The first successful submarine was invented in 1620 by Cornelis Drebbel, a Dutch physician, who conducted several tests in the Thames River. The vessel, propelled by oars, consisted of a wooden frame covered with greased leather.
The use of a submarine as an offensive weapon was first tried in the American Revolutionary War. In 1775 David Bushnell, a physician in the American colonies, devised a wooden, egg-shaped, one-man submarine, the Turtle, for use against the British fleet in New York Harbor. The following year Sergeant Ezra Lee maneuvered the Turtle into the harbor and under a British man-of-war. After failing in an attempt to attach a gunpowder charge to the ship's hull, he set the charge off a short distance away. The explosion so frightened the British that they moved their fleet.
In 1801 Robert Fulton built for the French navy a wooden submarine, the Nautilus, for use against the British. It had such features as a conning tower and ballast tanks. Four men inside manually operated a propeller mechanism. Fulton failed in several attempts to destroy any British ships, and the French withdrew support.
During the American Civil War, the Confederates built partly submersible vessels called “Davids,” in which the entrance hatch and funnel remained above water. No Union ships were sunk by them, however. The Confederates also built a completely submersible craft, the Hunley, named after its inventor, H. L. Hunley. It was built of sheet iron and was propelled manually. In trial runs the vessel sank four times with full crews of eight men each. In 1864, the Hunley, sailing partly submerged, sank the USS Housatonic with a spar-torpedo, an explosive on the end of a pole. This was the first time a warship had been destroyed by a submarine; the Hunley, however, also went down.
In both Europe and the United States, many inventors in the late 1800's worked on developing a submarine that could operate as a practical and effective warship. John P. Holland, an Irish-American, is generally credited with being the first to invent such a craft. His first model was built in 1877. One of his vessels, the Holland, launched in 1898 and accepted by the United States government in 1900, was the first U.S. Navy submarine.
Holland introduced steel construction for the hull, the use of electric storage batteries for powering the vessel under water, and the use of the internal combustion engine when on the surface. Simon Lake, another United States inventor, devised a submarine that could dive on an even keel instead of nose first like Holland's vessel. Using these American developments, other nations built their submarine fleets. An innovation of the Germans was the diesel engine, first used in 1909.
Germany had built fewer submarines than any major power before World War I. But after the war broke out in 1914, Germany saw the possibility of using U-boats (Unterseeboote, “undersea boats”) to destroy the commerce of Great Britain and force the country out of the war by economic strangulation. Although limited by operational radius to European waters, the submarine proved extraordinarily effective, as thousands of Allied merchant vessels were sunk. Many warships were sent to the bottom as well.
The U-boats would have been valueless, however, had Germany abided by international law and provided for prior visit and search of the target ship and for safety of its passengers. The United States protested unrestricted use of the U-boat, especially when American lives were lost, and eventually Germany's U-boat campaign brought the United States into the war.
British measures to combat the U-boat menace, such as laying mine fields and patrolling shipping lanes, were largely ineffective. It was not until the convoy system was introduced in 1917 that massive destruction of merchant shipping was ended. Near the end of the war, the British perfected the hydrophone and used it in antisubmarine warfare. After the war, further improvements on the device resulted in the development of sonar.
In the early part of World War II, the inability of the Allies to fully maintain the convoy system and air cover, as well as a lack of sonar and radar equipment, resulted in great losses in seaborne shipping to German U-boats. Unlike World War I submarines, World War II U-boats, refueled in the mid-Atlantic Ocean by U-boat tankers, could roam the entire ocean. German policy was to concentrate operations where there were few convoys and where there was light antisubmarine activity. Against convoys, night surface attacks by “wolf packs” (teams of submarines) met some success.
By the end of 1944, however, the Allies had overcome the submarine peril by extending the convoy system and by greater use of detection equipment and aircraft carrier and land-based air cover. In 1944 the Germans adopted the snorkel, which enabled their submarines to recharge their batteries at periscope depth, thereby decreasing chances of being detected by radar. The Germans also developed submarines with greatly improved underwater capabilities. It was too late in the war, however, for these developments to benefit the Germans to any great extent.
United States submarines were extremely effective due in part to the excellent training of their crews and in part to the poor antisubmarine warfare performance of the Japanese navy. Virtually all of Japan's seaborne commerce was destroyed, which contributed greatly to that nation's defeat. Japan experimented with one-man midget submarines, and some were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. However, throughout the war the Japanese used their submarines ineffectively and employed them little against merchant shipping.
The nuclear submarine was developed by a group headed by Hyman G. Rickover of the U.S. Navy. Work began in 1947. The world's first nuclear-powered vessel, the submarine Nautilus, was launched in 1954, followed by the Seawolf in 1955. The underwater cruising ability of nuclear submarines was demonstrated by the voyage of the Nautilus to the North Pole in 1958 and the around-the-world submerged voyage of the Triton in 1960.
The first submarine equipped with ballistic missiles, the USS George Washington, went to sea duty in 1960. The United States in the 1990's had more than 30 such submarines. China, Great Britain, France, and Russia have built nuclear-powered attack submarines as well as ballistic-missile-carrying types.