Today on Idea Evolution, we’re talking about Submarines
As long as there have been ships used to fight in wars, people have looked for a way to gain an advantage over their enemies at sea. Submarines were invented to gain that advantage. But what started as a machine of war has also become a way for us to understand the vast blue oceans that cover around 71% of the earth’s surface.
The first submarine starts with a man by the name of Cornelius Drebbel. He was born in Alkmaar in the Netherlands in 1572. He only had a basic education and became an apprentice painter and engraver. But during his apprenticeship he became interested in inventions. Honestly, who could blame him?! His inventions attracted the attention of the new king of England, James I, who was keen to gather explorers, theologians, economists and alchemists around him at court. So naturally, he invited Drebbel to England in 1604. How amazing is that?
In 1620 Drebbel invented a submarine powered by oars. It looked like two rowing boats on top of each other, it sat not far below surface of the water and was able to stay submerged on the River Thames in London for 3 hours. It relied on weights to submerge it which then had to be removed from the vehicle so that it could surface again. It didn’t really get much further in development from there.
Then 30 years later (1653) French inventor De Son made a submarine for the Belgian navy. The vessel had to be rowed by the people inside it. The plan had been to try to ram holes in enemy ships but when the submarine was finished, they discovered that it was too heavy to be rowed.
It took more than 100 years for someone to create a workable submarine. Roaring onto the scene came The Turtle in 1776. It was a wooden egg-shaped machine invented by an America, David Bushnell.
David was born in 1742 in Connecticut and was a farmer for most of his early life. At 29 Bushnell’s father passed away which was the catalyst for him to decide to sell the family farm. At the advanced age of 31, he decided to go to Yale College to study mathematics.
He graduated in 1775, just before the American Revolution. David strongly believed that technology would be the key to winning the war, so he and another inventor named Phineas Pratt set to work.
The American’s knew that their own Navy couldn’t compete with that of the mighty British Navy so were looking for a way to gain an advantage. The first invention David & Phineas came up with was a bomb that could be attached to a ship and set off using a time delay. The problem was how to deliver the bombs. And out of this necessity, The Turtle was created.
They developed a one-man, hand-propelled submersible vehicle that could transport a single person to an enemy vessel. And it worked. Well. The submarine worked. Sort of.
On 7 Sept 1776 the Turtle entered the war. It’s mission… to sneak underwater up to the British ship HMS Eagle and attach a timed bomb to its hull. This was the first time a submarine had been used in warfare. Really, a big moment and a turning point in modern warfare.
However, there was a problem. You see, the mission, well it kind of failed. The submarine worked so big tick there. But it failed to deploy a bomb. There must wasn’t anyone skilled in piloting the Turtle. It continued to fail in numerous other attempts. While the Turtle was being transported, the American sloop it was on was sunk by the British fleet and that was pretty much the end of that.
In 1787 David ‘disappeared’ to France. Not much is known about what David did over there, however some people suspect he spent some of his time working with a fellow American Inventor called Robert Fulton. Robert had received a commission by Napolean Bonapart to design a submarine. And in 1800 he released the Nautilus. Another submarine that required human-propulsion. By accounts his submarine performed very successfully in trials, however neither the French nor the English ended up being that interested in putting the submarine into production. The Nautilus never really progressed any further from some drawings and basic tests.
Another couple of decades went by with not a whole lot of innovation for submarines. This time, the American Civil War was when people’s minds once again turned to submarines. In 1861 Brutus de Villeroi – a French inventor living in America – created USS Alligator. It was the first submarine with a system for keeping the air inside the vessel fresh. To do that air was pumped through a bottle of special liquid to remove the carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, the system didn’t work that well and the crew also had to take their own tanks of fresh air on board. Unfortunately, it was lost at sea during a storm in 1863, before it ever got to see combat.
Submarine technology started to get some momentum after that. Just two years after the invention of the Alligator, in 1863 Charles Brun and Simon Bourgeois invented the first submarine with an engine. They called it the Diver and it was shown at a Paris exhibition in 1867. It’s believed to have inspired the famous author Jules Verne to write the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The next big breakthrough was made by a former Irish monk who left the church due to bad health and moved to America to become a school teacher. In 1897 John Philip Holland invented the Holland 4 submarine. It used battery power and had an engine that burned petrol to power the propeller. His sixth submarine, creatively named the Holland VI held six sailors and could travel 50 kilometres before the batteries needed to be recharged. It could stay underwater for a whopping 40 hours.
The tide had turned and towards the end of the 1800’s and start of the 1900’s, powerful nations began developing submarines as part of their navel fleets.
The first submarine built in Germany, was the three-man Brandtaucher . It was designed by inventor and engineer Wilhelm Bauer in 1880 but sank on 1 February 1881 during a test dive. It was a close call for Bauer and his crew who nearly died in this accident, but managed to escape. Germany wasn’t turned away from submarine development by this setback and in 1903 the first fully functional German-built submarine, Forelle, was built.
Germany continued its development of submarines right up to the start of World War I in 1914. By that time they had built 38 submarines – or Unterseeboot, (please excuse my german) which literally means “undersea boat”. They’re commonly known as U-boats – and Germany was the first country to successfully deploy submarines in war. These U-boats played a pivotal role in early victories by Germany against the ships of their enemies. They were lethal to the allied forces fleet and it was only through massive increase in ship building and the use of convoys – that is a lot of ships moving together under protection of a few fighters – that eventually proved effective against the submarines. But the success of submarines in wars was noted and by the end of World War 1 Germany had built 334 U-boats and had a further 226 under construction.
