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Long Live the Turtle - A Not Quite Yellow Submarine

By Cliff Odle

On August 3rd, 2007, the sight of a small wooden egg shaped craft floating towards the British luxury liner alarmed security aboard the Queen Elizabeth II. Within minutes everyone from the NYPD harbor patrol to the coast guard converged to intercept the craft. They forced it ashore and promptly arrested the pilot, a local artist named Philip "Duke" Riley. Riley had hoped his vessel would be photographed right next to the immense ship. Arrested onshore were two of his accomplices also fellow artists. One claimed a unique legacy, which helped to explain their misadventure. The artist and co-conspirator's name was Jesse Bushnell. He claims their craft, The Acorn, was a faithful replica of the same craft that an ancestor of his had created for another mission against a British ship. His ancestor was David Bushnell. The craft was called the Turtle. The time was the American Revolutionary War.

David Bushnell was born in Saybrook, Connecticut in 1742. By the time he was attending Yale University in 1775, the colonial rebellion against the British Empire had started in earnest. Bushnell decided to use his intellect to help the patriot cause. He designed a vessel that could operate underwater. This was a concept two hundred years ahead of its time. Bushnell designed the first vessel that used the concept of ballast to operate underwater. A Ballast or ballast tank is a compartment that can either take in or expel water. This idea is vital to any vehicle that operates underwater. As the vessel takes in water, it sinks. As it expels the water, it rises. Bushnell also designed a hand-cranked screw propellers that guided the direction of the craft. The craft was made of two large tortoise shells made of six-inch thick oak. Bands of iron held it together. Along the top of the opening were several dollar coin sized portholes to allow the pilot to see where he was going.

The "Turtle", as it was dubbed, would be useless without some form of armament. Once again Bushnell put his intellect to the test. First he proved that gunpowder could explode underwater. Then he designed what could be considered the first time bomb. He fashioned a clock and a gunlock firing mechanism into a timing device and rigged it to a cask of gunpowder. All that was needed was a mission.

The Turtle's first mission was executed on September 9, 1776. Like the Acorn two hundred and thirty years later, the intended target was a British ship sitting in a New York harbor. And also like the Acorn, the mission was a failure. The pilot was a Sergeant Ezra Lee. His target was the HMS Eagle, the flagship of Admiral Lord Howe's fleet. Lee brought the Turtle close enough to complete the job when something went wrong. The Turtle struck the iron hinge that held the Eagle's rudder to the ship. Lee panicked and mishandled the ballast causing the Turtle to take in too much water too quickly. The Turtle shot up to the water's surface alarming the sailors and soldiers aboard ship. As they began to load into small boats in order to pursue the Turtle, Lee released the cask of gunpowder and worked the screw paddles as quickly as he could. The resulting explosion did not sink any ships, but it did knock many New Yorkers out of their beds and scared Lord Howe into relocating his fleet.

The Turtle's next and last mission was more successful. In 1777 the submersible attacked and sunk the frigate HMS Cerberus killing several men on board. That would be the Turtle's last hurrah, however. While the craft was being carried up the Hudson, British ships attacked the American sloop it was on. The sloop sunk taking the world's first submarine with it. David Bushnell later found another way to annoy and harass the British. He engineered a series of mines including one that consisted of a flotilla of explosive kegs used to attack British shipping along the Hudson. During the war he achieved the rank of captain in the corps of sappers and miners. After the war he spent some time in France and then returned to America and moed to Georgia. There he settled down to teach at Warrenton Academy and practice medicine.

Sources and Further Reading:
Fleming, Thomas, Liberty!: The American Revolution. Viking Penguin. New York. 1997

Kennedy, Randy. "An Artist and His Sub Surrender in Brooklyn." New York Times 4 Aug. 2007.

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