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A deep dive: The origin of submarines

From modified rowboats to underwater drones, we explore the depth of the sub’s journey throughout history

Submersible vehicles were invented before Champagne and the pendulum clock. If you consider diving bells as submarines, early mentions go back as far as Alexander the Great! Through history, a range of applications drove the evolution of submarines. In fact, we’ve reached a point where they’ve managed to become quite autonomous and reach depths that wouldn’t be possible with human passengers. We’re about to explore the points of evolution that have brought submarines where they are today.

A cover job

The earliest known accounts of a working-submarine go back to 1620, crediting Dutchman Cornelius van Drebbel, a ‘court inventor’ for King James I of England. He modified a rowboat to be enclosed, carrying 12 oarsmen within. The boat, Drebbel, was shaped to have an angled foredeck that would make it submerge when the oarsmen propelled it forward.

Artist’s depiction of the maiden public voyage of the Drebbel


Military attention converted research about submersible vehicles into a serious pursuit. The first American military submarine was reportedly deployed in 1776. ‘The Turtle’ was designed by David Bushnell to accommodate a single person and was the first to use screws for vertical and horizontal propulsion.

A cutaway depiction of David Bushnell’s Turtle, 1776

A similar human-powered submarine was conceptualised and built by Robert Fulton for the French Navy in 1800. Dubbed the Nautilus, it was the first known submarine to use dual-propulsion. Although it proved its capability to destroy warships using mines during demonstrations, the French government, and eventually the British as well, lost interest in the project and abandoned it. Subsequent projects, as mentioned earlier, faced abandonment and failures too. The next big push in submarines came with mechanised propulsion.

Mechanical and electrical power

Conceptually, the first autonomous submarine was the French Navy’s Plongeur. The submarine used a reciprocating engine powered by compressed air from 23 tanks at 180 psi. But the first practical and air-independent submarine, the Ictineo II, was designed by Narcis Monturiol in 1867. It ran on a combustion engine powered by peroxide and steam. The air-independent peroxide propulsion system was designed to solve the problem of oxygen availability underwater as well as optimise other aspects.

Fulton’s Nautilus

Around the same time, the Whitehead self-propelled torpedoes were developed by Robert Whitehead. Towards the end of the 19th century, the modern submarine began to take shape in the work of George Garrett, who designed and built the Resurgam in 1879 in Birkenhead, England. A combined use of wood and iron made it robust, but the design was further improved after intervention from Swedish Industrialist Thorsten Nordenfelt. Their combined efforts led to a series of Nordenfelt submarines that achieved previously unaccomplished feats. Their success drew even more military attention to submarines.

The USS Holland, 1900

The Holland Type VI submarine, designed in 1896, used a combustion engine on the surface and battery power when submerged. While it was not the first electrically powered submarine, it did end up being the first submarine commissioned by the United States Navy in 1900, renamed to USS Holland. The Holland class submarine would gain in popularity and be adapted all over the world until the start of World War I would push submarine research to a new level.

The modern submarine and wartime developments

In 1914, the Royal Navy (Britain) had the largest submarine fleet in service. They were designed with a range of 2500 nautical miles, better living conditions for the crew and gun decks. They were fitted with twin screws for greater manoeuvrability and with innovative saddle tanks. They also had wireless transmitters. Its profile resembled the modern submarine very closely.

During the interwar years, various new submarine profiles were developed. Perhaps the most interesting among these is the submarine aircraft carrier. The British HMS M2, followed by the French Surcouf, and numerous aircraft-carrying submarines in the Imperial Japanese Navy are notable examples as well.


Early design during these times combined the efforts of a diesel engine and an electric motor on the same shaft to use the former for charging the batteries and the latter to drive the submarine underwater. Eventually, they were separated, allowing greater flexibility to submarines in terms of manoeuvrability.

Nuclear submarines

The first nuclear-powered submarine was the USS Nautilus, commissioned in 1954. The advantage of using nuclear power is that the submarine could stay underwater for a nearly unlimited time. Most submarines built ever since have been nuclear powered. Today, six countries deploy some form of nuclear-powered strategic submarines: the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, China, and India.

The Future

The recent German 212 type submarine was the first to use hydrogen fuel cells for propulsion, powered by nine 34-kilowatt fuel cells. Multiple smaller commercial submarines that do not have a need to be operated independently, often run on small batteries that are recharged by the ship. Introduction of the quieter pump-jet propulsors also gave a tactical advantage in the 20th century.

The future of submarine propulsion lies with the magnetohydrodynamic drive.

HMS M2 launches a specially designed Parnall Peto seaplane. It sank accidentally in 1932

A magnetohydrodynamic drive or MHD accelerator is a method for propelling vehicles using only electric and magnetic fields with no moving parts, accelerating an electrically conductive propellant (liquid or gas). As the liquid moves to the back of the vehicle, it is propelled forward as a reaction. While this design is currently impractical due to the low speeds it generates, it has been quite popular in fictional submarines – a notable example being the one in the film adaptation of The Hunt for Red October.

Arnab Mukherjee

Arnab Mukherjee

A former tech-support desk jockey, you can find this individual delving deep into all things tech, fiction and food. Calling his sense of humour merely terrible would be a much better joke than what he usually makes.