On this date in 1776, the American Turtle, the American submarine built for warfare, was deployed in New York Harbor. Its mission: To plant an explosive charge on the H.M.S. Eagle, a 64-gun warship that was the flag vessel of British Admiral Lord Howe.
The Turtle had been designed and built the previous year by David Bushnell, a Yale University student who had made the novel discovery that it was possible to explode gunpowder underwater. Bushnell then got the brainstorm to create a small submarine to deliver an explosive charge. According to this web site on submarine history, the concept of submersible craft wasn’t a new one; it had first been conceived by an English futurist named William Bourne back in 1580, and the Dutch built the first military prototype, the 72-foot Rotterdam Boat in 1650, though its ingenious spring-powered paddle-wheel turned out to be too underpowered, and they were unable to get it to move underwater. Bushnell hoped he would have better luck. His Turtle, reluctantly funded by a skeptical Gen. George Washington, was a one-man craft constructed of two oak turtle-like shells (which is where it got its name). On the early-morning darkness of Sept. 7, the Turtle was towed to the vicinity of the Eagle, and released. Its pilot, Sgt. Ezra Lee, then opened a valve that allowed enough water to enter the hull that the craft slipped beneath the surface. Lee then cranked foot pedals that propelled the Turtle to its target. Then, Lee turned a crank attached to a drill on the Turtle’s exterior, and tried to put a small hole in the Eagle’s wooden hull and attach a 150-pound barrel of gunpowder with a clockwork timer.
Clever, huh? Unfortunately, the Turtle’s drill apparently hit an iron strap on the Eagle’s hull, and failed to penetrate it. The bomb went off in the water instead, creating a spectacular but ineffective explosion. A disoriented Lee bobbed to the surface, where he was spotted by a lookout. Fortunately, Lee managed to get away without being captured. The Americans later tried to smuggle the Turtle out of the harbor on a sloop, but the British spotted them and sank it and the submarine. Through the debut of submarine warfare was a flop, it did put enough fear into the British that they moved their warships, and in time, submarines would become feared weapons. Today, a working replica of the Turtle is on display in the Connecticut River Museum. And with that, here are the stories of the day.