Sample Research Paper: History of Submarines

Research PaperHistory
Apr 20, 2022

Learning about the history of submarines is one of the best ways to understand the function, purpose, and importance of the technology.  Since humans consistently develop technological innovations, the conception of submarines went through a series of changes. Early concepts focused on successfully submerging a ship without the risk of water flooding the vessel. Other concepts then aimed to provide the submarine with the ability to travel long distances while minimizing resupplying efforts. Eventually, engineers began to weaponize submarines, equipping vessels with torpedoes and missiles. This research paper will discuss the historical progression of submarine technology that showcased human ingenuity and military priority.

Early Concepts on Submarines

Submarines are inventions that many may assume as modern innovations. This misconception can come from the concept of using high-end technology as a way to operate the vessel. People see submarines mostly on television or social media, which are mediums that tend to show modern models along with complicated visual effects to simulate the top-level technology. The truth, however, is that the concept of submarines or submersible ships began in the early civilizations.

Some legends and sketches indicate the curiosity of humans to travel underwater began early in history. According to the National Museum of the U.S. Navy (2018), there was a legend about Alexander the Great using a diving bell to travel underwater. Some may consider the diving bell, a primitive tool that can allow humans to stay underwater for an extended period, as an early version of the submarine. There are also primitive paintings that illustrate humans using sticks as breathing tubes while underwater. These early indications show that a submersible ship and underwater travel are concepts that intrigue humans which would then fuel the pursuit to invent the technology.

Despite the early conceptualizations of submarines, which were around 400BC, it was only around the 16th century when inventors, engineers, and other thinkers began to pursue the invention of submersible vessels. In 1515, the Italian artist and scientist, Leonardo da Vinci, drew a concept for a submersible vehicle (Scheve, n.d.). Similar to his other technological concepts, however, da Vinci never acted on the creation of the vessel. More than 60 years later, William Bourne, an English mathematician, drafted the first official design and description for a submersible vessel in 1578. Though Bourne published designs for a submarine, he did not attempt to create a real version.

The 17th Century and the First Submarine

After the 16th century, inventors became more certain of the functionality of a submersible vessel. So at the beginning of the 17th century, in 1620, Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel designed, created, and tested the first submarine. Drebbel’s submarine used oars as a way to move the vessel underwater and could only dive not more than 12 or 15 feet below the surface (Tierie, n.d.). Drebbel attached the oars to the inside of the vessel using leather that prevented water from flooding the submarine. Since the vessel used wood, diving into deeper depths can cause instability and prevent it from being able to rise back to the surface. Additionally, it is worth noting that Denis Papin, a French inventor, wrote about Drebbel’s submarine and designed a similar vessel in 1691.

The data regarding Drebbel’s submarine are limited and mostly from the writings of other inventors. This makes it difficult for modern researchers to visualize and describe his work. Tierie (n.d.), however, stated that despite the lack of visual historical data, the descriptions from various authors indicate that Drebbel’s submarine was large and may not have been fully enclosed. Tierne (n.d.) concludes that the submersible ship may have looked more like a diving bell than the modern submarine. Alternatively, some artistic models show a modern-looking submarine that uses wood for its hulls. These conflicting interpretations showcase how Drebbel’s submarine and its design could have influenced other inventors and their creations.

The 18th Century Submarines

Drebbel’s successful submarine test proved that a submersible ship is possible and can have a variety of functions. One of these functions was as a tool of war, which the English Navy acknowledged immediately after Drebbel’s invention. This led military bodies to hire engineers and inventors to help design combat submarines. By the early 18th century, around 1727, there have been 14 patented submarine designs (Scheve, n.d.). Most of the designs followed Drebbel’s utilization of wooden frames, leather, and hand-operated oars. This led the designs to rely on hand-powered mechanisms which made them slower than warships, thus, making them obsolete in naval warfare. 

The most notable submarines during this period are Yefim Nikonov’s combat submarine in 1724 and David Bushnell’s “The Turtle” in 1775. Nikonov’s combat submarine, similar to Drebbel’s, utilized wood for its hull. Since combat was Nikonov’s priority, the vessel included fire tubes that theoretically blow up an enemy ship (Ajmal, 2019). The submarine had a barrel shape and included an airlock for sailors to use during an attack. Unfortunately, all of Nikonov’s tests resulted in failure which led to the project’s halt.

It was only in 1775 when Bushnell created “The Turtle”, the first functioning combat submarine. Bushnell created the vessel as a way to help the colonies during the American Revolution. Similar to its predecessors, it had a wooden hull but utilized an innovative hand crank and foot treadle to operate. It included a ballast tank, which is an integral part of maintaining a submarine's stability underwater (Andrews, 2018). Despite being the first fully functioning combat submarine, “The Turtle” failed to accomplish its mission. The soldier manning the submarine failed to attach the bombs from The Turtle to an enemy ship, leading to the abandonment of the mission. Aside from failing in its mission, “The Turtle” was a technological success in the field of submarine engineering.

