First Test of a Submarine in Warfare

The first submarine, called the Turtle, was built in an effort to blow up a British navy ship in the waters of New York Harbor by attaching underwater explosives to the ship’s hull. The test marked not only the first submarine journey but also the first time such a vessel, and underwater explosives, had been used in warfare.

Summary of Event

David Bushnell was known throughout his native Connecticut for his inventive mind. While on his father’s farm, he had developed a harrow with flexible teeth, which farmers could use in the stony New England fields without the teeth breaking constantly. As a student at Yale College, he became interested in exploding kegs Explosives of black powder under water. Traditional theories of the time held that such an explosion would not work, because the water would dissipate its force. Through experiments, Bushnell proved that this theory was wrong and developed the forerunner of the naval mine. [kw]First Test of a Submarine in Warfare (Sept. 6-7, 1776)
[kw]Warfare, First Test of a Submarine in (Sept. 6-7, 1776)
[kw]Submarine in Warfare, First Test of a (Sept. 6-7, 1776)
[kw]Test of a Submarine in Warfare, First (Sept. 6-7, 1776)
American Revolution (1775-1783);weaponry
[g]United States;Sept. 6-7, 1776: First Test of a Submarine in Warfare[2280]
[c]Science and technology;Sept. 6-7, 1776: First Test of a Submarine in Warfare[2280]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 6-7, 1776: First Test of a Submarine in Warfare[2280]
Bushnell, David
Bushnell, Ezra
Lee, Ezra
Putnam, Israel
Trumbull, Jonathan

With the onset of the American Revolution, Bushnell decided that his mine would be useful against the blockading British fleet, Navy, British but he needed an accurate method of placing his explosives under a ship’s keel without being seen by naval gunners. His solution was a Turtle (submarine) submarine vessel he called the Turtle, which he designed early in 1775 while a student at Yale. During the college’s spring vacation that year, Bushnell went home to Saybrook, Connecticut, where he and his brother Ezra spent more than a month constructing the world’s first submarine. They built no model; the Turtle was built full-sized from the start.

According to its inventor, the submarine “bore some resemblance to two upper tortoise shells of equal size joined together.” The boat was 7.5 feet long, 4 feet wide, and 8 feet deep. Made of carefully fitted oak timbers caulked with cork and tar, Bushnell’s craft was driven by a screw propeller, the first one ever used to power a ship. The contraption included a short, primitive “snorkel,” through which the navigator could obtain fresh air. The tube was equipped with valves that automatically closed when the submarine submerged to greater depths. The operator navigated the vessel by looking through a glass conning tower and by checking his compass and depth gauge, which were illuminated by fox fire.

Although many accounts of David Bushnell and his Turtle do not indicate that he piloted the vessel, Robert F. Burgess in Ships Beneath the Sea (1975) reveals that he did. Once Bushnell graduated from Yale in June, 1775, he returned to Saybrook to make some adjustments to the boat. The maiden voyage of the Turtle took place in Long Island Sound, where Bushnell stayed submerged for a rather uneventful forty-five minutes. He nearly fainted, however, and based on this initial experience, realized he was not physically capable of piloting the submarine for extended periods. From then on, his brother Ezra practiced maneuvering the Turtle in the sound and prepared for its ultimate mission.

In subsequent months, several devices were added to assist in navigation, including a compass and a barometer. At this point, Benjamin Gale, a family friend of the Bushnells, brought Benjamin Franklin Franklin, Benjamin
[p]Franklin, Benjamin;submarines to see the Turtle. Franklin encouraged Bushnell to take his vessel to New York, where the British fleet had set up a blockade. Franklin then told General George Washington about the submarine. Washington was doubtful, however, about the boat’s potential in his endeavors.

Through the influence of Governor Jonathan Trumbull of Connecticut in late 1775, Bushnell demonstrated the Turtle for Major General Israel Putnam of the new Continental army. Army, U.S.[Army, US] Putnam was impressed and secured government financing for further development of the submarine. The army wanted to use the submersible to break the British blockade of Boston, but the British squadron departed before Bushnell could fully assemble the ballast pumps.

The next opportunity to strike at the British fleet was in 1776 in New York City. The Turtle was hauled overland and launched into the harbor from Manhattan Island. Ezra Bushnell was to have navigated the submarine in its first real combat mission; he was well prepared after a year’s training in the sound. Unfortunately, he became seriously ill with a fever and had to be hospitalized for several weeks. The mission could not wait. General Putnam provided three volunteers, whom Bushnell trained to navigate the vessel. It was twenty-seven-year-old sergeant Ezra Lee who proved to be the most capable replacement.

