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Submarine History

Captivated by the allure of the unknown, man has always been intrigued by underwater exploration and mysteries of the deep. In an effort to conquer the sea's depths, submarines throughout history were propelled by a diversity of mechanisms from oars, sails, treadles, cranks, clockwork, steam, diesel, compressed air, chemicals, springs, gases, motors, hand-cranked screws and, finally, to nuclear power.

In the year 2000 the American submarine force celebrated the first century of service by highly skilled people in some of the most technologically advanced vessels ever built. The previous 100 years witnessed the evolution of a force that mastered submersible warfare, introduced nuclear propulsion to create the true submarine, and for decades patrolled the deep ocean front line; the hottest part of an otherwise Cold War.

The idea of traveling underneath the ocean waters inside a contained vessel has been around for centuries. Records of submarine ideology go back in history to man's earliest writings. Legend says Alexander the Great ventured below the waters of the Aegean Sea inside a glass barrel around 333 B.C. He is reported to have seen whales and deep-sea life on his underwater journey. The ancient Athenians used divers in secret military operations. Heroduotus (460 B.C.), Aristotle (332 B.C.) and Pliny (77 A.D.) mention attempts by others to build submersibles.

The next record of a submarine came more than 1900 years later. In 1578 A.D., British naval officer William Bourne described a wooden frame vessel enclosed in waterproof leather, which could be rowed underwater. Bourne's creation was never realized.

In 1620, Cornelius Van Drebbel, a Dutch doctor, designed a submarine, which was also rowed underwater. The model was a greased, leather-covered rowboat that carried 12 oarsmen. Tubes to the surface provided air to the boat, which was bound by waterproof leather, allowing it to travel underwater for several hours. His boat was successfully tested in the Thames River and traveled at depths close to 15 feet. The submarine could travel at depths close to 15 feet (4.6 meters). It is said England's King James I rode in one of Van Drebbel's submarines to prove its safety. The British navy was not interested in the craft.

In 1690, Edmund Halley [of comet fame] patented a diving bell which was connected by a pipe to weighted barrels of air that could be replenished from the surface. Both barrel and bell, the latter with men in it, were lowered to depth; dives to over 60 feet (18.3 meters) for 90 minutes were recorded. Diving bells were shown to be practicable devices.

In 1715, Englishman John Lethbridge built a "diving engine", an oak cylinder which was reinforced with iron hoops and had a glass viewing port. Inside this device, a diver could stay submerged for 30 minutes at 60 feet (18. 3 meters), while protruding his arms into the water for salvage work. Water was kept out of the suit by means of greased leather cuffs, which seal around the operator's arms. The diving engine was said to be used successfully for many years.

Several other industrious inventors attempted to build crafts for underwater travel, but none were used for military efforts until the American Revolution.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:55:39 ZULU