When it comes to the submarine, most people tend to think that they didn't really become a thing until World War II, with the advent of the German U-Boat. However, that is solely because World War II was the first time submarines were really relevant to important affairs. Many people would be shocked to learn that the submarine was actually invented far earlier.
Of course, the exact answer depends on what you mean when you say the word "invented." Do you mean the first person to have come up with an idea at all? Or the first person to actually make that idea a reality? We'll talk about both of those people here today.
The Original Concept of the Submarine
Oftentimes, when it comes to technology, an idea comes to mind long before it is possible to truly make it a reality. Ancient civilizations had concepts for many things that humanity would not actually invent for many decades or even centuries, and the concept of the submarine was one of them. Long before the first submarine ever sailed, one man conceived of it.
That man was Leonardo Da Vinci, who hopefully needs no introduction. This man conceptualized many incredible machines long before his time, including tanks, parachutes, helicopters, and yes, submarines. However, while Da Vinci is perhaps the first documented individual to come up with the idea of a submarine, his concept was limited to drawings.
While that is still very impressive in its own right, it would be inaccurate to say that he really invented the submarine. After all, humans have great imaginations and can come up with many concepts, but that's not the same as turning those concepts into reality. So, who actually created the first, working submarine?
The World's First Submarine
This is probably going to come as a shock to many people, but the first submarine in the world was actually invented in 1620 by a man called Cornelius Van Drebbel, a Dutch inventor and engineer. This was more than 100 years before the United States even became a country, much earlier than most people realize.
Of course, this original submarine was a lot different from the kind we have today. Despite how groundbreaking it was at the time, one could call it rudimentary by today's standards. Drebbel took a wooden boat, and covered it with parts of the foot (the bottom edge of a sail). He covered the sail in wax so it could be waterproof.
The boat had two holes in either side for the oars, which were covered in a layer of waterproofed leather. In order for the crew to breathe, pipes connected the boat to the surface, much like a snorkel. Finally, the boat had two large bladders on the side that could be filled with water. When filled, the boat would sink below the surface.
When you wanted to come back up to the surface, these bladders simply had to be emptied. This seemingly basic yet ingenious invention is the first documented attempt at what we could call a "submarine," and it was tested several times on the River Thames between the years of 1620 and 1624.
The World's First Military Submarine
While the first submarine may have come about in 1620, it didn't really change much in the world. When most people think of submarines, they think of military vessels. After all, that's pretty much the only thing submarines were used for until research submarines started being used, and even so, most people imagine military subs.
The first military submarine was invented earlier than most people realize as well, still long before the U-Boat. The first military submarine was made in 1776 by David Bushnell, and it was made of wood and powered by propellers. The purpose of its design was to allow explosives to be stuck to the bottom of British ships.
While the submarine was able to operate successfully, it never did manage to sink any enemy vessels. However, the mere success of its operation in enemy waters proved the military value of a submarine, and the race to develop submarines more capable of battle was on. Despite this, it wasn't until 1864 when a submarine sunk an enemy ship for the first time.
During the American Civil War, a Confederate submarine, the H.L. Hunley, sunk a Union sloop, the USS Housatonic, with a spar torpedo. This was the first recorded instance of a submarine sinking another vessel in combat. Still, it would be the better part of a century before submarines really played a major role in war.
The Beginning of Modern Submarines
The first military submarine in 1776 was nothing like the kind of submarine most people visualize when talking about them now, what with the sleek metal bodies, the torpedoes, and the sonar. The first modern submarine designs came into the world in around 1875, courtesy of two rival inventors, John P. Holland and Simon Lake.
These two men were the first ones to design submarines that combined electric motors and gasoline, allowing the vessels to both operate underwater for extended periods of time and travel greater distances, two things that vastly improved the usefulness of the submarine in the eyes of the military. However, the differing submarine designs were picked up by different countries.
Holland's submarine design was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1900. Simon Lake, on the other hand, had his initial designs accepted by Russia in 1904. He also designed the first subs for the Austro-Hungarian and German navies.
The Impact of Modern Submarines on Warfare
Despite all of this submarine history, these types of vessels went largely unproven in their usefulness until the first World War. A single ship was sunk back in 1864, but 1914 was the first time submarines made a big impact on warfare: September 5th marked the first time a ship was ever sunk by a submarine's self-propelled torpedo.
From there, the next few years saw many ships and lives lost to submarine attacks, including the Lusitania in 1915, a major factor in America getting involved in World War I. Today, submarines play a major role in naval warfare, operating as hunters of large enemy vessels, as well as platforms for nuclear weapons.
Needless to say, Drebbel likely never imagined that his invention would come so far and be so important.