The first mini submarines – Part 1

Mini-submarine (submersible) – is a habituated subaquatic apparatus with water displacement of not more than 150 tonnes. The crews of such vessels are normally not exceeding 9 men. In most cases, the submersibles are launched from the support vessels. The mini subs became widely popular during WWII but not everyone knows that the history of all submarines began from these little vessels quite some time ago. Today the mini subs are used pretty much everywhere: scientific research, underwater filming, rescue operations and more recently as high-end leisure vessels. The difference between submarines and submersibles is mainly that the latter ones are autonomous only for a short period of time, as the batteries drain and the oxygen doesn’t refill either. Other than that modern examples have a great angle of view and fairly comfortable inside.

So, how did it all start? According to some sources, in 330 BC, Alexander the Great submerged into the crystal clear waters of the Aegean Sea in a glass barrel to see the underwater world directly “from inside”, the barrel was supported from the surface and the air was coming down through a pipe (the idea behind the first diving gear). The dive went on well but for a long time after no one has developed this idea further.

Alexander the Great

Some time passed by and Leonardo da Vinci, at the end of 1400 drew some schemes of an underwater vessel and the first one to publish Leo’s idea was William Bourne – British mathematician, former Royal Navy armourer, over a hundred years since. So, in 1578 he came up with a very logical theory of how this vessel should be operating (submerge and stay afloat). He described the operating principle this way: “It is possible to make a Ship or Boat that may go under the water onto the bottom, and so to come up again at your pleasure. Any magnitude of the body that is in the water . . . having always but one weight, may be made bigger or lesser, then it Shall swim when you would, and sink when you list . . . “, basically suggesting decreasing the boat’s volume to sink and vice versa to ascent. Unfortunately, Bourne only came up with a concept of the machine’s operation and nothing more.

A little later, Cornelis Drebbel a Dutch builder, who’s been serving to King James I as the court inventor, has come up with something that later on would be called the first operating submarine. According to the witnesses’ reports, the vessel looked like turned upside down rowboat, powered by 12 oarsmen. That boat did submerge in the Thames and spent under water about 2 hours at the depth of 12-15 feet (up to 4,5 m). After Drebbel’s experiment there were others, who tried to create something similar but gained no result.

Time passed and now a Russian inventor had the idea of constructing an underwater vessel. The inventor’s name was Yefim Nikonov. Peter the Great was famous for his work on creation and development of Russian Navy and shipbuilding in Russia itself. So there’s no surprise that such an invention (an underwater vessel) could have been created at the time of his reign. Yefim Nikonov, who’s been working at one of the shipyards, in 1719, sent Peter a direct letter, where he promised to build such a vessel that would silently destroy many of the enemy’s ships at once. Peter, being a very busy man did not pay much attention to that letter. Yefim then sends another one, promising to build a vessel that goes underwater and capable of hitting the enemy’s ship under the hull.
Peter decided to anonymously meet up with Yefim and after that meeting, he approved his idea finding it worthy. He assigned Yefim to be the master of the “concealed vessels” and allows him to use any required materials and men. In 4 months the model of the vessel has been completed and tried out. Peter, being very excited about it ordered to build the one in full size. The very first and unfortunately, the last sea trials were a failure as the vessel had hit the bottom while launching and the tests had to be stopped. Peter the I suggested reinforcing the vessel with metal rings and then trying again.


In 1725 Peter the Great died and Nikonov had been sent to Astrakhan. At that point, the development of his vessel was forgotten.

David Bushell, the graduate of the Yale University created the first military submarine. The vessel was capable of attacking an enemy ship and was called the Turtle as by her shape she resembled one (swimming upright). The Turtle was piloted by one man – serjeant Ezra Lee.
The working principle of the Turtle was quite simple: the vessel was being towed close to the enemy ship, the pilot with his foot would open the valve to let enough water in to submerge the Turtle, then he would close it. The submarine would go under the enemy ship (using two propellers on the hand drive the sub could move horizontally and vertically, and using the foot drive the sub could turn around), then using a special drill, the pilot prepared a hole in the ship’s hull and loaded the hole with 150-pound barrel with gunpowder and wind up detonator. Having performed the above the sub would move away from the enemy’s ship, the pilot would pump out all the water and the vessel would surface.
In the semi-darkness of the early morning of the 7th September 1776 at the time of the war for Independence, the Turtle attacked a British ship in the port of New York, presumably HMS Eagle. Some sources suggest that the drill hit the copper binding of the Eagle’s hull and failed to make a hole; others assume that the sub struggled with the current and sunk. Third say, that the submarine successfully escaped.


Robert Fulton, an American inventor, also did a very good job on his functioning underwater vessel that he called the Nautilus in 1800. The treasury of France financed the project, as the Government was very interested in the vessel’s ability to blow up the enemy’s ships. On the trials in Rouen, the Nautilus twice went to the depth of 7 metres; the sea tests went even better – one of the submergences lasted over 6 hours.

A year later he built another Nautilus but of a much bigger size, which was capable of submerging down to 30 metres deep. The sub had an engine with a hand drive, rudder, periscope and even a sail to travel while at the surface. Due to the success of this invention, Fulton has been drained away by England. They had a plan to build a 10-metre-long torpedo submarine but the war came to an end and such a vessel became irrelevant.


In Russia, after a number of unrealized projects of underwater vessels, Adjutant-General Karl Shilder offered a new one to the Government. In 1834 the underwater apparatus was made out of boiler iron. The crew of 8 men propelled the sub by swinging the paddles, to manoeuvre they used a vertical rudder. In 1840 the vessel has been finished with a water-jet motor. The sea trials the boat passed well – she reached the maximum depth of 12 metres and had hit all the targets. During one if the further submergences, one of the paddles broke and because of this misfortune further developments were stopped by the decision of the War Ministry.