From its beginning, men of the submarine service have fought a strange kind of war, a war of technology. The submariner’s problem has always been how to improve his capacity. And, his capacity is his ship. Early in submarine history his problem often was how to make his ship work at all.
Historical accounts point out that man, bound to dry' land by his lungs and the inexorable forces of gravity, has always sought to explore the underseas. The earliest record – from the Nile Valley in Egypt – gives us the first illustration. It is a wall painting that shows duck hunters, bird spears in hand, creeping up to their prey beneath the surface as they breathe through hollow papyrus reeds. The Athenians are said to have used divers to clear the harbor entrance during the siege of Syracuse.
And Alexander the Great, in his operations against Tyre, ordered divers to destroy any submarine defenses the city might undertake to build. While in none of these records does it actually say he had any kind of submersible vehicle, legend has it that he descended in a device which kept its occupants dry and admitted light.
Not until 1578 did any record appear of a craft designed for underwater navigation. William Bourne, a British naval officer, designed a completely enclosed boat which could be submerged and rowed beneath the surface. His creation was a wooden framework bound in waterproofed leather. It was to he submerged by using hand vises to contract the sides and lower the volume.
Although Bourne’s idea never got beyond the drawing board, a similar apparatus was launched in 1605. But it didn’t get much farther, because the designers had neglected to consider the tenacity of underwater mud. The craft was buried at the bottom of a river during its first underwater trial.
What might be called the first “practical” submarine was a rowboat covered with greased leather. It was the idea of Cornelius Van Drebbel, a Dutch doctor living in England, in 1620. Van Drebbel’s submarine was powered by oarsmen, the oars protruding through flexible leather seals. Snorkel air tubes were held above the surface by floats, thus permitting a submergence time of several hours. Van Drebbel successfully maneuvered at depths of 12 to 15 feet below the surface of the Thames River.
Van Drebbel followed his first boat with two others. The later models were larger but they relied upon the same principles. It is reported that after repeated tests, King James I of England rode in one of his later models to demonstrate its safety. But even royal favor failed to arouse the interest of the British Navy. It was an age when the possibility of submarine warfare was still far in the future.
In 1747 an unidentified inventor introduced a most unusual
device for submerging and surfacing. As reported in a British periodical
in 1747, his craft was to have had a number of goatskins built into the
hull. Each was to be connected to an aperture at the bottom. He planned
to submerge his vessel by filling the skins with water, and to surface
it by forcing the water out with a twisting rod. Thus, we have what was
probably the first approach to the modern ballast tank.