided to use water as ballast, and invented a system of ballast valves and pumps to let water in or out. (Though, according to some records, the “ballast tank” was simply the bottom of the sub, and at times, the ballast splashed around the pilot’s legs as high as his knees! The Atlantic near Connecticut isn’t that warm even in summer!)

They found the depth gauge theorized by a previous inventor actually worked when constructed

The added six small portholes for the pilot’s use—though they still had limited use in the dark or underwater!

They even created an anchor that had a safety feature: if the craft became too heavy, the pilot could sever the anchor’s rope from the inside.  Free of the extra weight, the boat would be buoyant enough to surface.

It was an interesting little craft, all invented to attach a timed gunpowder keg to the hull of a ship.

As the craft looked like two turtle shells glued together,, the Bushnells called the craft “The American Turtle”. By this time, three more men, clockmakers Isaac Doolittle of New Haven and Phineas Pratt of Potapaug (modern Essex) and Dr. Benjamin Gale were in on the construction project. Without the clockmaker’s skills in crafting the machinery, it’s possible the Turtle would have remained forever in Ezra’s shack.

Ben Franklin Provides the Fire

How the Turtle came to the attention of the Continental Army is another story. Turned out, Dr. Gale had a good friend who was coming through the area in October 1775. His name was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin saw the potential of the Turtle, and is, by some accounts, the man who suggested attaching small pieces of a bioluminescent fungi known as foxfire to the various gauges, so you could see them in the dark. (The only problem Bushnell found was the foxfire stopped glowing once they got too cold…like when the Turtle was deep underwater for a long period of time!)

The Turtle was operated by Ezra Bushnell, more muscular and capable of long, hard work. Ezra, thankfully, was also dexterous. With winches and gears in multiple places, a man sometimes had to spin two different winches in opposite directions on two different axis to work the Turtle.

It was now the summer of 1776, and the Declaration of Independence had been officially signed. The colonies were in too deep now—either win, or be condemned as traitors. Under General Howe, Manhattan Island and Long Island were under military control. General Washington decided to try the Turtle to take out Howe’s flagship Eagle.

Turtle was taken overland to the harbor, to avoid the British. Through spy networks, Admiral Howe had already heard about Turtle’s existence, but thought the Turtle was heading to Boston, not New York.  They were not looking for the Turtle in New York’s Waters.

Hopes were high…so you know, things didn’t go smoothly.

The Eagle Mission

The scourge of the the Revolution struck.

Not the British.


Depending on the statistics used, between 50-100% more Continentals were lost to disease than to battle during the Revolution.

Ezra Bushnell came down with a terrible feverish disease, possibly “camp fever” or epidemic Typhoid, and people were not sure he would survive, much less pilot anything. A replacement had to be found.

Bushnell asked General Samuel Parsons, stationed with his men in Brooklyn, for volunteers. He suggested his brother-in-law, Ezra Lee.

Lee trained with the Turtle, and on September 6, took her out for the Eagle mission. In Lee’s words, things didn’t start so well:

“We set off from the City, the Whale boats towed me as nigh the ships as they dare go, and then they cast me off. I soon found that I was too early in the tide, as it carried me down to the [transport] ships. I however, hove about, and rowed for 5 glasses [2½ hours], by the ship’s bells, before the tide slackened so that I could get along side the man of war, which lay above the transports.”

Two and a half hours of treading water just to keep from being swept away…these men were tough.

Once he got alongside the Eagle, Lee discovered Turtle’s drill, that was supposed to help attach the depth charge, couldn’t get through something on Eagle’s hull. Some sources say that it was Eagle’s copper sheathing. Others say she had no such sheathing, but Lee might have accidentally found Eagle’s stern rudder plate.

Of all the rotten luck.

Lee backed up, and tried another section, but now he’d caught the eye of a group of British in a small, rowed boat. They didn’t know what this bizarre thing was, but they didn’t like it. There was no way Lee could outrun the boat, so he took off, releasing the time bomb in his wake. He hoped that, if they took him and the Turtle “..they would likewise pick up the magazine, and then we should all be blown up together…”

The watch didn’t know what that small barrel was, but they didn’t want to tamper with it. They gave it a wide berth, and were no doubt grateful when the timer ended and it blew!

Lee and the Turtle tried to sink another boat on October 5, but it too, was unsuccessful, since the sailors spotted him before he got to his target.  The Turtle was ultimately lost a short time later when the British sank two ships near Fort Lee. One carried wine. The other carried the Turtle.

David Bushnell was not done. He still had his underwater mines, which he called “torpedoes” and decided to set them afloat in strategic areas, using the current to let them drift to enemy ships. He used this technique in 1777 to blow the HMS Cerberus up. The next year, he continued to use the floating mines with enough success that the Royal Navy into ordered all floating wood in the rivers had to be shot at, just to be on the safe side!

During the war, David Bushnell remained with the Continental Army, eventually becoming a Captain.  The National Archives even preserved some of his pay stubs, which just goes to show, no matter how young a military unit it, the first thing they sort out after their founding, is their paperwork!

After the War

Ezra returned home, no one seems to know when.  He died in 1786, three years after the Revolution ended. He married and had children, and tended the family farm.

David Bushnell returned to Connecticut for a short time after the war. His neighbors apparently regarded him with that mixture of hometown pride and quiet laughter over their sadly-slightly-looney-local-mad-scientist.

He went to France, to try and promote submarines like Turtle, but there were no takers. It was still too much ahead of its time. From there, Bushnell disappeared.

During his life and the Revolution, he tried to deflect fame and notoriety as much as he could. Outside of his community, few knew about his unique contributions to the Revolution. The first large, public publicity he had was a speech Thomas Jefferson gave at the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia in 1798. But Bushnell wasn’t there to hear it. Some said he had been a victim of the French Revolution, now raging in Europe. There were many rumors about his fate, each as true as the next.

Truth, as many a storyteller knows, especially historian-storytellers, is more often than not, stranger than fiction.

The Kindly Doctor…Who?

In 1826, the town of Warrenton Georgia, mourned the passing of old Dr. Bush. He’d been living among them since the late 1790s, and had worked to incorporate the town, worked as a commissioner, founded a school, and practiced medicine. A confirmed bachelor, he was quiet, kind, unassuming, and well respected by the whole town. He had no family anyone knew of, so his friends were very interested in Dr. Bush’s will to see how they should break up his estate.

That’s when Dr. Bush sprang the best surprise of his life. He revealed in his will his birth name: David Bushnell of Connecticut. The well known inventor had lived among them for decades with no one the wiser. Dr Bush(nell) was leaving most of his estate to his late brother Ezra’s children. Among his belongings that were packed up and taken north were drawings and, according to some accounts, prototypes for a strange wooden invention.


Bushnell’s Connecticut farm still exists and is a National Landmark.  It sits in modern Westbrook, Connecticut, next to modern Saybrook.

A full-size replica of his Turtle is on display at thee Connecticut River Museum in Essex Connecticut, The Submarine Force Library and Museum on Groton Connecticut, and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport, UK (At least the Brits are good sports about that whole Turtle thing 250+ years on!)

Due to his inventions like the propeller, the ballast pumping system and other innovations, today, Bushnell, the man who did not want acclaim for anything he invented, is known as the Father of Submarine Warfare.


Revolutionary War Statistics: