Submarines Before Nuclear Power: Early American Submarines

The idea of approaching an enemy ship unobserved beneath the water's surface and attacking from below has a long history. American efforts to develop such machines began during the Revolutionary War and continued intermittently without much success for more than a century.

Late in the nineteenth century, after many years of experiment, John Holland produced the first practical submarine, his sixth boat, the Holland VI. Purchased by the U.S. Navy, it joined the fleet in 1900 as the USS Holland (SS-1).

With few exceptions, U.S. submarines ever since have been numbered sequentially according to when construction began. The number is attached to a letter code for the type of submarine. The most common letter codes are SS for diesel-electric submarine, SSN for nuclear-powered attack submarine (nicknamed "fast attack"), and SSBN for nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (nicknamed "boomer").

Horace L. Hunley, a Mobile, Alabama, commodities broker, who financed the Confederate submarine that carried out history's first successful torpedo attack.

Courtesy Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans

Model of the USS <i>Holland</i> (SS-1)
Simon Lake and the <i>Argonaut</i>

Conrad Wise sketched the Hunley shortly after her recovery from an 1863 training accident that killed her entire crew. Courtesy Valentine Museum, Richmond, VA

"IT was an effort of genius; but... a combination of too many things were requisite, to expect much success." <i>George Washington</i> (to <i>Thomas Jefferson</i>, 26 September 1785).

This 1875 drawing of David Bushnell's Turtle (1775) had several flaws, including non-existent ballast tanks and a screw rather than a propeller. Courtesy Naval Historical Center.

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