Historians usually agree that the first modern submarine was the one constructed and successfully tested by a Dutchman named Cornelius Drebbel. The first modern submarine designed, however, was probably the one dreamed up by William Bourne. The English mathematician imagined a glorified underwater boat sometime around 1578.
Bourne’s sub was never actually built, which might be a good thing given the track record of early submarines. Who knows, maybe it would’ve ended up on this list of 10 experimental submarines that didn’t work out – because they sank.
10. Dr. Petit’s Little Sub That Couldn’t
Do a bit of digging, and you’ll find dozens of stories of experimental submarines that tried to kill their inventors. Unfortunately, a lot of those stories aren’t much more than notes in passing. In many cases, all we have is the fact that Inventor X was drowned when Submarine Y sank due to Design Flaw and/or Stupid Mistake Z.
But Alan Burgoyne’s Submarine Navigation Past and Present, Volume 1 (1903) gives us enough information about Dr. Jean-Baptiste Petit to tell a decent story. According to Burgoyne, Petit was a doctor from northern France with a hobby of building experimental submarines. Most writers just tell us that Petit built a submarine and then died in it. Burgoyne adds that Petit’s pet project measured about 12 feet and was driven by two oars. (Spoiler alert: Dr. Petit dies.)
The doctor tested his contraption at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme on August 15, 1834. After spending some time puttering about the Baie de la Somme, he was satisfied with his sub’s performance. So, he puttered over to the wharf to fetch some ballast for diving. Then Petit and his boat disappeared below the surface.
The enterprising doctor didn’t reappear until the next morning, when low tide exposed the sub lying in the mud. Petit was found dead inside, apparently the victim of suffocation after his rig took on water and pinned him to the ocean floor.
9. U-1206 and the Case of the Malfunctioning Toilet
In 1945, with only weeks remaining in World War II, a toilet sank a U-boat just off the coast of Scotland. That’s right, a toilet malfunction was the reason Germany’s U-1206 went down on her very first tour of duty.
Unlike Allied sub toilets, German sub toilets flushed right into the sea. This meant that in order to, ahem, evacuate, German subs had to be on or near the surface. Otherwise, water pressure would be greater than flushing pressure, and all that crap would come rushing right back at you. But being on or near the surface was risky business for WWII subs because of enemy aircraft, which were often flying in wait for the chance to drop you a bomb. So, the U-1206 was equipped with a special high-pressure toilet that could be flushed farther under.
But in solving one problem, the Germans accidentally created another. Their high toilet technology came with a high-tech, hard-to-read user manual and a complicated operating procedure. So complicated, in fact, that some of the crew actually had to be trained as “toilet specialists” before the submarine got underway.
Enter Commander Karl Schlitt. As the story unfolds in an Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader piece reprinted in Neatorama, Schlitt was not one of the trained U-1206 toilet flushers. But that sure didn’t stop him from giving it a shot. What’s the worst that could happen, right? He flipped through the manual and flushed, and then the worst happened.
As unwanted ocean poured through the head’s pipes and into the sub, the water reacted chemically with acid from the vessel’s electric batteries. This resulted in a wonderful spritz of chlorine gas that began choking the crew to death. Although, to be fair, it probably covered up the smell of feces pretty well. Schlitt’s only option was to order the U-1206 to the surface, where it was immediately bombed by British warplanes. Schlitt had to scuttle the sub.
A couple endnotes are necessary here. First, there’s a rumor that the German officers aboard, smelling certain defeat in the last days of war, dreamed up the toilet story so they could have an excuse to surface, surrender, and not die. Second, Commander Schlitt’s official report leaves out the part about him initiating the toilet trouble – a convenient omission, if you ask us.
8. The Chicago River Foolkiller
The story of the sub dragged out of Chicago River mud in December 1915 is a murky one. Probably the best research we can look at comes from Adam Selzer, long-time Chicago author and tour guide, and from Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope.
Here are the basics: while laying underwater cable for Com-Ed, a diver and Eastland Disaster responder named William “Frenchy” Deneau stumbled across a strange submarine partly buried in the muck. He quickly dubbed the sub the Foolkiller – most likely in reference to the insane contraptions built by daredevil Peter Nissen, who several times shot the falls at Niagara – and then pitched the story to local newspapers to stir up interest. He even obtained government permission to raise the sub and show it off.
The timing was ideal. Submarine warfare was just picking up deadly steam in the World War I arena, so the media was happy to publish a sensational tale of a mysterious sub dredged up in stateside waters. Three months after his find, Deneau was raking in profits from his Foolkiller display at 208 South State Street. Oh, and also – they supposedly found the bones of a human operator and a dog (second-in-command?) inside the sub while cleaning it out.
To this day, it’s unclear who built the sub, who died inside of it, and whether or not it was all just a publicity stunt by Deneau. For now it remains a legend of submarine history.
7. George Garrett’s Resurgam and the Nordenfeldts
Introducing George Garrett, Anglican reverend and engineer extraordinaire. This man built the steam-powered sub Resurgam, completed in 1879. The U.S. Navy deemed it slow, unstable, and unsafe to operate. Fortunately for the human race, she sank during delivery while under tow. “Resurgam” is Latin for “I shall rise”; incidentally, Resurgam didn’t.
