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This page posted 12/28/07

David Bushnell & the Turtle

Bushnell Genealogy Reference #366.

David Bushnell was born in Westbrook, Connecticut on 30 Aug. 1742 the son of Nehemiah Bushnell (#160), Grandson of William (#69), Great Grandson of William (#29) Great Great Grandson of William (#4) and Great Great Great Grandson of Francis (#1) and died in Warrenton, Georgia, about 1823/4, at age about 82.  He was never married.  David was of slight build and nervous temperament.  He was the original inventor of the submarine, the contact mine, the screw propeller, and drive shaft bearings for under water use.  

He prepared for college with Rev. John Devotion, Pastor of the 3rd Congregational Church at Westbrook, (with which church he united 17 Oct. 1773), and entered Yale University in class of 1775.  From his freshman year he made extensive studies in the effects of explosives under water, and developed the basic principles for underwater navigation which today control submarine design.

By December 1775, except for a few minor details, he had completed the construction of an underwater boat, which he called a "torpedo" but which was later named "The American Turtle," designed for blowing up enemy ships. 

While pondering the idea of a vessel to transport and attach timed explosives to enemy warships, Bushnell considered using a submarine. There were, however, many engineering and design problems, which he had to solve with the limited technology of that time-problems such as building a watertight, pressure-proof hull, providing for vertical and horizontal propulsion, vertical stability, variable ballast, steering controls, and a weapons-delivery system, to name a few.  Bushnell eventually solved these problems and introduced some innovations. For example, he was the first submarine designer to equip such a vessel with a snorkel breathing device and to use a two-bladed propeller for ship propulsion.

The next February he appeared before the Governor and Council of Connecticut at their request to give an account of his "machine" as it was called. His plan was fully approved and he was urged to "proceed with it and make every preparation and experiment, with the expectation of proper notice and reward."

On the night of 6 September 1776 the first underwater attack against an enemy ship by submarine was made in New York Harbor upon the 64 gun British Frigate, Eagle, commanded by Admiral Lord Howe, but the operator, Sergeant Ezra Lee, being untrained, who had substituted for David's brother Ezra, who had been fully trained but was sick with a typhoid fever at the time, failed to attach the mine to the vessel, and was frightened away by approaching dawn. A few days later another attempt was made in the Hudson River opposite 106th St. but upon discovery, he was again frightened away. Several subsequent attempts by Lee and another friend of Bushnell's,Phineas Pratt, were similarly unsuccessful. This ended the experiments, although present day specialists aver that there is no theoretical reason why success should not have resulted.

General Washington later wrote to Thomas jefferson , "I then thought, and I still think, that it was an effort of genius."

He later developed the drifting torpedo (so named by him), and in Aug. 1777, endeavored to float one against the British ship Cerebus in New London Harbor, but an American Schooner intercepted the mine, and the crew hauled it aboard their vessel where upon it exploded killing three of the crew, and destroying the vessel. The British ship hastily withdrew to New York and reported "the secret modes of mischief of the Rebels."

Later in the year he attempted to float some mines tied together down the Delaware river opposite Philadelphia, where the British fleet was stationed, but again his plans were upset, for ice floes intercepted or deflected them, and while one hit a rowboat and destroyed the boat and its occupant, the fleet weighed anchor and moved to a safer anchorage. This event is memorialized by Hon. Francis Hopkinson by the song "The Battle of the Kegs."

In 1778 General Washington proposed the formation of a new military unit to be known as the "Corps of Sappers and Miners," and in the summer of the next year it was organized, and on 7 Aug. 1779, David Bushnell was appointed captain-Lieutenant from civil life upon the recommendations of Gov. Trumbull, Gen. Parsons and others, and on 8 June 1781 he was promoted to full Captain, and was at the Siege of Yorktown in the following Sept. and October, the only time that unit had had the opportunity to render special service.  He served until the end of the war, and before the unit was discharged, commanded the Corps, and had become a member of the Connecticut Society of the Cincinnati, an organization formed during the war by officers of the rank of Captain and higher. He is of record as certifying the service of one Phineas Wentworth, over the signature of G. Bushnell, which I am advised was a printer's error.  On 6 May 1779, he was taken prisoner in Middlesex Parish, now Darien, Connecticut.

After peace was declared he returned to Connecticut impoverished, the subject of some honor, and some covert ridicule; becoming discouraged, it is said that he went to France, but in 1795/6 returned to Savannah, Ga. where he stayed for a time with his friend Abraham Baldwin, Yale, '72, but soon went to Columbia county where he taught school, perhaps studied medicine, as he later settled in Warrenton, Ga. under the name Dr. Bush, where he practiced that profession until his death. He applied for, and on 3 Feb. 1800, was granted a pension and not until his will was probated was it generally known that the village medic concealed one of the greatest inventive minds and geniuses of that time.

He left a considerable property to the children of his deceased brother Ezra Bushnell, in Saybrook, and among his personal property, which was brought north by a friend, was some curious machinery partly completed, but it is not known for what purpose it was designed. The only known literary composition by Capt. Bushnell, is an excerpt of a letter to Thomas Jefferson on the General Principles and Construction of a Submarine Vessel, dated 1 Oct. 1787, printed in the Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol iv. p. 303.  The fullest exposition of his claim to distinction as an inventor is given in a paper by Lt. Col. Henry L. Abbott, U.S.A. published in 1881.

His reputation in Connecticut was that of a man of very unassuming manners, and exemplary character, and in Georgia he was equally esteemed. The U.S. Government, in 1915, named a new Submarine Tender, "Bushnell" after him, and at its launching in Bremerton, Washington Miss Esculine Bushnell, of La Grange, Illinois greatt-greatt-grand-daughter of Gideon Bushnell, his uncle, was selected to act as sponsor. (For a description of his boat see "Letters of Silas Dean" in Conn. Hist. Soc. Coll. Vol. ii. pp. 315, and Amer. Journal of Science, vol. ii. pp. 94-100).

Westbrook Connecticut: Records of 3rd Congregational Church.
History of Middlesex County, Connecticut.
Yale College Biographies and Annals.
Connecticut State Records.
Connecticut Men in the Revolution.
World Almanac 1919, p. 633-4.
Connecticut Historical Collections, vol. 2, p. 315.
American Journal of Science, vol. 2, pp. 94-100.
Transactions of American Philosophical Society, Vol. 4, p. 303;
Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, Vol. 2, 7th Series, pp. 183-374.
National Encyclopedia of American Biography.
New England Historical and Genealogical Register.
New York Historical and Biographical Magazine.
U.S. Pension Claim No. 141300.

The above taken from The Bushnell Genealogy Book by George E Bushnell 1945

For more information I recommend "David Bushnell and His Turtle - The Story of America's First Submarine" by June Swanson & Mike Eagle (ISBN 0-689-31628-3) Macmillan Publishing Co. 1991

Other Links to Davis Bushnell & the American Turtle

Recreation of the American Turtle
A 1776 Submarine
David Bushnell - Everything 2
David Bushnell - Virtual Biography
The Turtle - Old Saybrook H.S.
A Revolutionary Submarine
Early Underwater Warfare
David Bushnell's Turtle


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