Summary of a History of Submarines

"There are two kinds of ships: submarines and targets."



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Today's fast submarines that stay deep for weeks resulted from centuries of scientific development. From 1776 to 1900 early hand-powered submarines were barely submerged for night attack. Submarines of World Wars I and II were surface ships that could dive temporarily for up to 48 hours. With the 1950s nuclear powered subs are faster and more effective in the depths than on the surface, and stay undersea as long as the crew can effectively perform unimagined missions (and so long as there is food).

Books and internet sites for personal exploring. QuickTime of first session Keynote presentation.

I: Early experiments, failures, limited successes: Bushnell, Hunley

  • Dozens of people tried to build vessels to navigate under water; most were frustrated or killed by their contraptions, because they did not understand water properties and water pressure.
  • David Bushnell during the American Revolution built a successful one man hand powered submarine, the Turtle.
  • H. L. Hunley during the Civil War built a submarine out of a boiler! It was named Hunley, and powered by several men turning a crankshaft attached to a screw. Using an explosive at the end of a long spar, it sank a Union ship, but was lost. The Louisiana State Museum has a smaller submarine built by the Confederacy that did not see action.
  • The Union built a similar submarine called the Alligator in 1861–62 that never saw action. Later the U.S. built a hand powered Intelligent Whale, but decided better propulsion was needed. All of these showed that even a dozen strong men were not reliable, long-term power.

II. Submarine that works and its weapon: Holland, Whitehead, Lake

  • John Holland succeeded after years of experimenting in building a submarine that was fully controlled. He learned to put the main ballast tank at the center of gravity with smaller trim tanks at bow and stern. All subsequent subs use that design. Using science, he built a one-man submarine, then a larger one with crew of three, then a larger one that he demonstrated in the Potomac River to the Navy and Congress members and the press. Soon he built them for many nations. Simon Lake succeeded soon after, adding features of modern subs. Improvements followed. Chronology of American submarines.
  • Robert Whitehead worked for decades in the 19th century to develop a torpedo with an engine and guidance to carry an explosive charge underwater to a target. He was helped by Austrian Navy Captain von Trapp famous from the "Sound of Music." Holland's submarines had a torpedo tube to launch Whitehead torpedoes.

III. World War I submarines and after

  • In the first days of World War I the small, early U-9 sank three British cruisers in one day. Britain was slow to recognize the danger of the U-boats.
  • Strategically in WW I the Royal Navy successfully blockaded Germany, so that by 1918 Germans were hungry and lacked raw material. Germans countered with their only blockade weapon—U-boat attacks on merchantmen. The reaction of nations forced Germany to stop "unrestricted warfare", then try again, repeatedly. Their last blockade almost starved England.
  • Finally the British with American urging, revived the convoy from the days of sail, developed primitive Sonar or Asdic, and by 1917–1918 the U. S. transported troops and supplies safely across the Atlantic.
  • Submarine development between the wars varied among navies.
  • The Germans, prohibited from building subs, bought a Dutch shipyard to build copies of their World War I U-boats for other navies and trained their crews that kept their skills sharp.
  • The American navy aggressively improved submarines. Submarine officers created a paradigm shift — long range, fast, habitable, welded submarines designed to operate independently in the tropical Pacific. Arma Corp. developed an analog Torpedo Data Computer (TDC) that directed torpedoes to multiple targets whatever the submarine course. "Swede" Momsen developed a lung then a chamber to rescue survivors of submarine disasters. The latter rescued 33 crewmen from the sunken Squalus without their getting wet! Other navies were slow to confront rescue from submarine disasters.

IV. In World War II submarines were critical: Doenitz, Lockwood, tacticians, scientists

  • Compare four submarine campaigns of World War II; the German and American were the major ones, continuing through World War II.
  • In the Atlantic Doenitz had the Germans continually improve their U-boats and tactics; allied navies and scientists slowly developed effective countermeasures. Breaking the Enigma code was critical.
  • In the Pacific the advanced American submarines had major problems. See a seminar on American submarines in the Pacific War. Admiral Charles Lockwood led in solving torpedo problems, replacing unproductive skippers, developing new weapons, radars, and other scientific aids, and worked with his skippers on new tactics. Code breakers learned where the "marus" were and vectored subs to targets. The U.S. swept the seas of targets, while Japan was slow to develop effective countermeasures.
  • American submarines were much quieter than German U-boats and were made quieter during the war.
  • Why the Germans failed and Americans succeeded in isolating target island empires—England and Japan.

