September 26, 1785 – Washington Writes Jefferson About Progress on the First Torpedo Boat

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson was serving as Minister to France, having been sent there by the Congress of the Confederation (the governing body of the United States of America that existed from March 1, 1781, to March 4, 1789). While there, he corresponded often with other “Founding Fathers” who were working on the government of the nascent country.

On this day in history, George Washington sent a letter to Thomas Jefferson about a variety of matters, including the efforts of “Captn Bushnals” [David Bushnell] “for the destruction of Shipping.”

David Bushnell

As Washington relates, Bushnel [sic], a Man of great Mechanical powers – fertile of invention – and a master in execution” came to Washington in 1776 for seed money. His plan was to construct a machine to carry a man under water to any depth so that he might stealthily approach an enemy ship, attach a powder keg to it, get safely away, and then cause the ship to be blown up by the keg.

Bushnell called his device “The Turtle.” The Turtle was an oak carved egg-shaped submarine for one man that submerged by admitting water into the hull and surfaced by pumping it out by hand.

Drawing of the Turtle, based on contemporary accounts

Bushnell did attempt using The Turtle during the Revolutionary War against British ships, but was unsuccessful. As a Connecticut online history site recounts, on the night of September 6, 1776, the Turtle, operated by Army volunteer Ezra Lee, made its way through the waters of New York Harbor and conducted the attack. Problems arose, however, when the boring device operated from inside the submarine failed to penetrate the ship’s hull. The torpedo was eventually abandoned and Lee emerged unhurt. The abandoned torpedo detonated about an hour after it was released but did no harm.

While Bushnell never was entirely successful, it was Bushnell that proved gunpowder could be exploded under water, and who made the first time bomb. His ideas also inspired later efforts.

A full sized model of David Bushnell’s Turtle is on display at the U.S. Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut.

You can read Washington’s entire letter and description of Bushnell’s work here.

Model of Bushnell’s Turtle at the U.S. Navy Submarine Museum

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