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The American Turtle Submarine

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The American Turtle Submarine

turtle submarine

Wartime. A secret weapon. Support from a man who would become President. Government funding for construction in a hidden location. A desperate attempt to keep New York from falling into enemy hands.

A modern global power struggle? A sci fi movie? No.

It’s New York in 1776. 35,000 men were poised to take the city. One small, hand-propelled craft designed by David Bushnell cruises through the water surrounded by 500 British ships on a mission to blow a hole in the hull of the 64 gun H.M.S. Eagle.

With only half an hour of air once underwater, the submarine descended beneath the waves.

Sergeant Ezra Lee drilled into the hull of his target, trying to affix, essentially, a barrel with 150 pounds of gunpowder and a timer to the large ship.

A Submarine Ahead of Its Time

I remember seeing an illustration of the Turtle when I was a kid and wondering how in the world that contraption worked: hand-driven propellers pointing in different directions out of a thing that resembled a large avocado seed.

The author of The American Turtle Submarine, Arthur S. Lefkowitz, does a good job of blending the technical with the historic aspects of this story in a light and readable fashion.

Lefkowitz keeps it entertaining by looping out of the story occasionally with two-page descriptions of related topics. For instance, in one, he discusses that gunpowder was a somewhat rare commodity in revolutionary America.

This might be why the submarine was used only a few times.

turtle submarine

It turns out that there was more call for Bushnell’s mines than his Turtle, and far more attention was given to them.

This led to another covert operation involving laying mines, or what he called infernals, in the Delaware near Philadelphia.

The results of this endeavor included rumors flying, redcoats running through the streets, and shooting at barrels – an event that came to be known as the Battle of the Kegs.

Perhaps the most interesting technical point to me was the use of natural bioluminescence so that the pilot of the submarine could see a compass.

The one item I didn’t understand was why only North (marked “+”) and East (marked “-“ were indicated; perhaps a typo or something for another researcher to discover, I suppose.

turtle submarine

The Classic American Inventor

The idea of the classic American tinkerer working in his/her shop to produce some new invention has long intrigued me, and shows just how much a dedicated individual can accomplish.

David Bushnell, while well-educated with a degree from Yale, had no background in mechanical engineering and no experience as a sailor. However, he pressed on to create one of the world’s first unique submarines.

Bushnell cycled through periods of funding and lean times, and finally ended up finding himself bankrupt and exhausted. However, in gratitude, General Washington appointed him to the Miners and Sappers.

At his death in 1821, a newspaper reported on his passing:

“Died in Lyme…Ezra Lee, aged 72, a revolutionary officer. It is not a little remarkable that this officer is the only man, of which it can be said, that he fought the enemy upon the land-upon the water-and under the water.”

Lefkowitz brings up interesting mysteries about the story as well.

Apparently, nobody knows what happened to the Turtle after it performed its final run. Why did Thomas Jefferson take a sudden interest in the craft? Did the Turtle have no ballast tanks, instead simply filling the submarine itself with water?

Regardless of its use in war, the Turtle was an important step in the series of advances that led to advanced manned submersibles such as, for instance, the DSV-2 Alvin that explored the wreck of the Titanic.

It is also the compelling story of a person with vision, who used the materials at hand to make a new and amazing machine.

The American Turtle Submarine is an easy, yet informative, read. It is sure to appeal to those with an interest in offbeat mechanical devices, U.S. history, or stories often missed by the mainstream.

Pick up your own copy today, and when you’re done, let us know what you think of the story.

© Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved

References & Image Credits:

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Top Secret Editors

Ryan is the founder of Top Secret Writers. He is an IT analyst, blogger, journalist, and a researcher for the truth behind strange stories.
Lori is TSW's editor. Freelance writer and editor for over 17 years, she loves to read and loves fringe science and conspiracy theory.

Top Secret Writers

Gabrielle is a journalist who finds strange stories the media misses, and enlightens readers about news they never knew existed.
Sally is TSW’s health/environmental expert. As a blogger/organic gardener, she’s investigates critical environmental issues.
Mark Dorr grew up the son of a treasure hunter. His experiences led to working internationally in some surprising situations!
Mark R. Whittington, from Houston, Texas, frequently writes on space, science, political commentary and political culture.

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