Practice English Speaking&Listening with: 10 Experimental Submarines That Were Miserable Failures

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Historians usually agree that the first modern submarine was the one constructed and successfully

tested by a Dutchman named Cornelius Drebbel.

The first modern submarine designed, however, was probably the one dreamed up by William


The English mathematician imagined a glorified underwater boat sometime around 1578.

Bournes sub was never actually built, which might be a good thing given the track record

of early submarines.

Who knows, maybe it wouldve ended up on this list of 10 experimental submarines that

didnt work outbecause they sank.


Dr. Petits Little Sub That Couldnt

Do a bit of digging, and youll find dozens of stories of experimental submarines that

tried to kill their inventors.

Unfortunately, a lot of those stories arent much more than notes in passing.

In many cases, all we have is the fact that Inventor X was drowned when Submarine Y sank

due to Design Flaw and/or Stupid Mistake Z.

But Alan Burgoynes Submarine Navigation Past and Present, Volume 1 (1903) gives us

enough information about Dr. Jean-Baptiste Petit to tell a decent story.

According to Burgoyne, Petit was a doctor from northern France with a hobby of building

experimental submarines.

Most writers just tell us that Petit built a submarine and then died in it.

Burgoyne adds that Petits pet project measured about 12 feet and was driven by two oars.

(Spoiler alert: Dr. Petit dies.)

The doctor tested his contraption at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme on August 15, 1834.

After spending some time puttering about the Baie de la Somme, he was satisfied with his

subs performance.

So, he puttered over to the wharf to fetch some ballast for diving.

Then Petit and his boat disappeared below the surface.

The enterprising doctor didnt reappear until the next morning, when low tide exposed

the sub lying in the mud.

Petit was found dead inside, apparently the victim of suffocation after his rig took on

water and pinned him to the ocean floor.


U-1206 and the Case of the Malfunctioning Toilet

In 1945, with only weeks remaining in World War II, a toilet sank a U-boat just off the

coast of Scotland.

Thats right, a toilet malfunction was the reason Germanys U-1206 went down on her

very first tour of duty.

Unlike Allied sub toilets, German sub toilets flushed right into the sea.

This meant that in order to, ahem, evacuate, German subs had to be on or near the surface.

Otherwise, water pressure would be greater than flushing pressure, and all that crap

would come rushing right back at you.

But being on or near the surface was risky business for WWII subs because of enemy aircraft,

which were often flying in wait for the chance to drop you a bomb.

So, the U-1206 was equipped with a special high-pressure toilet that could be flushed

farther under.

But in solving one problem, the Germans accidentally created another.

Their high toilet technology came with a high-tech, hard-to-read user manual and a complicated

operating procedure.

So complicated, in fact, that some of the crew actually had to be trained astoilet

specialistsbefore the submarine got underway.

Enter Commander Karl Schlitt.

As the story unfolds in an Uncle Johns Bathroom Reader piece reprinted in Neatorama,

Schlitt was not one of the trained U-1206 toilet flushers.

But that sure didnt stop him from giving it a shot.

Whats the worst that could happen, right?

He flipped through the manual and flushed, and then the worst happened.

As unwanted ocean poured through the heads pipes and into the sub, the water reacted

chemically with acid from the vessels electric batteries.

This resulted in a wonderful spritz of chlorine gas that began choking the crew to death.

Although, to be fair, it probably covered up the smell of feces pretty well.

Schlitts only option was to order the U-1206 to the surface, where it was immediately bombed

by British warplanes.

Schlitt had to scuttle the sub.

A couple endnotes are necessary here.

First, theres a rumor that the German officers aboard, smelling certain defeat in the last

days of war, dreamed up the toilet story so they could have an excuse to surface, surrender,

and not die.

Second, Commander Schlitts official report leaves out the part about him initiating the

toilet troublea convenient omission, if you ask us.


The Chicago River Foolkiller

The story of the sub dragged out of Chicago River mud in December 1915 is a murky one.