V. Post World War II: exploration & new power: Ballard, Rickover, Momsen

  • Submarines for exploration came into their own with many examples. Early reports of life at depths were disbelieved. A variety of advanced submersibles explored the rifts where continental plates meet with high heat. Ballard and many others made amazing discoveries that re-wrote some biology and geology and explored shipwrecks (Titanic, Bismarck, Yorktown, many others).
  • Britain tried to perfect the German hydrogen peroxide power, building two — the crew of HMS Explorer nicknamed her the exploder. It proved an unsafe power source.
  • The U. S. Navy began in 1940 studying nuclear propulsion. Rickover joined in experiments after 1945. Fleet Adm. Nimitz's support made Nautilus possible. The exploits of that first nuclear submarine, the Nautilus, are incredible, although her hull was a modified World War II fleet submarine. After a year and a half of exploits the Nautilus had major damage from hydrodynamic forces due to her constant high speed at deep depth, so major structural changes were needed for nuclear submarines to be safe.
  • Admiral Momsen of submarine rescue fame scientifically developed the hull shape that is most efficient for speed underwater, using models in test basins, that led to building the fast, very maneuverable, Diesel powered Albacore. She became a test-bed for experiments.
  • The Albacore hull was combined with nuclear power for the Skipjack class. Some Skipjack hulls early in construction were cut in two to add 16 vertical missile tubes, becoming the George Washington class of nuclear missile submarines. They were designed to be a deterrent so effective it would never be used. Eight were on station near the USSR with 128 Polaris missiles during the Cuban missile crisis.
  • The Skipjack evolved into faster and quieter "attack" subs. The George Washington evolved into larger, very quiet missile subs. Smaller research subs evolved for very deep diving.
  • The NR-1 was a small, deep diving nuclear submarine for Cold War use and for scientific exploration. She hovered, moved any direction, had wheels. Nuclear power let her small crew work for weeks at deep depth. Other deep diving submarines use electric batteries, so have limited time at depth. The NR-1 served from 1969 until recently.
  • The loss of the Thresher while trying an emergency surface led to many changes called "sub safe." One is small rockets in ballast tanks that can be fired for an "emergency blow" to surface.

VI. New missions and uncertainty

  • During the Cold War submarines moved from mere "shoot-and-scoot" vessels to accomplish many missions never before imagined. American submarine crews during the Cold War furnishing decisive intelligence in daring, secret operations. They tapped Soviet telephone cables so we could monitor uncoded messages, and surveyed Soviet anchorages. Many followed Soviet submarines to record their sounds, performance, and patrol patterns. There were collisions but none sank. Several Soviet nuclear subs were lost, as well as two American—Thresher and Scorpion.
  • With the end of the Cold War the future of submarine development and tactics is uncertain. Nuclear subs are expensive to build and maintain. The new Virginia class subs are designed and built to be able to put divers outside and land Seals.
  • Exploration no longer requires people inside submersibles, because sophisticated ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles) have guidance, powerful cameras, and can gather samples.
  • Kenneth Sewell has built on known knowledge of Halibut taking over 2,000 photos of a sunken Soviet sub to research and write Red Star Rogue that tells an attempt to launch a rogue nuclear missile against Hawaii that was frustrated by a fail-safe device we designed and shared with the Soviets.
  • Many American museum submarines can be toured in cities around the U.S.A. The U. S. Submarine Force Museum is in Conn. (the two rings in the photo compare the size of the hulls of the first submarine Holland and the Ohio ballistic missile submarine). The Underseas Museum in Keyport, Washington, is designed to preserve and interpret Naval undersea history, science, and operations. The German U-boat U-505 is on display in Chicago. A retired "Foxtrot" Russian submarine is on display at Long Beach. There are submarine museums in England and Germany.

Copyright © 2004, 2007 John F. Yeaman