Garrett’s claim to fame, however, wasn’t just designing a dangerous submarine. It was designing multiple dangerous submarines. After Resurgam bit the dust at the bottom of the ocean, Garrett partnered with Swedish arms manufacturer Thorsten Nordenfeldt in the 1880s to make more steam-powered submarines. These boats were called Nordenfeldts. They were just as slow and dangerous as Resurgam, but apparently that wasn’t enough to stop people from buying them.
Greece bought the Nordenfeldt I in 1886, and Turkey – Greece’s naval rival at the time – immediately ordered Nordenfeldt II and Nordenfeldt III. Another Nordenfeldt was built for Russia, but she ran aground while in tow, and the Russians refused to accept the salvaged sub.
Testing of Turkey’s Nordenfeldt II turned out to be quite the riot. Apparently, she performed smartly in surface operations, but underwater she acted like a seesaw. Farnham Bishop’s version of the trials, from his 1916 The Story of the Submarine, is easily the funniest thing we read while researching this list. Do yourself a favor and go read Bishop’s hilarious story of the Nordenfeldt II now.
6. HMS M2, Submarine Aircraft Carrier
The Royal Navy’s HMS M2 was an experimental rebuild of an earlier K-class sub. These K-class subs were known as “Kalamity” subs due to dangerous design flaws. Says Edward Whitman in an Undersea Warfare piece for the U.S. Submarine Force: “Fuel leaks, explosions, fires, boiler flashbacks, hydraulic failures, and groundings were common.” Indeed, one of the worst submarine disasters ever recorded was the loss of over 100 men during a chain-reaction smash-up of British cruisers and K-class subs on January 31, 1918.
It was upon the fine foundation of the HMS K19 that the M2 was built. Initially, M2 was a submarine monitor and packed a gigantic 12-inch gun on her deck. Later, she was modified to a carry a plane. That’s right, the M2 was a submarine aircraft carrier, complete with a hangar and a small seaplane with folding wings. All she had to do was surface, unpack her little flying surprise, and shoot the thing into the sky with a catapult. Bam, instant reconnaissance. Here she is in Popular Mechanics from October 1931.
On January 26, 1932, M2 went down in West Bay, Dorset, off Portland. Everyone died. A ship captain later reported observing a submarine diving in an odd fashion (read: sinking) at about the same time and location of the accident. M2 was eventually discovered with her hangar door and conning tower hatch wide open, leading people to speculate that the crew opened the hangar too soon during an attempted seaplane launch.
5. The Alligator That Didn’t Bite
The Alligator was the first submarine officially used by the United States. She was designed during the Civil War by an immigrant – the Frenchman Brutus de Villeroi, who had previously built (and gotten himself in hot water for) a private treasure-hunting sub in Philadelphia. The Navy, intrigued by a self-described “natural genius” who made subs for fun, contracted De Villeroi to build them a war submarine in 1861. The result was the Propeller, a 47-footer with oars and a spar torpedo. Her reptilian moniker came later, thanks to a newspaper that thought her green paint and rows of oars looked gator-like.
The Propeller/Alligator quickly became a giant migraine headache during construction. It took months longer than planned after a series of spats involving De Villeroi, the navy commodore, and the building contractor. It took so long, in fact, that the Alligator was hilariously late to her original date – taking a bite out of the Confederate ironclad Virginia. (Fun fact: The Virginia is often called the Merrimack because Rebels built her on the salvaged remains of the Union frigate Merrimack.) By the time Alligator was finally ready to go (officially in April 1862, but practically not till June), the Virginia had been scuttled during the Rebel retreat. So instead, she was sent off to Washington Navy Yard for a few updates.
In the spring of 1863, a new-and-improved Alligator (no more oars: now a man-cranked prop!) was to face off with Confederate ironclads at Charleston, and to clear obstacles from the harbor so Union ships could blast the smithereens out of the Fort Sumter defenses. However, while on her way to Charleston, bad weather forced the commander of the towing ship to cut her loose and let her sink – or risk the submarine taking his ship down with her. And thus did the Alligator not work out.
4. The Tale of the Intelligent Whale
Another experimental Civil War sub worth mentioning is the Intelligent Whale, designed by New Jersey inventor Oliver Halstead. Construction began in 1862 on this football-shaped 26-footer, which was originally meant to be the Union’s answer to the CSS Hunley (see below). However, it took a whopping 10 years before she was actually tested. The Civil War was long over by the time Intelligent Whale got in the water.
Her name makes her sound sophisticated, but the Intelligent Whale was fairly primitive. Her method of diving was to simply drop two giant anchors and drag herself down to the desired depth. Surface propulsion was afforded by a hand-crank system, but while underwater she was quite stationary. But that’s really all you need when your method of attack simply involves a diver climbing out and setting a mine underneath an enemy ship.
