Submarines, a mainstay
of today's Navy, were under consideration way back in 1776 when David Bushnell
built a craft that was perhaps too far ahead of its time. Turtle, as
it was called, was submersible, had a screw type propeller, ballast tanks, a
depth gauge, self contained propulsion, and torpedo-equipment still found in
submarines today. It was designed to sink its target by boring a hole in the
hull of an enemy ship and attaching an explosive. However, this craft had difficulty
with copper-sheathed hulls. Robert Fulton, famous for developing a steamship,
also tested a four-man submarine named Nautilus, which made successful
submerged trips but failed to sink any enemy vessels.
The submarine reappeared during the Civil War. One so-called submarine, which was not really submersible at all, was the steam-driven David. It was developed by the Confederate Navy and operated with its stack and hatches above the surface of the water. It was not very successful. The Confederate Navy did, however, pioneer the development of submersibles. The most successful one was named for H.L. Hunley, under whose sponsorship it was built. It was propelled by hand cranks, had a screw type propellor and actually submerged, but it did not have means to store fresh air. This submarine however drowned two crews before it sank itself. Hunley torpedoed the U.S. Navy blockader Housatonic on 17 February 1864 with an explosive device at the end of a 15-foot-pole. When the underwater bomb exploded it sank the Union ship, but also sank Hunley, drowning a third and final crew. Housatonic was the first ship to be sunk by a sub in combat.
In 1900, the U.S. Navy's first combustion-electric powered submarine, USS Holland (SS-1) was commissioned. It was 54-feet long, displaced 74 tons while submerged, and had a screw type propellor. She was driven by a gasoline engine while surfaced and batteries while submerged. Holland's surface speed was about seven knots, and at full throttle she could make about the same while submerged. A diesel engine replaced the gasoline engine in 1912, and the diesel engine and the electric battery remained the power source for submarines until nuclear power was introduced as submarine power. On 17 January 1955 the hull SSN 571 (later to be known to the world as USS Nautilus), the first nuclear powered submarine, put to sea for the first time.
Information Courtesy of Naval Historical Center