The National Maritime Historical Society

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First Wooden Submarine Used in Battle

During the Revolutionary War, George Washington approved the secret mission to launch Turtle, a one-man submarine, near Battery Park in New York Harbor on September 6, 1776 to attack the English war fleet. The mission was to attach a bomb to the hull of a British warship. Ultimately the mission proved unsuccessful, as the bomb never reached its target. However, Turtle represents our country’s first underwater war ship and submarine design.

Turtle submerged by allowing water into the hull and ascended by pushing water out through a hand pump. It could manouever vertically and horizontally using hand-cranked propellers, which are the first recorded use of the screw propeller. Designed as a naval weapon, the purpose was to use Turtle to gain access to a ship’s hull in to plant a keg of powder, which would detonate after a certain duration.

Turtle, originally built by Dave Bushnell, a Saybrook native, was a barrel-shaped craft that resembled two tortoise shells joined together and covered with tar. Today students at the Old Saybrook High School have a thorough knowledge of the history of Turtle and under the supervision of woodshop teacher, Fred Frese, are attempting to build a replica of the six-foot high submersible. The submarine has become an interdisciplinary project, being built by the technology department, with design from the math and science departments, and the historical research provided by the social studies department. Student teams also implement Bushnell’s four-page description of Turtle sent to Thomas Jefferson along with a set of notes provided by Benjamin Franklin.

The National Maritime Historical Society is constructing a replica of Turtle at Old Saybrook High School, Old Saybrook, CT, with sponsorship from The Naval Undersea Warfare Center and the History Channel.

The original replica of Turtle built in 1776 as a Bicentennial project is owned by the Connecticut River Museum and is currently on loan to Old Saybrook High School. The building of Turtle is expected to be finished sometime in the spring of next year, at which time the US Navy will be supplying all the technological parts. A retired SEAL will pilot the ship when it is first launched.