We’ve mentioned Monturiol’s Ictíneo before—a pedal-controlled sub launched from Barcelona in the mid-19th century. But he didn’t invent the submarine. In fact, there are precursors dating back more than 2,000 years.
From the earliest submarines to ancient diving bells, here are ten of the oldest—all from 1800 or earlier—ranked in reverse chronological order.
10. Nautilus, 1800
Long before even the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—the 139-foot Plongeur in 1863—was the Nautilus, from which Verne got the name. Like the later Plongeur, the Nautilus was built in France, and it was every bit a product of its time: it had a sleek copper shell, collapsible wooden mast and sail, and a hand-cranked propeller for thrust underwater.
Its American designer, Robert Fulton, although better known for his steamboats, considered this his most important invention—but not for exploration of the seas. A strong believer in maritime freedom, he believed it meant the end of all navies and tried separately to sell it to France (who were falling behind the British anyway), Britain, and the United States (who were behind everyone). However, despite being equipped with a self-propelled bomb, none was especially interested. As one French admiral put it, the Nautilus was better suited for “Algerians or pirates”.
9. “Turtle”, 1776
The first submarine ever used in combat was American engineer David Bushnell’s “Turtle”. Built during the Revolutionary War, it was intended for use against the British but failed on each of its three attempts to attach a time-delay mine to enemy ships.
The pear-shaped vessel was basic, with space for just one man in its 2.3-by-1.8-meter wooden hull, which, like a barrel, was reinforced with iron bands. It was propelled by hand.
11 years later, Bushnell disappeared to Georgia, changed his name to Bush, and became a medical doctor—apparently wanting to distance himself from the failure the “Turtle” represented.
8. Improved diving bell, 1775
The diving bell was a proven success by the late 18th century, and well understood (more on that later). But there was still room for improvement.
In 1775, Edinburgh confectioner Charles Spalding, ruined by the loss of a ship carrying goods in which he was invested, devised a plan to dive to the wreckage and recover what was his. Building on earlier designs, his expedited upgrades to the diving bell included balance weights to help keep it stable and a series of ropes by which occupants could signal the surface crew. He also added a window, which must have been a long time coming, and seating in the form of more ropes.
Despite successful dives, Spalding never recovered his goods. He was, however, awarded money for his work by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, after which diving became his life—and death. In 1783, he died on a descent to the wreck Belgioso in the depths of Dublin Bay.
7. Morel, 1720
The world’s first military submarine was, believe it or not, trialed in 1720. Russian carpenter Yefim Nikonov, despite having no engineering background, came up with and built the stealth vessel. Armed with rocket missiles, it was capable of “knocking out a warship from below.” In fact, in specifications submitted to the tsar, Peter the Great, Nikonov said it could take out “at least ten or twenty”—and that, if he was wrong, “he was ready to answer with his head.”
13 months later, he launched a small prototype, which successfully dived and resurfaced in the Neva. Although a second trial, watched by the tsar, saw the sub fail to resurface, Yefim was allowed to proceed. The finished vessel—called Model but misnamed Morel by a clerk—was six meters long and two meters high. It was basically a huge wooden barrel, complete with iron hoops and flamethrowers. Powered by oarsmen, each wearing a Nikonov-designed diving suit, the Morel submerged by taking water through ten tin plates into leather bags lining the vessel. Then, to resurface, the water was discharged by a copper piston pump.
Unfortunately, after diving to 3-4 meters, it was torn open when it scraped along the ground. The crew was rescued, though, and the tsar was still keen. When Peter died, however, Nikonov lost his support. Through lack of funds, the next test, in 1727, was doomed to fail and fail it did—after which the inventor was banished to Astrakhan and submarines put on hold for two centuries.
6. Halley’s diving bell, 1691
Edmond Halley, more famous for the comet, is generally thought to be the father of the diving bell. His wasn’t the first, but it seemed to allow divers to remain submerged for longer than ever before—specifically, an hour and a half at depths of 20 meters. Halley’s improvement on earlier designs was a system of replenishing the air from weighted barrels via valves inside the bell. (This system was later improved by French mathematician Denis Papin, who devised a way to continuously replenish the air from the surface by way of bellows and a pipe.)
Another of Halley’s innovations was a mini diving bell to be used as a diver’s helmet, with an air hose made of guts connected to the larger bell. This, he hoped, would allow him to “goe out of the diving bell, and stay in the water as long as he pleased, and to be at liberty to do what he pleased.”
He had, however, underestimated the effects of water pressure—although he did mention the pain in his ears during dives, saying it was “as if a quill had been thrust into them”. It simply wasn’t possible for divers to breathe normally under pressure; either the air had to be pressurized too or the entire body had to be shielded. Hence, John Lethbridge’s later armored diving suit.