The 19th Century Submarines

In 1800, the American inventor Robert Fulton created the first modern submarine. The “Nautilus”, which had an all-metal hull, a cigar shape, and a copper conning tower; changed submarine designs from using wood exclusively to metal. This submarine, however, still relied on hand-powered mechanisms which limited its scope. Despite the Nautilus’ engineering innovations, it failed to help fight the French and English navies (Andrews, 2018). It was only by 1863, during the American civil war , that the first submarine successfully destroyed an enemy ship, solidifying the role of the vessels in naval warfare. The submarine was Horace Hunley’s “H.L. Hunley”, which also sunk after launching torpedoes at the USS Housatonic.

The “Nautilus” and “H.L. Hunley” showed both the potential of submarines as well as the limitations of using hand-powered mechanisms. This indicated that the next step in submarine engineering is finding an effective power source to operate the complex vessel. In the mid to late 19th century, inventors began to utilize engines as power sources for submarines. In 1858. Narcis Monturiol Estarriol created “Ictineo”, the first engine-powered submarine that used a steam engine to produce heat and oxygen. In 1864, Simeon Bourgeois and Charle Brun created the piston engine-powered “Le Plongeur” (Andrews, 2018). In 1897, Simon Lake created the “Argonaut”, a gasoline engine-powered submarine that was the first to travel long distances underwater (Submarine Development, n.d.). This transition from hand-operated to engine-powered vessels was a huge leap in the field that improved the functionality of submarines and became the standard for modern designs.

Submarine Innovations in the 20th and 21st Centuries

By the 20th century, engineers have developed a clear understanding of the theories and natural laws that govern the development of submarines. The only challenge then was to find the best power source for the vessels. Engineers tested the use of gasoline, batteries, steam, electric motors, and diesel. Power sources like batteries, steam engines, and gasoline engines proved to be dangerous resulting in the halt of their use while diesel became an efficient source (Submarines & Deep Technology, n.d.). Eventually, inventors also began testing the potential of nuclear power in submarine engineering. The results showed that nuclear power was a great way to power a submarine and allow a vessel to remain underwater for a long period.

Since the 20th century was also the time of the First and Second World Wars, the role of combat submarines became apparent. The German submarine “SM U-21” showcased the prowess of the vessels when it sunk the “HMS Pathfinder” and traveled deep into UK territory undetected (Lye, 2019). During World War 2, submarines began to fight other submarines which led to the invention of targeting computers (Lye, 2019). The combat capability that submarines showed during the war compelled other countries to make advancements in their designs to address possible threats. This led submarines to play an integral role in a country’s defense sector.

In the 21st century, a lot of technological advancement occurred in various fields which could become applicable to submarine development. Advancements in navigation, artificial intelligence, computer software, and more could have significant impacts on submarines. According to The National Museum of the US Navy (2019), submarines may eventually become unmanned vessels that gather data and automatically send them to military bases. Currently, some submarines are also acting as a nuclear deterrent by holding anti-ship missiles, nuclear weapons, and other deterrents. 

Conclusion

The history of submarines shows the ingenuity of the human mind and the alarming priority of civilization. The early concepts indicated that the desire to travel using submersible ships began very early in history. When Drebbel created the first submarine, it revealed man’s priority of developing tools of war over other means, like scientific research. Starting with Drebbel up until the 21st century, military bodies funded and oversaw most of the development in submarine engineering. Early submarine designs included weapon parts for use in war while later concepts focused on top-of-the-line technology to gain an advantage over potential threats. Despite the military’s motivation behind submarine development, the vessels are still a testament to human progress and their thirst for exploring unknown territories.  

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Reference List

Ajmal, A. (2019). The World’s First Military Submarine Was A Wooden Barrel and This is How It Looked Like [Online}. Available at https://wonderfulengineering.com/first-military-submarine-wooden-barrel-looks/ . Accessed May 3, 2022.

Andrews, E. (2018). 9 Grounding Early Submarines [Online]. History. Available at https://www.history.com/news/9-groundbreaking-early-submarines#:~:text=British%20mathematician%20William%20Bourne%20made,the%20British%20King%20James%20I. Accessed Accessed May 3, 2022.

Britannica. (2011). Diving Bell [Online]. Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at https://www.britannica.com/technology/diving-bell-submersible-vessel. Accessed May 3, 2022.

History.navy.mil. (2019). Submarine Development [Online]. National Museum of the Navy. Available at https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/nmusn/education/distance-learning/history-of-submarines/submarine-development--a-short-history.html. Accessed May 3, 2022.

Lye, H. (2019). A History of Submarines: From U-Boat to Dreadnought [Online]. Naval Technology. Available at https://www.naval-technology.com/analysis/a-history-of-submarines-from-u-boat-to-dreadnought/. Accessed May 3, 2022.

Marinebio.org. (n.d.). Submarines & Deep Technology. Marine Bio. Available at https://www.marinebio.org/creatures/tools/submarines/. Accessed May 4, 2022.

Scheve, T. (n.d.). How Nuclear Submarines Work [Online]. HowStuffWorks. Available at https://science.howstuffworks.com/nuclear-submarine1.htm. Accessed May 3, 2022.

Tierie, G. (n.d.). Cornelis Drebbel. Drebbel.net. Available at https://drebbel.net/Tierie.pdf. Accessed May 3, 2022.

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