Today in History

Today in History: April 11

Under the Sea

Holland Submarine
Nathaniel R. Ewan, photographer, July 17, 1936.
Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, 1933-Present

On April 11, 1900, the U.S. Navy acquired its first submarine, designed by Irish immigrant John P. Holland. Propelled by gasoline while on the surface and by electricity when submerged, the Holland served as a model for modern submarine design. By the eve of World War I, the Holland and Holland-inspired vessels were a part of large naval fleets throughout the world.

Proposals for underwater boats date back to the late 1500s. The first submarine actually constructed was probably a vessel created and tested in the early seventeenth century by Dutch inventor Cornelis Drebbel. Over the next two centuries, various inventors continued to work out design problems.

Submarines became more common in the nineteenth century, with a period of intense development occurring at the end of the century as nations strived to establish their sea power. A submersible craft, the Turtle was used briefly during the American Revolution. In the early years of the nineteenth century, U.S. inventor Robert Fulton also experimented with submarine designs.

Submarines were used in the United States in both the War of 1812 and the Civil War, but it was not until World War I  that submarines became accepted military vessels.

Uncle Sam's largest submarine
Uncle Sam's Largest Submarine,
The Detroit News Timely Topics,
Pacific and Atlantic Photos, Inc., photographer, circa 1915-1930.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

The First Submarine to Sink a Battleship

Horace Lawson Hunley (1823-63) of New Orleans was one of the developers of the Confederate submarine known as the H.L. Hunley. Four feet wide and about forty feet long, with a hull height of four feet and three inches, the H.L. Hunley was the first sub to sink a ship in battle.

Monitor map
Monitor Map…with Map on Large Scale of the Harbor of Charleston,
Louis Prang and Company, Boston, 1863.
Map Collections

Just outside the Charleston, South Carolina, harbor, while the city was under siege, the H.L. Hunley pushed a metal spar into the stern of the Union's largest warship on February 17, 1864. Within minutes the 1,240-ton U.S.S. Housatonic sank. The nine-man crew of the H.L. Hunley signaled, but never returned to, its Sullivan Island destination. It was not until 136 years later (August 8, 2000) that the submarine was raised from the floor of Charleston Harbor.

For more about submarines in American Memory: