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David Bushnell

revolutionary submarine builder

David Bushnell

David Bushnell was born near Saybrook, Connecticut, on August 30, 1740, the first of five children born to Nehemiah and Sarah Ingham Bushnell. He spent his childhood and early adulthood working on the family farm, but also took time to educate himself as much as he could. After his father died (about 1769), Bushnell sold his share of the farm to his brother Ezra, moved to town, and studied to enter Yale College. Despite being 31 years old and having little (if any) formal education, he was accepted into Yale in 1771.

In addition to studying "traditional subjects," Bushnell took advantage of Yale's extensive library to study mechanics and other physical sciences. He also found time to conduct experiments, some of which involved proving that gunpowder could be detonated under water, as well as using a timer to trigger a gunpowder explosion. During his final year at Yale, he spent his last penny constructing a manned submarine capable of employing weapons. Built entirely of oak beams, the elliptical craft resembled two conjoined turtle shells, earning it the name "Turtle."

Bushnell's graduation in the summer of 1775 coincided with the beginning of the Revolutionary War, and some in the Continental Congress felt that Bushnell's weapon could be effective at breaking the British naval blockade of New York City. On September 6, 1776, the Turtle, piloted by Sergeant Ezra Lee of the Continental Army, was sent to attack the HMS Eagle, the flagship of British Admiral William Howe. While Lee was not able to attach the explosive to the ship, he was able to detonate the charge. And, while the explosive failed to damage a single British ship, it did lead Howe to move the blockade further away from the coast.

drawing of the Turtle, based on contemporary accounts
drawing of the Turtle

After two more unsuccessful attempts at using the Turtle to place and detonate mines, Bushnell decided to turn his attention to the mines themselves. On August 13, 1777, he set two mines afloat in Black Point Bay, in Connecticut. The captain of the HMS Cerebus avoided destruction by simply cutting the rope carrying the mines, but they did destroy a nearby schooner. Later that same year Bushnell devised a mine suspended by wooden kegs that would detonate on contact. In late December the kegs were sent down the Delaware River toward British ships at anchor near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, most of the fleet had sailed. While the mines were unsuccessful in destroying their intended targets, they did detonate, frightening the enemy into firing at any object floating in the river. The combination of submarine and floating mine attacks checked the dominance of the Royal Navy. In August 1779 Bushnell was appointed a Captain-Lieutenant in the Corps of Sappers and Miners, predecessor of the modern-day Corps of Engineers. Later promoted to the rank of Captain, he participated in the Siege and Battle of Yorktown in the fall of 1781.

With peace declared in late 1783 Bushnell was honorably discharged and returned to Saybrook. He abruptly left Saybrook in 1787, however, under the pretext of traveling to France to continue his underwater experiments. Exactly what he did in France is still unknown, however, as is the length of time he spent there. In 1803, a man named David Bush bought a lot in Warrenton, Warren County, Georgia. When Warrenton was incorporated in 1810, Bush was a commissioner, and by 1818 he was a practicing physician. Sometime in January or early February 1826, Bush died. In his will, Bush revealed himself as David Bushnell, inventor of the submarine. Found among his belongings after his death was "some curious machinery" that was believed to be a model for a torpedo. Why Bushnell relocated to Georgia and changed his name remain mysteries to this day.


Connecticut History
New Georgia Encyclopedia

See Also

William Howe
Siege and Battle of Yorktown

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The Robinson Library >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on August 30, 2018.