5. Margarita diving bell, 1625
Predating Halley’s bell by almost three quarters of a century was the Margarita diving bell—so-called because it (or rather, its cap, which is all that remains of it) was found on the sunken Spanish galleon the Santa Margarita. The saucer-shaped disc of copper, covered with rivets and measuring one and a half meters across, puzzled archaeologists 40 years ago. In the end, they assumed it was used to cook fish on the ship. Only recently was the mystery solved.
Documents show the wrecked galleon was far from abandoned. In 1625, three years after it sank in the Florida Keys, the Spanish mounted a salvage operation involving a specially commissioned diving bell. 1.2 meters tall and 0.9 meters wide, the 700-pound bell is thought to have been designed in 1606. A tube to the surface supplied fresh air.
Although it’s not known what the rest of the bell looked like (though it was probably made of wood), the artifact has been described as the “rarest technological treasure”. It is the oldest hard evidence that any historically recorded diving bell existed.
4. Drebbel’s submarine, 1620
Dutch physician Cornelis Drebbel is credited with the world’s first navigable submarine. Built in London for King James I, the design has been lost to history—except for a few superficial details. Apparently it was a modified rowing boat, or at least based on a rowing boat, reinforced with iron and covered with leather like Nikonov’s later design. Also like the Morel, it was propelled by oarsmen, six on each side, with the oars poking out through watertight leather sleeves. It also had a rudder for steering.
Between 1620 and 1624, Drebbel enjoyed many successful voyages along the Thames—usually at a depth of up to 15 feet. This was controlled by filling and emptying pigskin bladders with the surrounding water. Each was connected to pipes leading out of the sub, as well as ropes to open and close them.
Thanks to air tubes extending vertically out of the water, dives could last hours at a time. Apparently, the king was on one of them.
3. Bourne’s submarine, 1578
Decades before Drebbel took the credit, English mathematician William Bourne appears to have come up with the design. It probably wasn’t built, but the parallels are clear. Bourne’s submarine was a wooden frame covered in leather and rowed by oarsmen inside.
He printed his plans in his Inventions, or, Devises, published in 1578. Like Drebbel, Bourne was in with the English aristocracy, with several wealthy patrons and supporters—earls, lords, and an admiral—so he had a good chance of raising the money to build it. But he died four years later and never got to see Drebbel steal his glory.
2. Lake Nemi diving bell, 1531
Perhaps the earliest diving bell we can be relatively certain existed was the one used to salvage Caligula’s sunken barges in Lake Nemi near Rome. Lost in the first century AD, these 70-by-20-meter “platforms for floating palaces” were explored once before, by Genovese seamen in 1446. On that occasion, seamen had swam down to the wrecks and attached ropes to be raised by cranes on floating platforms of their own. In the end, all they managed to do was break off pieces of wood. The weight was simply too great.
Hence the second attempt, commissioned by a cardinal, made use of a state-of-the-art diving bell. Only we don’t quite know how it worked. There was apparently a system for expelling breathed air, but this mechanism its inventor kept secret and, to this day, nobody knows anything about it. There was also apparently no shortage of fresh air to breathe, since the divers resurfaced only out of cold and exhaustion, not suffocation.
Surprisingly, this early diving bell seems to have been sophisticated even by later standards. Despite its small size, dives could last up to two hours. Which may lend credence to the next and final entry on this list.
1. Bathysphere, 332 BC
For the Siege of Tyre, Alexander the Great is said to have built “a very fine barrel made entirely of white glass” to scout out undersea defenses. After it was towed out to sea, Alexander himself, along with two companions, climbed inside and were lowered into the water. According to Aristotle’s account, they were stunned by the bright lights they saw coming from the submersible itself. Alexander was moved, like astronauts are—but not to awe, to melancholy. He later mused: “the world is damned and lost. The large and powerful fish devour the small fry.”
It’s not clear if this was a diving bell. A later account describes it as a “glass case, reinforced by metal bands” and lowered by “a chain over 600 feet long.” Of course, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Alexander the Great. But diving bells were known in the classical world. In his Problemata, Aristotle describes a method by which a “kettle” filled with air was lowered to sponge divers to help them stay down there for longer. “To prevent the air from escaping and the water from entering,” the kettle was “forcibly kept upright in its descent.”
Prior to the diving bell, undersea operations involved divers filling their mouths and ear canals with oil, sinking with the aid of rocks, and getting as much done as they could before someone hauled them back up with a rope. Otherwise, views of the deep were limited to free-diving and snorkeling with hollowed-out reeds.