Just after midnight on the night of September 6, 1776, Lee slipped into the Turtle and, after two hours of tediously maneuvering the boat with hand cranks, guided it under the sixty-four-gun HMS Eagle, the British flagship. Lee was supposed to attach an explosive charge to the flagship by screwing it to the hull. Some historians speculate that Lee might have hit an iron bar connecting a part of the rudder to the stern, because each time he attempted to twist the bit into the metal of the ship, it would not engage. The hull of the Eagle was sheathed in copper, but Bushnell had anticipated this and had made the auger strong enough to penetrate the weaker metal. While Lee tried to maneuver the submarine to another spot on the hull, the Turtle rose to the surface in broad daylight.

At the mercy of the tide and without the aid of a compass—which, for some reason, was not working—Lee remained four miles from safety. Although he submerged every few minutes, he finally had to remain on the surface to see his way. Lee’s craft was spotted by English sentries on Governor’s Island, and the sentries quickly launched their own boat in a chase. Lee reported that the sailors came within fifty yards of the Turtle but were frightened of what they saw and turned away. Lee released the keg of powder, which drifted harmlessly into the bay and later exploded. Heading back to New York Harbor, Lee was spotted by his own people and towed to shore by a whaleboat.

Lee made several other attempts to destroy British ships in New York Harbor, but all were unsuccessful. When the British advanced up the Hudson River in October, 1776, Bushnell placed his invention aboard a small sloop. A British warship sank the sloop as it fled up the river in an effort to avoid capture. Although Bushnell reportedly recovered his submarine from the depths, its actual fate remains unknown. After the loss of the Turtle, Governor Trumbull had Bushnell commissioned as an officer in the Sappers and Miners Corps of the Continental army, and Bushnell served during the remainder of the war as a demolition expert. After the American Revolution, the reticent inventor moved to Georgia, where he practiced medicine and taught school. He died in obscurity in 1824.


Although David Bushnell’s submarine failed to sink any enemy vessels, he was responsible for several notable achievements. He invented the first practical submarine. In so doing, he solved several basic engineering and nautical problems: constructing a watertight and pressure-proof hull with vertical and horizontal propulsion mechanisms, achieving vertical stability and steering control, and developing the means of using variable ballast systems. Furthermore, he was the first to prove that gunpowder could explode underwater with sufficient force to disable and sink a surface ship, and he developed floating and submerged mines. Bushnell’s inventions were rapidly improved upon by other American inventors who continued to develop the submarine for use in subsequent U.S. naval conflicts.

Further Reading

  • Abbot, Henry L. Beginning of Modern Submarine Warfare Under Captain Lieutenant David Bushnell. Edited by Frank Anderson. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1966. A facsimile reproduction of an 1881 pamphlet containing the earliest accounts and descriptions of the Turtle, Bushnell, and Sergeant Ezra Lee. Includes biographical appendices and a bibliography by the editor.
  • Burgess, Robert Forrest. “The Eagle and the Turtle.” In Ships Beneath the Sea: A History of Subs and Submersibles. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975. A superior description of Bushnell, his design, and the construction of the Turtle. One of the most thorough accounts of the events surrounding the first combat submarine attack.
  • Coggins, Jack. Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1969. A colorful, well-illustrated book on virtually all aspects of the numerous naval engagements of the Revolutionary War.
  • Gunton, Michael. Submarines at War: A History of Undersea Warfare from the American Revolution to the Cold War. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003. Focuses on the use of submarines during World War I and subsequent wars. The first chapter provides information about the development of the submarine, with a brief description of Bushnell and the Turtle.
  • Hoyt, Edwin P. Submarines at War: The History of the American Silent Service. Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein & Day, 1983. Commencing with the unsuccessful attack of Bushnell’s Turtle on the British Royal Navy, this work chronicles the development of American submarines and submarine warfare into the 1980’s.
  • Hutchinson, Robert. Jane’s Submarines: War Beneath the Waves from 1776 to the Present Day. London: HarperCollins, 2001. Traces the development of the submarine as a weapon of warfare from its earliest designs in the sixteenth century through 2000. Includes information about Bushnell’s Turtle.
  • Macintyre, Donald G. F. W. “The Pioneers.” In Fighting Under the Sea. New York: W. W. Norton, 1966. One of the most complete accounts of the Turtle’s attempt to sink the English warship Eagle. Proves details of Ezra Lee’s efforts, using Lee’s own words.
  • Parrish, Thomas. The Submarine: A History. New York: Viking, 2004. This history begins with a description of Bushnell’s Turtle and continues through the year 2000. Includes information on submarine technology and combat operations.
  • Perlmutter, Tom, ed. War Machines: Sea. London: Octopus Books, 1975. Contains one of the few detailed diagrams of the Turtle.
  • Van der Vat, Dan. Stealth at Sea: The History of the Submarine. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995. An invaluable reference source on the history of submarines and submarine warfare. Illustrations, bibliography, and index.

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