Simanaitis Says

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DAVID BUSHNELL’S TURTLE piloted by colonial patriot Ezra Lee has all the trappings of a proper war tale, complete with bravery, secrecy, opposing propaganda, revisionist theories, and even a modern sequel. Details occupy Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow.

The Turtle. David Bushnell, 1740–1824 (or 1826), was an American inventor, teacher, medical doctor, and one of the first U.S. combat engineers. While studying at Yale in 1775, he conceived the idea of the Turtle, the first submarine that was used in combat.

Bushnell had the cooperation and funding of Isaac Doolittle, 1721–1800, a wealthy New Haven clockmaker, brass foundryman, and inventor. In fact, much of the complex mechanism of the Turtle came from Doolittle’s imagination and fabrication expertise.

Inspiration was from two turtle carapaces, the Turtle’s two wooden shells covered with tar and reinforced with steel bands. The craft was six feet tall and about 3 feet in width. Its operator had hand controls for cranking a screw propeller at its front and a rudder at its rear. Valves admitted water into chambers to bring about submergence; a foot-operated pump expelled the water to return to the surface. There was also a 200-lb. ballast of lead which could be detached for fail-safe resurfacing.

A brass turret atop the Turtle had six glass ports and fixtures for admitting fresh air when surfaced. The Turtle contained perhaps 30 minutes of air for continued submergence.

Full-size replicas of the Turtle reside in its home state of Connecticut and the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco, as well as this one in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport, England.

Among other components, Doolittle devised the propulsion mechanism, the buoyancy system, and instruments. A compass and depth gauge were fitted, though viewing them in the submerged darkness was a problem mitigated only slightly by affixing small pieces of bioluminescent foxfire to the needles. Foxfire’s bluish-green glow is a property of some fungal growth in decaying wood. Unfortunately, the glow diminishes with cold temperatures, such as those the Turtle encountered.

A folk legend has it that Benjamin Franklin proposed using foxfire illumination for the Turtle. More recent research suggests he was consulted later about alternative lighting.

The Turtle‘s Firepower. Ordinance of the Turtle came from a detachable mine devised by Bushnell. This gunpowder mine would be screwed into the hull of the enemy ship, with a clock mechanism giving the Turtle time to move away, at three mph, before the explosion.

Or so it was planned. Tomorrow in Part 2, patriot submariner Ezra Lee shows Connecticut Nut Megger spirit. The British, then and now, scoff. And a New York artist shows how art imitates life. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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