Probably the best research we can look at comes from Adam Selzer, long-time Chicago

author and tour guide, and from Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope.

Here are the basics: while laying underwater cable for Com-Ed, a diver and Eastland Disaster

responder named WilliamFrenchyDeneau stumbled across a strange submarine partly

buried in the muck.

He quickly dubbed the sub the Foolkillermost likely in reference to the insane contraptions

built by daredevil Peter Nissen, who several times shot the falls at Niagaraand then

pitched the story to local newspapers to stir up interest.

He even obtained government permission to raise the sub and show it off.

The timing was ideal.

Submarine warfare was just picking up deadly steam in the World War I arena, so the media

was happy to publish a sensational tale of a mysterious sub dredged up in stateside waters.

Three months after his find, Deneau was raking in profits from his Foolkiller display at

208 South State Street.

Oh, and alsothey supposedly found the bones of a human operator and a dog (second-in-command?)

inside the sub while cleaning it out.

To this day, its unclear who built the sub, who died inside of it, and whether or

not it was all just a publicity stunt by Deneau.

For now it remains a legend of submarine history.


George Garretts Resurgam and the Nordenfeldts

Introducing George Garrett, Anglican reverend and engineer extraordinaire.

This man built the steam-powered sub Resurgam, completed in 1879.

The U.S. Navy deemed it slow, unstable, and unsafe to operate.

Fortunately for the human race, she sank during delivery while under tow.

Resurgamis Latin forI shall rise”; incidentally, Resurgam didnt.

Garretts claim to fame, however, wasnt just designing a dangerous submarine.

It was designing multiple dangerous submarines.

After Resurgam bit the dust at the bottom of the ocean, Garrett partnered with Swedish

arms manufacturer Thorsten Nordenfeldt in the 1880s to make more steam-powered submarines.

These boats were called Nordenfeldts.

They were just as slow and dangerous as Resurgam, but apparently that wasnt enough to stop

people from buying them.

Greece bought the Nordenfeldt I in 1886, and TurkeyGreeces naval rival at the time

immediately ordered Nordenfeldt II and Nordenfeldt III.

Another Nordenfeldt was built for Russia, but she ran aground while in tow, and the

Russians refused to accept the salvaged sub.

Testing of Turkeys Nordenfeldt II turned out to be quite the riot.

Apparently, she performed smartly in surface operations, but underwater she acted like

a seesaw.

Farnham Bishops version of the trials, from his 1916 The Story of the Submarine,

is easily the funniest thing we read while researching this list.

Do yourself a favor and go read Bishops hilarious story of the Nordenfeldt II now.


HMS M2, Submarine Aircraft Carrier

The Royal Navys HMS M2 was an experimental rebuild of an earlier K-class sub.

These K-class subs were known asKalamitysubs due to dangerous design flaws.

Says Edward Whitman in an Undersea Warfare piece for the U.S. Submarine Force: “Fuel

leaks, explosions, fires, boiler flashbacks, hydraulic failures, and groundings were common.”

Indeed, one of the worst submarine disasters ever recorded was the loss of over 100 men

during a chain-reaction smash-up of British cruisers and K-class subs on January 31, 1918.

It was upon the fine foundation of the HMS K19 that the M2 was built.

Initially, M2 was a submarine monitor and packed a gigantic 12-inch gun on her deck.

Later, she was modified to a carry a plane.

Thats right, the M2 was a submarine aircraft carrier, complete with a hangar and a small

seaplane with folding wings.

All she had to do was surface, unpack her little flying surprise, and shoot the thing

into the sky with a catapult.

Bam, instant reconnaissance.

Here she is in Popular Mechanics from October 1931.

On January 26, 1932, M2 went down in West Bay, Dorset, off Portland.

Everyone died.

A ship captain later reported observing a submarine diving in an odd fashion (read:

sinking) at about the same time and location of the accident.

