David Bushnell

A man who constantly shunned publicity and fame, David Bushnell was a man who loved anonymity.  He was described by George Washington in a letter to Thomas Jefferson as “a man of great mechanical powers – fertile in invention -and a master in execution.”[1] Relatively unknown in modern society, David Bushnell was one of the most revered and least honored patriots of the American Revolution.[2] He invented a machine that was so highly regarded by the Founding Fathers and risked his life many times in order to serve his country but somehow managed to stay under the radar and continues to be a mystery even today.  Not only did he create the first American submarine, but he created the first practical submarine in the history of mankind; the first developed entirely for warfare.[3]

Bushnell’s family had been among the first to settle in the area of Saybrook, Connecticut.[4] His father, Nehemiah, was one of the unluckiest men in the area, however, and remained a bachelor until the age of twenty-nine in a time when most men were married around twenty.  He never had much luck farming but always managed to grow enough to support himself.  He soon feel into a position to marry a distant cousin, Sarah Ingham, and a year later on August 30, 1740, they gave birth to their son, David.[5] The family continued to grow and David ended up with four younger siblings.  Since his family was relatively small, David had to carry the largest burden on the farm.  He was no slacker, but David’s heart was never fully in farming.  His true passion was with mechanics and tinkering.  He was a quiet person and kept to himself, playing around with random bits of metal and books.  He desired to go to Yale College, now Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, and in 1771 that dream came true.[6] He raised the money to attend on his own and was the oldest of his classmates.  To save up for college he worked at a shipyard near his father’s farm in Saybrook which taught him the basics of ship construction, a trade that would come in handy later on in his life.[7] He graduated in 1775, a year in which America was moving towards war with Britain.  While his classmates were turning to muskets and enlistment as a way to aid the war effort, David turned to science in an attempt to figure out how to sink the British Royal Navy.

Convinced he could make gunpowder explode underwater, David tried relentlessly until he finally succeeded.  This was the first underwater mine and when all the kinks had been worked out, David moved on to figure out a device to carry his torpedo.  This is where his development of the Turtle comes in.  The development of his submarine and its use in the Revolutionary War brought him mild acclaim and scared off the British Royal Navy enough that the American fleet could gain momentum.  David did everything he could to keep from being remembered from refusing to marry to living under an assumed name.  He was even happy that Robert Fulton tried to claim his ideas as his own, even though Fulton was far less successful in both submarine construction and underwater warfare.  David Bushnell remained a completely obscure genius regardless of his monumental achievements.  He was the creator of mine warfare and the father of offensive submarine warfare.  Even though he lived in obscurity, Connecticut delegates had been caught saying “We are fully of the opinion that his genious ought to be encouraged and rewarded.”[8] How true a statement, that is.

[1] Marion H. Grant, The Infernal Machines of Saybrook’s David Bushnell: Patriot Inventor of the American Revolution (Saybrook, CT: Bicentennial Committee of Old Saybrook, CT, 1976), ix.

[2] Frederick Wagner, Submarine Fighter of the American Revolution: the Story of David Bushnell (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1963), ix.

[3] Wagner, ix.

[4] Wagner, 5.

[5] Wagner, 6.

[6] Arthur S. Lefkowitz, Bushnell’s Submarine: the Best Kept Secret of the American Revolution (New York: Scholastic, 2006), 9.

[7] Lefkowitz, 10.

[8] Wagner, 124.

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