British Might Meets Yankee Ingenuity

An invention paves the way for modern submarine warfare


The Continental Army was outnumbered in its defense of New York. A British fleet of at least 200 ships lay anchored in New York harbor to support the invasions of Long Island and, later, Manhattan. So Gen. George Washington, who reportedly believed underwater attacks to be "ungentlemanly," reluctantly agreed to try something new—a "Water Machine" invented by David Bushnell of Saybrook, Conn. On the night of Sept. 6, 1776, Ezra Lee climbed into the first submarine used in battle. Pilot, crew, and propulsion system—he worked the craft's cranks and pumps with his hands and feet—Lee was "one man against Goliath," says Jerry Roberts, executive director of the Connecticut River Museum.

Lee maneuvered the tiny sub, called "the Turtle," under the keel of the 64-gun British flagship, HMS Eagle. He was to drill a screw into the Eagle's hull and attach a bomb, which was timed to detonate after the Turtle had moved safely away.

In the end, Lee failed to secure the explosive. As morning dawned, he retreated, jettisoning the bomb. It exploded in the harbor, destroying no ships but blasting open the door to submarine warfare.