M2 was eventually discovered with her hangar door and conning tower hatch wide open, leading

people to speculate that the crew opened the hangar too soon during an attempted seaplane



The Alligator That Didnt Bite

The Alligator was the first submarine officially used by the United States.

She was designed during the Civil War by an immigrantthe Frenchman Brutus de Villeroi,

who had previously built (and gotten himself in hot water for) a private treasure-hunting

sub in Philadelphia.

The Navy, intrigued by a self-describednatural geniuswho made subs for fun, contracted

De Villeroi to build them a war submarine in 1861.

The result was the Propeller, a 47-footer with oars and a spar torpedo.

Her reptilian moniker came later, thanks to a newspaper that thought her green paint and

rows of oars looked gator-like.

The Propeller/Alligator quickly became a giant migraine headache during construction.

It took months longer than planned after a series of spats involving De Villeroi, the

navy commodore, and the building contractor.

It took so long, in fact, that the Alligator was hilariously late to her original date

taking a bite out of the Confederate ironclad Virginia.

(Fun fact: The Virginia is often called the Merrimack because Rebels built her on the

salvaged remains of the Union frigate Merrimack.)

By the time Alligator was finally ready to go (officially in April 1862, but practically

not till June), the Virginia had been scuttled during the Rebel retreat.

So instead, she was sent off to Washington Navy Yard for a few updates.

In the spring of 1863, a new-and-improved Alligator (no more oars: now a man-cranked

prop!) was to face off with Confederate ironclads at Charleston, and to clear obstacles from

the harbor so Union ships could blast the smithereens out of the Fort Sumter defenses.

However, while on her way to Charleston, bad weather forced the commander of the towing

ship to cut her loose and let her sinkor risk the submarine taking his ship down with


And thus did the Alligator not work out.


The Tale of the Intelligent Whale

Another experimental Civil War sub worth mentioning is the Intelligent Whale, designed by New

Jersey inventor Oliver Halstead.

Construction began in 1862 on this football-shaped 26-footer, which was originally meant to be

the Unions answer to the CSS Hunley (see below).

However, it took a whopping 10 years before she was actually tested.

The Civil War was long over by the time Intelligent Whale got in the water.

Her name makes her sound sophisticated, but the Intelligent Whale was fairly primitive.

Her method of diving was to simply drop two giant anchors and drag herself down to the

desired depth.

Surface propulsion was afforded by a hand-crank system, but while underwater she was quite


But thats really all you need when your method of attack simply involves a diver climbing

out and setting a mine underneath an enemy ship.

Most sources will say that the Intelligent Whale went down multiple times, killing an

entire crew with each sinking.

While its true that she sank during trials, apparently due to incapable operators, the

part about crew-killing is probably a bit overblown.

Remember Bishop, the hilarious writer cited above in the section about Nordenfeldts?

He says no lives were lost on the Intelligent Whale, and that the stories surrounding this

sub have been greatly exaggerated.

We think Bishop is right, mainly because were suckers for comedy.

Anyway, regardless of whom she did or didnt kill, the Intelligent Whale never worked out

for the Unions purposes.

She ended up beached at Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Now, on to the Rebels


Project Hunley

War is a powerful driver of innovation, and the Civil War was the driver when submarines

were in development.

Thats why there are three Civil War submarines on this list.

Weve saved the Hunley for last, because her story is the craziest.

Pitted against a stronger Union navy blockading their ports, the Confederates were forced

to get creative.

Their bright ideas for screwing the North included mines, attack subs, and semi-submersibles.

Its in this context that we meet a cotton broker and entrepreneur named Horace Hunley,

whose sub historian Edwyn Gray described in Disasters of the Deep (2003) asthe most

jinxed submarine the world has ever seen.”

Hunleys submarine managed to sink on six occasions, killing a bunch of increasingly

brave/insane men in the process.

Her reliability, in the sense that she reliably failed, earned her the nicknamePeripatetic


For the record, here is a quick list from Grays account of her brilliant lack of

success in 18631864:

Accidentally struck by the steamer Etiwan; 8 dead.

