The first submarine - rowed along the Thames in 1624!


The first submarine - rowed along the Thames in 1624!

The first practical submarine was demonstrated in the Thames in the 1620s, the product of an ingenious Dutchman who caught the eye of King James I. Its power depended upon human effort in the form of underwater rowers.

Though Leonardo da Vinci toyed with the idea, the first serious discussion of a “submarine”—a craft designed to be navigated underwater—appeared in 1578 from the pen of William Bourne, a British mathematician and writer on naval subjects. Bourne proposed a completely enclosed boat that could be submerged and rowed underwater. It consisted of a wooden frame covered with waterproof leather; it was to be submerged by reducing its volume by contracting the sides.

Bourne did not actually construct his boat, and Cornelis Drebbel (or Cornelius van Drebel), a Dutch inventor, is usually credited with building the first submarine. Drebbel had been invited to live in England by James I. Initially housed at Eltham Palace, Drebbel worked there at the masques - events that were performed by and for the court. He entertained and astonished the court with his inventions and optical instruments.

Drebbel is credited with many inventions, including the first two lens microscope, the first working thermometer, and a perpetual motion machine, which told the time, date, and season. He also devised the intriguingly named “cooling machine.”

Cornelius Drebbel’s submarine was based on Bourne's design of an underwater rowboat which Drebbel then built while working for the Royal Navy. It was water-proofed with greased leather and powered by rowers pulling on oars that protruded through flexible leather seals in the hull. Snorkel air tubes reached above the surface with floats so that rowers could breathe, which allowed the boat to be submerged for several hours.

Drebbel ended up building 2 successful submarines between 1620 and 1624 and his third ship was demonstrated in front of King James I and thousands of Londoners. It successfully navigated at depths of 12 to 15 feet below the surface and stayed submerged for three hours, traveling from Westminster to Greenwich and back.

Legend has it that Drebbel even took King James in this submarine on a test dive, which would have made him the first monarch to travel underwater. Despite consistently successful tests, his invention never aroused the Navy’s interest enough to use it in combat, and the idea foundered, to re-emerge much later in history.

After various escapades around the courts of Europe, Drebbel himself sank into near-poverty, ending his days running an ale house in England. A modern replica of his submarine, built for the BBC in 2002, is usually on display in Heron Square, Richmond, Surrey.

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