David Bushnell was a simple farmer whose intuitive way of looking at 18th century warfare led to his invention of the first military submarine. Despite his inventiveness, his submarine was a failure and he resigned himself to a quiet life as a rural doctor in Georgia. When he died, few took notice. Yet his ingenuity lives on today in naval forces throughout the world.
David Bushnell was born in 1740 in West Saybrook, Connecticut, just off the Connecticut River. He spent his early days with his nose in a book, under the watchful eye of his father, a rather wealthy farmer in the town. When Bushnell showed interest in the sciences, his father encouraged him, but gave him little money to attend university. Bushnell was content to spend his days on the farm, but often dreamed of being a doctor.
When Bushnell was 29, his father passed away unexpectedly and left David a small fortune. David used the money to attend Yale, studying chemistry and engineering. Upon graduating, it was becoming increasingly evident that America was going to war, and so David joined the Army Corps of Engineers.
He first envisioned his submarine when he saw a turtle floating in a creek near his house. He went out and built two large pieces of wood for the hull, themselves resembling the shell of a turtle's back. Inside he placed a primitive pedal system that connected to a whirring fan outside of the shell. The Turtle was born. He had his brother Ezra learn to drive the thing with great degrees of success. In 1775, he showed his new invention to a delighted George Washington (and Benjamin Franklin, a noted inventor himself), who endeavored for Bushnell to try out his new weapon against the British fleet parked outside of New York harbor.
Two nights before the attack, Ezra Bushnell became ill. Another Ezra, Ezra Lee, a gunnery sergeant under Washington, was donated to Bushnell, who put him to a two month long grueling task of learning how to operate the Turtle. In addition to the vigorous pedaling required, there was also a rope to add and subtract ballast from the submarine, as well as a rudder device for direction. Adding to it was a complex system with which to attach a mine to the hull of another ship. A giant screw that could be inserted into the keel of a ship lay on the outside of the Turtle, a waterproof fuse attached to it along with the mine. After the mine was set, the operator would light the fuse - and then pedal away as fast as he could! Inside the submarine was enough air to last a man roughly 12 hours. Their operation would have to be airtight and silent.
On September 6, the night of the attack, Lee took aim at the HMS Eagle. He took his stealthy craft below the waters, neared the hull - and found to his dismay that the hull was copper-plated, blocking any attempt to attach the mine. Reports suggest that Eagle could tell the boat was being "attacked" below the waters, but could not identify the source of the assault. After nearly using up his entire air supply, Lee ditched the warhead, which exploded harmlessly in the bay waters, and returned to shore. Twice more the Turtle went out to sea; twice more it returned unsuccessful. The third and final time it was scuttled after the ship carrying it back to shore was accosted by British warships. The end of the Turtle marked an end to submarine warfare during the American Revolution.
Disappointment and Disappearance
Bushnell was disappointed, but continued to use his engineering prowess to aid the revolutionary forces. He invented several different "drift mines", mines placed in the water that exploded on contact. He also helped create a more advanced version of his own submarine - an unmanned one controlled by a boat using an advanced rope-and-pulley system that could be laced with explosives and destroyed remotely. All of these devices proved useful in the struggle for American independence.
Amazingly, Bushnell vanished in 1787 from his home in Connecticut. No one could find him, and no one seemed particularly upset about his disappearance. Sometime later Bushnell resurfaced in Georgia under the alias David Bush. He became a respected doctor and teacher in the town of Warrenton. He apparently spent some of his vanishing time away in France - possibly helping out with their revolution as well. Whatever the case may be, his true identity was not discovered until after his death in 1824, when those going through his effects found drawings of the Turtle and correspondence revealing himself to be Bushnell. The man who had invented the sneak attack had had one last surprise in him after all.