Only 21 years later the world plunged once again into a World War. This time the flimsy U-boats had been developed by the German navy and they had an extensive fleet of submarines with 9 different types of operational submarines. They had worked on improving the designs so that the submarines could spend a far greater amount of time under water and were therefore much more effective at evading the notice of enemy vessels. World War 2 saw submarine warfare on both sides used effectively and very deadly.
These Wars, while tragic for all of society, proved pivotal in the evolution of submarines. Being able to reach into the previously unknown depths of the ocean proved too tempting to be ignored again.
It was almost 10 years after the end of World War II. in 1953, a french pioneer in dive equipment and photography called Dimitri Rebikoff made the first robot submarine. It was called POODLE and did not need people on board to control it. The machine was operated via a computer which sent instructions to the submarine via a cable connected between the computer and the sub. It was a pretty exciting development at the time because even with all their advances, manning a submarine remains incredibly perilous.
Powering the submarines had always been an issue. Because the more power the submarine had the longer it could remain underwater and the faster it could travel. In 1954 the US Navy launched the first nuclear submarine. The Nautilus had a steam engine but the heat to make the steam came from a nuclear reactor. Nuclear submarines could go faster and further than electric ones as they didn’t need to come to the surface to recharge their batteries or return to land to refuel.
In 1958 the Nautilus became the first submarine to travel under the North Pole, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. It stayed underwater for 3,000 km.
In January 1960 Jacques Piccard and Donald Walsh reached the bottom of the Marianas Trench near the Phillipines in the Trieste. It is the deepest point of all of the oceans and was an incredible milestone to reach. Not too dissimilar to walking on the moon some may believe.
One of the biggest challenges for submarine designers what the problem that the further under the water a submarine goes the more pressure it comes under. At depths of less than 30 metres below the surface, early submarines would develop gaps from the pressure and water would force through the gaps. These days submarines are made of steel that is 15cm thick and windows made of glass or plastic that is even thicker.
And just like the risk to human life going into space is, sinking a human in a metal steel can to the deep vastness of the oceans is also incredibly dangerous.
Is dominance in wartimes the only real use for the submarine? Can this innovation bring something more to society?
Why don’t you pause for a moment and discuss this with the people around you.
So, what do you think? Do submarines have a role to play in our future society?
Well, some areas of the world would answer with a resounding YES
You see, from its origins as a machine used in war, the submarine has also become an extremely useful tool for scientists.
Scientists who, instead of looking up and off the planet for answers, look down and into the vast depths of the oceans. The life blood of our world.
Submarines have gone where humans cannot. And while Jacques Piccard and Donald Walsh were great explorers going deeper underwater than any human has before, they did the equivalent of you diving to the bottom of a swimming pool with your eyes closed, tapping the bottom of the pool with your toe and pushing yourself back to the surface. They proved they can, but they didn’t advance our knowledge of that depth any.
At very deep levels of the ocean, the pressure becomes huge. Like the heaviest weight you can think of trying to squash you into a punny ant. The pressure bends strong steel and shatters thick plastic and glass. Just like outer space, the depths of the ocean do not support human life.
We earlier mentioned the POODLE and what an exciting evolution this was. This invention was so ground-breaking because it opened the door to autonomous underwater vehicles. This was a much safer way to explore the dangerous depths of our oceans.
There’s a great story that illustrates the incredible power of submarines to assist scientists in their pursuit of knowledge and understanding of our oceans.
There’s an autonomous research submarine named Boaty McBoatface, yep seriously, that’s its name. Boaty ‘lives’ on the Royal Research Ship RRS Sir David Attenborough, its parent ship, and it helps scientists explore and understand the ocean. Its first journey was to Chile. Scientists wanted to know why ocean waters have been warming faster than they expected. Could global warming have triggered a change in our oceans that we had not predicted?
Scientists knew that the wind over the Antarctic has become stronger due to the hole in the Ozone Layer and increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. But they hadn’t been able to confirm the resulting effect these winds had on our oceans. Boaty McBoatface was able to provide valuable data for scientists. The cold, dense waters of Antarctica are blasted with even stronger freezing winds than before. Boaty was able to confirm that the super cold water then sinks deep into the ocean and on currents or streams are carried north.
Along the way, these streams are interrupted by underwater mountain ranges. When this happens, they divide and go around and also flow over the tops of the mountains, and form powerful underwater rapids and waterfalls, known as turbulence.
Boaty’s investigations confirmed that turbulence is causing warm water at mid-depths to mix down and raise the temperature of the colder, denser water running along the ocean floor.
These insights wouldn’t be possible without powerful remotely operated submarines like Boaty. Information gained by these submarines can be used to create accurate models that describe the climate system and how it may change in the future. In turn this can help countries most affected by changes in the ocean to plan for their futures.
I wonder, what would it be like if we never stopped innovating submarines?
What more could they do to help scientists understand our oceans? What sort of information would you use them to gather?
We would love to hear your ideas and plans. Please let us know on Facebook, Instagram or send us an email.
What would you find out about the mysteries of the ocean if you had your very own submarine?
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