Most sources will say that the Intelligent Whale went down multiple times, killing an entire crew with each sinking. While it’s true that she sank during trials, apparently due to incapable operators, the part about crew-killing is probably a bit overblown. Remember Bishop, the hilarious writer cited above in the section about Nordenfeldts? He says no lives were lost on the Intelligent Whale, and that the stories surrounding this sub have been greatly exaggerated. We think Bishop is right, mainly because we’re suckers for comedy. Anyway, regardless of whom she did or didn’t kill, the Intelligent Whale never worked out for the Union’s purposes. She ended up beached at Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Now, on to the Rebels…
3. Project Hunley
War is a powerful driver of innovation, and the Civil War was the driver when submarines were in development. That’s why there are three Civil War submarines on this list. We’ve saved the Hunley for last, because her story is the craziest.
Pitted against a stronger Union navy blockading their ports, the Confederates were forced to get creative. Their bright ideas for screwing the North included mines, attack subs, and semi-submersibles. It’s in this context that we meet a cotton broker and entrepreneur named Horace Hunley, whose sub historian Edwyn Gray described in Disasters of the Deep (2003) as “the most jinxed submarine the world has ever seen.”
Hunley’s submarine managed to sink on six occasions, killing a bunch of increasingly brave/insane men in the process. Her reliability, in the sense that she reliably failed, earned her the nickname “Peripatetic Coffin.” For the record, here is a quick list from Gray’s account of her brilliant lack of success in 1863–1864:
- Accidentally struck by the steamer Etiwan; 8 dead.
- Swamped in a storm; 6 dead.
- Smashed by another boat while moored; 5 dead.
- Operator error; 9 dead including Hunley.
- Sank during a dummy attack on the Indian Chief; 7 dead.
- Accidentally sank herself while attacking the Housatonic; 7 dead.
Final death count: 42. Which, as we all know, is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.
Item #6 above – Hunley vs. Housatonic – technically ended with a tie, but at least the submarine with six lives went down in the history books when she sank for the final time. When the Hunley took out the Housatonic at Charleston on Feb. 17, 1864, she officially became the world’s first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship.
2. Bauer vs. Brandtaucher and Seeteufel
Unlike many of those who sank before him, Prussian engineer and army corporal Wilhelm Bauer was a lucky man. During the First Schleswig-Holstein War, Bauer designed a submarine he called Brandtaucher (“Incendiary Diver”) for use against the Danish ships blockading Kiel. After initial trials in December 1850, Bauer realized he needed to make some changes. But the military would have none of that safety nonsense, and ordered a public exhibition in February 1851. The Brandtaucher proceeded to go down in front of a crowd, dragging Bauer and the two crew members 60 feet under. Water pressure did its thing, and the Brandtaucher began filling up.
“No big deal,” the levelheaded Bauer definitely said, as the crowd above probably rushed off to plunder his home. “We’ll just let water seep in really slowly while we wait here in total darkness on the ocean floor until the pressure equalizes. Piece of cake.” Several hours later, all three men were able to open the hatch and swim up to safety in what is now generally accepted as the first recorded submarine escape.
Did Bauer give up after his first sub sank and almost killed him? No, of course not. He kept right at it, and designed another submarine called Seeteufel (“Sea Devil”; also Le Diable Marin). However, given his track record with the Brandtaucher, he had trouble finding a client for this second design. But, being a persistent fellow, Bauer eventually secured a contract with the Russians and built submarine number two. Seeteufel worked swimmingly, racking up over 130 dives before she kicked the bucket for good. A smashing success, as far as 19th-century submarine technology was concerned.
By the way, Wilhelm “No Big Deal” Bauer was on board when the Seeteufel sank, too. Yes, of course he escaped.
1. John Day’s Nightmare, the Maria
We’re ending this list the same way we started it – with a sole proprietor from the early days of experimental submarines. Innes McCartney’s 2003 book Lost Patrols: Submarine Wrecks of the English Channel records “the comedic yet tragic tale of Mr. John Day and his ‘submarine’ Maria.” In 1774, an English wagonmaker named John Day got tired of making wagons and figured he’d make something a bit more adventurous: a submarine.
Day’s submarine was technically a submersible with no means of propulsion. The point was just to go down and then (hopefully) come back up. Day was able to make this work marvelously in shallow water by the use of exterior ballast stones that aided in diving, and then, once detached from the inside, allowed for resurfacing. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
After his initial success, Day decided that submerging 30 feet in a pond just didn’t cut it; he wanted to go deeper. So, he joined forces with professional gambler Christopher Blake, who agreed to front the cash for the bigger craft. The idea was that Day would build a much bigger version of his original design and publicly test it in deeper water. One hundred feet deeper, to be specific. Blake would place bets on Day’s ability to stay underwater for 12 hours, with Day taking home 10 percent of whatever winnings came from the event. With Blake’s investment, Day bought a 50-ton ship named Maria and started modifying her.
In June of 1774, the transformed Maria was ready for her show. In front of hundreds of spectators, she was towed out to a depth of 130 feet. Day climbed in with a candle, water, and biscuits, and shut the hatch. Then down he went – forever. The Maria dove straight for the bottom, but was almost certainly crushed by water pressure before getting there. John Day was never seen again.