The First Submarine - David Bushnell's Explosive Career

The First Submarine - David Bushnell's Explosive Career

David Bushnell was the engineer who first created a workable submarine in the United States as well as bombs which could explode underwater.

Although his mines were used to limited success, they demonstrated the American’s ingenuity as well as their desire to use any means necessary to win the Revolutionary War.

As a quick note, Bushnell’s submarine is one of the many things wrong with the television series Turn, as it was incorrectly credited to Nathaniel Sackett.


David Bushnell

David Bushnell was a simple farmer who longed for a college education.

After his father’s death, David sold his half of the land to his brother Ezra. This afforded him the opportunity to attend Yale.

Though most students graduated college before their 20th birthday, Bushnell started school at the ripe old age of 31. This led to his classmates affectionately referring to him as ‘The Old Man.’ 

The Old Man received his degree in 1775, just as the American Revolutionary War broke out.


Underwater Explosions

While most of his graduating class went to Boston to join the war, Bushnell decided to put his mind to good use.

He referenced the ideas he read in several textbooks from Europe to devise a device which would explode under water. 

David was the first person to successfully test this type of weapon. More impressively, he was able to set it’s detonation with a timer...another first.


The Turtle

Bushnell knew his new weapon would have to be placed under an enemy ship for it to work. To accomplish this feat he built another invention: a submarine!

Although submarines had been attempted in other parts of the world, one had not been effectively used.

David put together this crude contraption which would take on water to sink and push it out to rise. It was moved with pedals and hand cranks and had a long snorkel for air.

This incredible machine was dubbed ‘The Turtle’ due to its shell-like design.


A Team of Ezra’s

Bushnell needed assistance making his device and he wanted his brother, Ezra, to help.

Ezra, however, had gone off to war. Fortunately, he was serving under one of David’s classmates...the soon-to-be spy Nathan Hale.

After discussing his secret plans with Hale, the young Officer permitted Ezra to take leave and assist his brother.

After their submarine and mine were complete, Bushnell used some of his well placed contacts to be given permission to covertly attack the British.

A young man named Ezra Lee was chosen and made an attempt to blow up one of the British vessels. 

The mission unfortunately failed, though it did strike fear into the hearts of many a British sailor (look for a full account of this in tomorrow's article).

The Corps of Sappers and Miners

While the Turtle’s attack did not work out, Bushnell had made a name for himself and was asked by George Washington to become Captain of the Corps of Sappers and Miners.

In this position, David attempted to blow up several more ships.

Most notably was the Battle of the Kegs. Bushnell’s team sent big kegs of gunpowder down river but they missed the Navy ships. Sadly, the only casualties were two young boys whose curiosity got the best of them and were killed when they went exploring the unusual crates in the river.


Mysterious Afterwards

David Bushnell was with the Continental Army for the Victory at Yorktown.

Afterward, he returned to his home State of Connecticut for several years before suddenly leaving for France. There is no documentation of his stay in Europe, but he reemerged 15 years later under an assumed name in Georgia.

The Old Man lived to be an old man. Bushnell taught school in Georgia for several decades before dying in his 80’s.

Fittingly, David Bushnell would have submarines which bore his name in both World Wars.


Here are some more inventors and engineers of the American Revolution:

Josiah Hornblower Makes Things Steamy

Jonathan Grout Builds America’s First Telegraph

John Stevens III - The Tomas Edison of the American Revolution

The whole story of the Turtle (and Bushnell’s life in general) is amazing.

‘Turtle’ is a great book about the device as well as the truly American Dream that Bushnell lived.

If you’d like a copy you can get one through the Amazon affiliate link below (you’ll support this site, but don’t worry, Amazon pays me while your price stays the same).

Turtle: David Bushnell's Revolutionary Vessel
By Roy R. Manstan, Frederic J. Frese

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