Swamped in a storm; 6 dead.

Smashed by another boat while moored; 5 dead.

Operator error; 9 dead including Hunley.

Sank during a dummy attack on the Indian Chief; 7 dead.

Accidentally sank herself while attacking the Housatonic; 7 dead.

Final death count: 42.

Which, as we all know, is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and


Item #6 aboveHunley vs. Housatonictechnically ended with a tie, but at least the submarine

with six lives went down in the history books when she sank for the final time.

When the Hunley took out the Housatonic at Charleston on Feb. 17, 1864, she officially

became the worlds first submarine to successfully sink an enemy ship.


Bauer vs. Brandtaucher and Seeteufel

Unlike many of those who sank before him, Prussian engineer and army corporal Wilhelm

Bauer was a lucky man.

During the First Schleswig-Holstein War, Bauer designed a submarine he called Brandtaucher

(“Incendiary Diver”) for use against the Danish ships blockading Kiel.

After initial trials in December 1850, Bauer realized he needed to make some changes.

But the military would have none of that safety nonsense, and ordered a public exhibition

in February 1851.

The Brandtaucher proceeded to go down in front of a crowd, dragging Bauer and the two crew

members 60 feet under.

Water pressure did its thing, and the Brandtaucher began filling up.

No big deal,” the levelheaded Bauer definitely said, as the crowd above probably rushed off

to plunder his home.

Well just let water seep in really slowly while we wait here in total darkness on the

ocean floor until the pressure equalizes.

Piece of cake.”

Several hours later, all three men were able to open the hatch and swim up to safety in

what is now generally accepted as the first recorded submarine escape.

Did Bauer give up after his first sub sank and almost killed him?

No, of course not.

He kept right at it, and designed another submarine called Seeteufel (“Sea Devil”;

also Le Diable Marin).

However, given his track record with the Brandtaucher, he had trouble finding a client for this second


But, being a persistent fellow, Bauer eventually secured a contract with the Russians and built

submarine number two.

Seeteufel worked swimmingly, racking up over 130 dives before she kicked the bucket for


A smashing success, as far as 19th-century submarine technology was concerned.

By the way, WilhelmNo Big DealBauer was on board when the Seeteufel sank, too.

Yes, of course he escaped.


John Days Nightmare, the Maria

Were ending this list the same way we started itwith a sole proprietor from the early

days of experimental submarines.

Innes McCartneys 2003 book Lost Patrols: Submarine Wrecks of the English Channel records

the comedic yet tragic tale of Mr. John Day and hissubmarineMaria.”

In 1774, an English wagonmaker named John Day got tired of making wagons and figured

hed make something a bit more adventurous: a submarine.

Days submarine was technically a submersible with no means of propulsion.

The point was just to go down and then (hopefully) come back up.

Day was able to make this work marvelously in shallow water by the use of exterior ballast

stones that aided in diving, and then, once detached from the inside, allowed for resurfacing.

It wasnt pretty, but it worked.

After his initial success, Day decided that submerging 30 feet in a pond just didnt

cut it; he wanted to go deeper.

So, he joined forces with professional gambler Christopher Blake, who agreed to front the

cash for the bigger craft.

The idea was that Day would build a much bigger version of his original design and publicly

test it in deeper water.

One hundred feet deeper, to be specific.

Blake would place bets on Days ability to stay underwater for 12 hours, with Day

taking home 10 percent of whatever winnings came from the event.

With Blakes investment, Day bought a 50-ton ship named Maria and started modifying her.

In June of 1774, the transformed Maria was ready for her show.

In front of hundreds of spectators, she was towed out to a depth of 130 feet.

Day climbed in with a candle, water, and biscuits, and shut the hatch.

Then down he wentforever.

The Maria dove straight for the bottom, but was almost certainly crushed by water pressure

before getting there.

John Day was never seen again.

The Description of 10 Experimental Submarines That Were Miserable Failures