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USS Nautilus and USS Albacore

For hundreds of years shipbuilders experimented with methods to allow them to attack enemy warships from beneath the sea. During the American Revolution the inventor, David Bushnell, built a one-man, hand-propelled submersible and attempted to sink a British ship-of-the-line in New York harbor. He was not successful. During the American Civil War a group of Confederate citizens designed and built a cigar-shaped submarine named H.L. Hunley to sink Union Navy vessels. Two crews died during testing and the third died at the moment they became the first submariners to sink an enemy vessel, USS Housatonic, when their victim sank on top of H.L. Hunley. Progress continued and by 1897 an American, John Holland, had launched a vessel named Holland that combined most of the elements vital to submarines built over the next 50 years. Holland had water ballast tanks, an electric motor for underwater propulsion, a gasoline motor for propulsion on the surface, and self-propelled torpedo armament.

By the beginning of the First World War submarines were in many navies but were designed only for harbor and coastal defense and were considered the weapon of weaker powers. The concept of economic warfare designed to disrupt an entire economy came into force as the war progressed and submarines were ideally suited to pursue commerce warfare. The biggest improvement in technology during the war was the adoption of diesel compression-ignition engines to replace less efficient gas engines. By the end of that war, submarines and their role in wartime had grown to become an important part of naval warfare. During the period between the World Wars, submarines grew larger and assumed an even more aggressive role in war plans. When the Second World War broke out, submarines were the major naval weapon of Germany and important in the Japanese, British, and United States Navies. The most important innovations in this war were larger, more powerful batteries; stronger, deeper diving hulls; scientific streamlining; and snorkels which allowed submarines to use diesel engines to charge batteries while submerged.

During World War II, the Navy's Submarine Force proved its combat capability by sinking 30 percent of Japan's navy, including one of the six aircraft carriers that attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. All told, U.S. submarines destroyed over half of the Japanese tonnage lost in the war. The effectiveness of submarines in World War II convinced the Navy that undersea warfare would play an even more important role in coming conflicts and dictated development of superior submarines. The advent of nuclear power nourished the hope that such warships could be produced. The effort to achieve this goal involved the development of a nuclear propulsion system and the design of a streamlined submarine hull capable of optimum submerged performance.

With the advent of nuclear weapons, the promises of nuclear power, and the installation of the snorkel device at the close of the war, the Navy realized that the potentialities of the submarine would codtinue to grow and should be fully exploited. Radar and sonar developments required that the underwater ships of the future be capable of prolonged submergence and high underwater speeds. In 1946, the Navy started its serious effort to develop a nuclear powerplant for marine use. At the same time it took a good look at the hull configuration of conventional submarines.

During the war, U.S. naval planners worked to design for the future. Soon after the end of the war, plans were made for two experimental submarines to be built to test some of the theories formulated using wartime data. One design was to test a prototype nuclear power plant and was to become USS Nautilus and the other was to test a new hull shape designed for extremely high speeds. This second sub was to be called USS Albacore.

"When in doubt, think speed." This was the guidance Vice Adm. Charles "Swede" Momsen, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Undersea Warfare, gave to designers in 1949 as they began work on the U.S. Navy's newest submarine. The advent of nuclear energy was pivotal to the prospect of designing a true submersible. Since nuclear power plants could operate without the oxygen supply needed by conventional internal-combustion machinery, and because techniques were available for removing carbon dioxide from the ship's atmosphere and creating oxygen for the crew it was possible to envision a submarine that would operate almost exclusively submerged, limited only by the endurance of the crew and supplies.

Late in World War II a committee studied postwar uses of atomic energy and recommended the development of nuclear propulsion for ships. Since nuclear power plants would operate without the oxygen supply needed by conventional machinery, and since techniques were available for converting carbon dioxide back to oxygen, the Navy's submarine designers turned their attention to vessels which could operate for long periods without breaking the surface. Veteran submariners visualized a new type of submarine in which surface performance characteristics would be completely subordinated to high submerged speed and agility.

Among the earliest reactors designed by Argonne scientists was a pressurized-water submarine thermal reactor developed for Westinghouse in 1947. They designed and developed the reactor core for the world's first atomic-powered submarine and, in 1950, built and operated the first submarine reactor prototype, the Zero Power Reactor I (ZPR-1).

The two parallel development efforts came to fruition at about the same time. In January 1954, the USS Nautilus, the first atomic submarine, was launched. The NAUTILUS was the first real application of nuclear power - and made it possible for man to cruise beneath the surface of the sea for extended periods. Hydrodynamic studies of hull shapes led to the whale-like design used in the submarine ALBACORE built to give high underwater speeds. At last, the Navy had the combination of designand power plant that could now be exploited in producing the submarine of the 1960-1970 era - a true submersible. Developments in structural materials also permitted operations at greater depths.

Both the Albacore and Nautilus continued in service as test vessels for new technologies. The Albacore was decommissioned in 1972 and in 1985 was taken out of the water and set on a concrete pedestal in Albacore Park in Portsmouth Virginia. Decommissioned 1980, the Nautilus was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1982. ln 1985 it became part of the permanent collection at the US Navy Submarine Force Museum in Groton Connecticut.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:34:04 ZULU