Turtle Sinks Eagle
by Jeff Provine
says: we're very pleased to present a new story from Jeff Provine's
excellent blog This
Day in Alternate History Please note that the opinions expressed in this
post do not necessarily reflect the views of the author(s).
By September 7th 1776,
in the wee hours of the morning in New York Harbor, an explosion tore
through the hull of the HMS Eagle, Admiral Richard Howe's
flagship. Though carpenters and crew rushed to save the vessel, it sank,
carrying twenty-five men with it while the rest fled to shore and nearby
The British suspected an accident with the stored gunpowder, but two more
explosions sank ships the next night. Eventually word came from old notes
provided by a Loyalist spy that the Americans had a sort of "sub-marine"
The Turtle (pictured) had been invented by the young Yale student David
Bushnell. While a freshman, he had begun experiments with underwater
explosives, proving that gunpowder exploded underwater. He sought help
from Isaac Doolittle, a New Haven clockmaker, and created the first time
bomb. To implement the explosive on the hulls of ships, Bushnell designed
a boat that could dive under the water. Something like an upturned clam,
the one-man boat was made of two steel-reinforced wooden shells covered in
tar. A hand pump and bilge tank allowed the intake and expulsion of water,
thus increasing or decreasing the density of the craft and allowing it to
sink. Six small windows allowed for bearings along with a compass lit by
the bioluminescence of foxfire from fungus on cork.
"Good illustration of divergence.One success can
lead to a trend." - reader's commentCalled the Turtle, the boat was
manned by Sergeant Ezra Lee, who would later become part of Washington's
secret service. Dodging the iron plate at the Eagle's rudder, Lee was able
to secure the bomb and sneak away before spotted by soldiers. As the watch
increased around the panicked British fleet, the Turtle was too easily
discovered, so Washington set Bushnell on the task of improvements. The
general referred to the craft as "an effort of genius" that had much
promise for the future.
While improving the Turtle, copies of which had success in New York,
Boston, and Baltimore through the course of the war, Bushnell was also
made Captain in the Corps of Sappers and Miners. Explosives he devised
helped push the British to surrender during the Siege of Yorktown. After
the war, Bushnell traveled to France where he met with inventors Benjamin
Franklin and Thomas Jefferson with his letter of introduction from
Washington. While Franklin was more enthused with the Parisian balloon
launches, Jefferson became captivated by Bushnell's ideas. Bushnell
returned to America and took up teaching until 1800, when he was called up
by Jefferson to build up America's naval forces. A fleet of short-range
submarines launched from important ports seemed perfect to the defense-minded
"Yeah, it could have happened...one spectacular
success leading to imitators. All the Turtle really needed was a little
more luck." - reader's commentBushnell was made a Captain of the
Navy and began implementing Jefferson's defense plan. His submarines, now
in a steel shell with improved diving, longer range and higher speed, as
well as a "periscope" invented by Jefferson himself, populated the key
harbors of America. While the Marines would show the naval prowess of
America during the destruction of the Barbary pirates in Jefferson's term,
Bushnell's Turtles would be pivotal defense in the War of 1812, keeping
much of Britain's navy at sea and minimizing coastal raiding.
Bushnell died in 1824, and his Turtle designs were scarcely updated until
the Civil War when ironclad ships began to dominate naval battles. With
improved torpedoes, new Turtles were able to dive under ironclads and
attack their weaker bellies. The South made effective use of Turtles
combating the North's blockade, prompting the US to develop anti-Turtle
detection techniques, some precursors to sonar. Shipborne Turtles would
also play major roles in the naval battles of the Spanish-American War.
Upon the entry of the United States into World War I, US submarines
carried out hunting of the German U-boats that had plagued Allied
shipping. Sonar was more fully developed and shared among Allies, causing
a push for defensive science to improve subs' ability to hide. By World
War II, submarine warfare was doing for undersea combat what aircraft
carriers did for above the waves. German u-boat-mounted V-2 rockets, for
example, were used for several hit-and-run attacks against the Eastern
Since the Cold War, submarine technology has continued to improve to the
point boats can stay underwater for as long as crew morale can endure
hibernation techniques while automation and water-class Predator drones
patrol the seas.
says in reality, Lee's attack on the Eagle did not succeed. He was
unable to pierce the hull and had been spotted by soldiers on Governor's
Island. Aiming the explosives for a rowboat sent to inspect, Lee escaped.
While the soldiers stayed away from the bomb, it did explode spectacularly.
Bushnell made subsequent experiments with drifting explosives, but his
technology ultimately did not succeed as it required, to quote Washington,
"a combination of too many things" to work.
To view guest historian's comments on this post please visit the
Today in Alternate History web site.
Jeff Provine, Guest Historian of
Today in Alternate History, a Daily Updating Blog of Important Events In
History That Never Occurred Today. Follow us on
Facebook, Myspace and
Imagine what would be, if history had occurred a bit
differently. Who says it didn't, somewhere? These fictional news items
explore that possibility. Possibilities such as America becoming a Marxist
superpower, aliens influencing human history in the 18th century and Teddy
Roosevelt winning his 3rd term as president abound in this interesting