TURTLE - The First Human Powered Submarine

Turtle Image

Turtle Image

The Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Ct. owns the only working, full-scale model of David Bushnell's 1776 invention, the American Turtle. The first submarine ever to be used in combat was actually constructed as an afterthought. Bushnell and fellow Yale University intellectual, Phineas Pratt, had conceived of the underwater bomb with a time delayed flintlock detonator. The one-man, hand-propelled submarine was designed simply to transport the bomb to the enemy vessel.

The American Turtle was successfully launched in the dark of night on September 6/7, 1776 against the British flagship, HMS Eagle, a 64 gun frigate moored in New York harbor off of the island now occupied by the Statue of Liberty. The Turtle had undergone extensive test trials in the safe colonial waters of the Connecticut River off Old Saybrook, Ct., piloted by the inventor's brother Ezra Bushnell. Unfortunately, on the eve of the submarine's first combat mission, Ezra Bushnell died.

With a freshly recruited, but less practiced pilot, Ezra Lee of Old Lyme, Ct., the American Turtle made its way underwater to the rudder of the Eagle's hull. Unfortunately, Lee first struck metal rather than wood with the screw intended to attach the bomb to the enemy's hull. After a second failed attempt, Lee propelled the American Turtle away, only to be observed and chased. The bomb was released into the water and resulted in a frightening explosion. While the American Turtle failed to destroy its target, the British recognized the threat and moved the fleet. Weather problems, and other operating difficulties prevented a successful attack by the submarine before it was scuttled by the British while being transported.

The model on exhibit at the Connecticut River Museum was designed by Joseph Leary and built by Fred Frese in 1976 as a U.S. Bicentennial project. Christened by Governor Ella Grasso and launched in the Connecticut River, the model was tested for its manueverability and submersible ability. This demonstrated for modern viewers that the submarine worked as intended and confirmed the ingenuity of early American inventor David Bushnell.

Connecticut River Museum, Inc.
67 Main St.,
Essex, CT 06426

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Rev:  Contact: Chris Broome