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South Carolina SuperGraphic

Hunley's humble beginnings

On August 8, 2000, before a cheering crowd, an iron submersible named H.L. Hunley was lifted from the cold waters of the Atlantic, the home it had known since it sank over 136 years before. When the Hunley sank on February 17, 1864, it had been the first submarine to sink an enemy ship; however it was not understood how revolutionary and ahead of its time this submarine really was. For over 140 years, the reason for the loss of the submarine has been a mystery. Since the year 2000, technology and modern day scientific work are helping to answer many of the questions that have remained unanswered for over 140 years. Today, the main question still remains: what caused the Hunley to sink?

Like most great inventions, the Hunley was developed and financed by people ahead of their time. At the beginning of the Civil War, three men, Horace L. Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson, joined together with the common goal of designing a submersible craft which could be used in the war. They were successful in creating three submarines, each more advanced than the last, the final of these being the famous H.L. Hunley. The evolution of the Hunley began with its predecessors, built and designed in much the same fashion as the Hunley itself.

The Pioneer was the first in the series of submarines that would make way for the Hunley. The Pioneer was fabricated from quarter-inch plates which were bolted to an iron frame. Bolt heads were hammered into counter sinkholes which gave the sub's hull a smooth surface. Diving planes attached to either side of the sub enabled the vessel to submerge and surface, while a small propeller at the surface gave the sub its power to move.

As promising as this submarine seemed to be, its testing could never be completed. The Civil War threatened to take over the area in which the three men resided, and they fled to Mobile, Alabama with only the blueprints and diagrams of their invention.

Once the men arrived in Mobile, they teamed up with Park & Lyons Machine Shop so work could be started on the Pioneer's successor. This alliance introduced the three men to numerous other individuals who would soon become important figures in the Hunley's history, including Lieutenants William Alexander and George Dixon. Within months, construction had already begun on the American Diver.

The original propulsion method for this submarine was a technologically advanced electric-magnetic engine. Although this method proved unsuccessful, documentation does not exist on the testing of the motor, and we may never learn just how close they actually came to making their electric-magnetic engine work. It was soon determined that a more practical propulsion method would be necessary to properly move the submarine through the icy waters. The team developed a small steam engine which would build up pressure within the boiler and use this pressure for propulsion. However, this method also proved to be a failure. Throughout the next few months, different propulsion methods were tested until the easiest and most reliable proved to be the one most likely to work. A hand crank, which would be turned by four men, was installed inside the sub, and the engine was removed. In January 1863, the American Diver was ready for her first harbor trials. Unfortunately, the hand crank was not able to produce sufficient speed to make the submarine a formidable opponent. In February 1863, the American Diver was swallowed by the sea while being towed at the mouth of the Mobile Bay. Fortunately, at this point, no lives had been lost.

Related images

Contemporary drawing of the Pioneer
Contemporary drawing of the Pioneer Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley
James McClintock's drawing of the American Diver
James McClintock's drawing of the American Diver Courtesy of Friends of the Hunley

The graphic The fish boat is born