History Review: The Submarine & Submersible Vehicles

Submarines have played an essential role in modern history. They have inspired a mix of wonder, fear, hope, and anxiety. Although relatively recent inventions, subs were crucial in several significant historical events and were the deciding factors (and sometimes the causes) of wars, conflicts, and events. Submarines have a vast range of capabilities, making them one of the most versatile sea-going vessels currently on or in the water. Submarines are fascinating machines and they have a long and surprising history.

What is a Submarine

A submarine is a watercraft that can be fully submerged in deep water, even when manned and occupied by humans. They can go deeper than humans can, as they can withstand intense pressure, unaided. They can also move throughout the water only partially submerged. Submarines have the capacity to provide oxygen for the crew and protect them from pressure, water, and obstacles. Submarines often carry weapons as well, making them formidable in times of war. 


How Submarines Work

Submarines are highly sophisticated machines. They can float and dive because they can have their buoyancy altered almost at will by the submarine crew. Tanks on the submarine can be filled with either air or water, making the sub more or less buoyant. More air and the sub will float, more water and it will sink. Air and water must both be maintained to keep the vessel pressurized, but the crew can control these.


Types of Submarines

There are many different types of submarines, with the majority falling into four basic classes, or major types. Attack submarines, often armed with missiles and with stealth capabilities, are capable of search-and-destroy missions and are able to move quickly. Ballistic missile submarines are built for nuclear deterrence, while guided missile submarines are stealth fighters. Deep submergence rescue vehicles are submarines that come into play when there is an emergency underwater.


Submarine History

People have been trying to breathe underwater since ancient times. Ancient Greeks used hollow sticks to breathe underwater, and serious plans for submarines started in the early modern period. Submarines, as we know them today, are relatively recent inventions, but the dream of traveling underwater has a long history!

The First Submarines

Although the first submarine may have contained Alexander the Great in 322 BCE, when he was supposedly lowered in a glass barrel into the sea to study fish, the first vehicle resembling the modern submarine was designed in 1578. William Bourne’s design was closely related to a diving bell, and was most likely the first working submarine.


Submarines Through History

Submarines began to become a reality in the nineteenth century. In 1863, a French proto-submarine, powered by compressed air, not physical manpower, was successful in diving, but only to 33 feet. By 1900, submarines were able to dive more efficiently and to deeper depths, and were ready to be equipped with weapons, making them crucial in the world wars of the early twentieth century. In 1915, a German U-Boat sank the ocean liner Lusitania, prompting the US to enter World War I.


Submarines Today

Today, submarines are more advanced than ever. They can be larger or smaller, depending on need, than their predecessors, and are also faster. They are now ready to dive more deeply with ease. Submarines are used for more than military movements today and are often used for deep-sea exploration.

For example, deep-sea exploration, much of which has been accomplished using deep-sea submarines, has told us more about creatures, geography, and our planet as a whole. This exploration could not have been achieved without the aid of submarines, as humans cannot dive that deep without suffering from excessive pressure, which can cause illness or even death. 


Famous Submarines

Several submarines throughout history have become famous for a variety of reasons. One of the most famous submarines is the deep-sea exploration vehicle, Alvin. Alvin is most famous for a variety of reasons. Created in 1964, Alvin is regularly maintained and renovated, but is one of the oldest deep-sea exploration vehicles still in regular use. It can collect data in a variety of ways, and can move, hover, and dive to a depth that allows humans to explore approximately two-thirds of the ocean floor.

Early Civil War submarines have also gained fame. The CSS Pioneer, for example, was abandoned by the Confederates but became a prototype for later Civil War submarines. The CSS H.L. Hunley, which sank the USS Housatonic in 1864, is another famous submarine that was heavily influenced by the Pioneer.


Additional Resources on Submarines

Submarines are fascinating machines that have enabled humans to explore the ocean, to travel to unknown depths, to accomplish scientific achievements never thought possible. From the early days of Alexander’s glass barrel to the explorations of Alvin, submarines have a long and fascinating history. Here are some additional resources for learning more about submarines!

HistoryJournal.org goes into detail about U-boats on their page, U-boats in World War I.

The National WWI Museum and Memorial talks about how U-boats were used in warfare at Unrestricted U-boat warfare: the German naval tactic of WWI.

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers discusses submarines as well as other machinery at 5 winning weapons of World War I.

Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science talks about scientific exploration using submarines at A brief history of deep-sea exploration.

The National WWII Museum talks about the USS Tang at Final mission: USS Tang submarine experience.

Civil War Trust talks about the machines of our history at Steel & steam.

The J. Paul Getty Museum focuses on Alexander the Great and the first submarine at Alexander the Great underwater.