The “Turtle”

turtleHidden behind a fishing boat, a strange craft is silently lowered into the water. The inventor, David Bushnell, has named it “Turtle” because of its shape…and because it is a submarine. It carries a single bomb and its mission is sabotage.

A thin young man named Ezra Lee hands Bushnell a final letter for his girlfriend, climbs into the Turtle, and seals the hatch.

Lee propels the tiny sub with a hand-cranked propeller. In the cramped space, he navigates with only a compass and a crude depth gauge. Slowly and silently the oak-sided Turtle moves through the murky water, heavily weighted down by hundreds of pounds of ballast. The submarine has had little testing; it may prove to be Lee’s watery coffin.

At last the Turtle is suspended motionless just below the keel of the enemy’s flagship. Undetected, Lee tries repeatedly to attach the demolition charge to the underhull. But there is nothing to anchor himself to. The tiny craft tumbles away from the big warship. Again and again Lee tries. Frustration, bad air, and the near-panic of claustrophobia crowd in on him. The tide begins to change and dawn is less than an hour off. If he is caught as a saboteur, there will be no mercy.

Finally, the Turtle’s snorkel pokes above the water and begins moving back toward Bushnell. Moments later, the bomb floats to the surface and drifts harmlessly away. Bushnell bites his lip and shakes his head. His mission has been a failure.

Some weeks later, their project still unknown except to a few carefully chosen revolutionaries, Bushnell and Lee try once more. But again technical problems stymie them, and Lee barely escapes with his life. When the ship that is carrying the Turtle is sunk by enemy gunfire, Bushnell abandons his project forever. How different would history have been had the Turtle been successful?20000leaguess

Perhaps very different. Because the moonlit harbor was New York’s. The warship was British Admiral Howe’s flagship H.M.S. Eagle. And the year was 1776. David Bushnell had invented the first real submarine…about hundred years before Jules Verneturtle sub ever dreamed of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.

A model of David Bushnell‘s submarine is on display in Groton, CT. For a description of the image on the left, click here.

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