Michelle Isenhoff

Taylor Davis: Submarine Technology

This is the third in a four-part series about researching my newest novel, Taylor Davis and the Flame of Findul.

(Part 1: Medieval Weapons; Part 2: Tyburn Hanging Tree.)

The research for Flame of Findul was very minor compared to what goes into a work of historical fiction, but the quest for information still took me down some interesting and varied paths. Along with learning about medieval weapons and Victorian capital punishment, I also discovered something about the history of submarine technology. I didn’t realize it dated back so many centuries!

In 1580, William Bourne, an Englishman innkeeper and scientific dabbler, was the first man to write out an explanation of how water displacement keeps a ship afloat. He also theorized that a vessel could be taken under the water and back to the surface by expanding or contracting the structure of the boat, varying the amount of displacement.

A Dutchman named Cornelius Drebbel, who worked for King James I of England, built the first submarine. It was simply a type of covered rowboat propelled by oarsmen that made an underwater voyage down the Thames River in 1623.

The next century and a half boasted a number of new designs, most of which didn’t really work. Some were manned vessels that only submerged and reemerged after a length of time with no means of propulsion. Of all the propulsion systems that were built, none proved effective. But during this time men began to assign to submarines what would become their primary purpose. They would develop into weapons to wield against the warship, the most advanced armed forces technology of the era.

The “Turtle,” the sub used in the 1776 attack of a British warship.

In 1776, two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a submarine designed by American David Bushnell was used to attack a British warship. The attack failed, but it was ingenious. The submarine sounds like something out of a steampunk novel. It was towed near the ship, submerged by opening a valve with the feet that let in water, and propelled forward with hand-operated screws. A foot pump would remove the water, allowing the vessel to resurface. The plan was to drill a hole in the ship and attach a bomb made of a 150-pound keg of gunpowder and a clockwork detonator, but the drill couldn’t penetrate the warship’s hull. (It’s thought the drill struck a metal rudder support.) The operator, American Sergeant Ezra Lee, was unable to combat the turn of the tides and gave up the attempt. He was spotted by British lookouts but managed to dock several hours later.

Most of these early submarine scientist and inventors were English or employed by the English. This worked out very well for the plot of my book, as much of it takes place in England, and the timing meshed with my villain, who was born in the mid-1600’s. He operates in the present day, however, so I kept researching.

In 1800, an American named Robert Fulton (remember the guy who invented the steamship?) designed a submarine for French use against the British navy. It reached a top speed of four knots which, unfortunately, was not as fast as his elusive prey. The ship, named the “Nautilus,” was dismantled, but its memory was forever immortalized by Jules Verne in his masterpiece 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea seventy years later.

A few more experiments were made in the following decades, but it was the American Civil War that would prompt a rash of new (and mostly failed) attempts at submarine warfare. In 1864, the famous Confederate sub H.L. Hunley, named after its designer, destroyed the Northern warship Housatonic but was swamped in the attack lost with all hands. (The sub was located in 1995 and is now being studied and preserved.)

The next fifty years saw the development of torpedoes; larger sub designs; propulsion systems featuring steam power, battery power, and combustion engines; and huge amounts of money awarded to designers by governments interested in improving their navies. And of course we all know how Germany’s diesel U-boats of WWI propelled the submarine into today’s modern era.

Like my other research, these facts provide mostly background detail for my plot, which is fantastic and very unrealistic. But I had to know this stuff to make a few scenes believable. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of discovery.

Next post: Mount St. Helens.

Taylor Davis: Submarine Technology

4 thoughts on “Taylor Davis: Submarine Technology

  1. Boy, that is a piece of information I didn’t know. Kind of cool. To think that the theory was discovered back in 1580, and used in 1776 during the war is fascinating. Don’t remember learning this in history classes.

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