Archive for April, 2018

Colt and the Submarine Battery

Samuel Colt is best known for having produced a revolver that was able to fire multiple times without being reloaded. His work in firearms made him a pioneer in the fields of advertising, product placement and mass marketing. Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814 and began an early career in the firearm business. By the age of 15, Colt had found a passion for explosives and began work on a pistol.  In 1836, Colt would open his first factory in Paterson, New Jersey.  These early years were not very lucrative with multiple issues plaguing his designs and company. In 1843, Samuel was forced to close his plant and sell most of his company’s assets at auction. But Colt did not stay away from manufacturing for long, and being a true Connecticut native, he turned his attention to the water.

The mid-nineteenth century in undersea warfare was built on the work that came from such people as David Bushnell and Robert Fulton. Their work in mine and submarine development was something that people like Colt saw to surpass. Colt began creating and selling underwater electrical detonators and waterproof cables. He would eventually team up with Samuel Morse and petition the government for funding. Morse used one of Colt’s mines to transmit a telegraph message from Manhattan to Governors Island. After this endeavor, Colt would move towards underwater explosives, an idea that had been of interest to him from the time he was a boy. He believed that these mines would be of great economic value to the country as a coastal defense. In an account he gave to Congress, Colt said, “The idea of Submarine explosions for the purposes of harbor defect was conceived by me as early as the year 1829 while stud[y] in the laboratory of a bleeching and colouring establishment at Ware Vilage, Massachusetts, and I made sundry experiments on a small scale at that time and repeated them in various ways for several successive years theareafter” [1]. Even while working on his revolver, the idea of underwater mine warfare intrigued Colt. While in New Jersey, he sketched an idea for tracking the movements of a man-of-war by a means of visual cross-bearings of shore observers. He would eventually refine this idea to a single-observer system. Colt’s idea included that “Within shore observation post would be installed a ten-foot convex mirror, positioned above and behind the galvanic operator in order to reflect the image of an adjacent minefield onto the mirrored control grid before him. Embedded in this control panel, as suggested in Colt’s later overhead perspective of the observation post and nearby river minefield, were envisaged numerous individual metallic terminals from several score anchored mines, each terminal being located upon the control grid’s equivalent of its mine’s watery position.” [2] The hoe would be that the observer would be able to trigger selective groups of mines as a target moved across the area.

In 1842, Colt’s submarine battery or electric mine was successfully used to sink the gunboat Boxer and the brig Volta. However, in a first for an underwater mine operated by an electric current on April 13, 1844, he blew up a schooner on the Potomac River in a demonstration held for President John Taylor and his cabinet. Colt pushed for the demonstrations, feeling encouraged by the news that an armored floating battery was under construction for the defense of New York Harbor. For years Colt dealt with a government wry on his ideas and found achieving funding difficult. He believed that the demonstration in Washington would be exactly what he needed. On March 19, Colt was given anchors, boats, timber, and mooring lines from the Washington Navy Yard to aid in his demonstration preparation. On April 1, 1844, he reported that, “I have fortified the river leading to the Navy Yard & the ship is to be got under way with all her sails set & blown up while at her greatest speed.” [3] The plan for the day was that Lieutenant Junius Boyle of the Navy Yard was to maneuver the target vessel to the vicinity of the minefield. At 4:30pm, Colt would signify that he was ready with a pistol shot, at which point Boyle would respond by lowering the vessels topsail three times. Once the national ensign was removed, Boyle and his small crew would leave the target vessel in a small boat and get clear of the target area. When in position, the crew would fire a rocket signaling their safe distance. An account from the Daily National Intelligencer covering the event wrote that, “A little boat advanced and removed certain buoys which had been floating near the spot where the battery lay; and soon after a low and peculiar sound was heard, when a most beautiful jet, of mingled water, fire and smoke, rose to a considerable height near the opposite shore, and as the water fell back in white translucent masses, the smoke, colored by the sub’s rays with all the dyes of the prism, slowly melted into the air, while the grains of we powder, ignited and smoking, fell in soft showers upon the bright surface of the river…..The Ship held on her course, and in a few minutes another mountain of water, larger and blacker than the first, rose on her larboarded bow, and so close to her that she rocked under the undulation. ‘Oh, he has missed her!’ But it was very near’ The words were scarcely uttered when a third explosion took place-the bows and bowsprit of the ship, instantly shattered to atoms, were thrown into the air.” [4]

Figure 1 he Last Experiment of Mr. Colt’s Submarine Battery. 1844 painting by Antoine Placide Gibert. For a long time, this was assumed to be in New York harbor. However, the building to the left of the doomed ship is clearly Coningham’s brewery, and the Washington Navy Yard can be seen to the Styx‘s right. (Google Books)

During the demonstration, Colt’s position for setting off the explosions was never found. While not being detected was a key part of the demonstration, for professional evaluation of the system, the fact that his precise location has never been told has led the Submarine Battery demonstrations to be somewhat of a mystery. Colt’s papers leave no evidence indicating a second observer, a reflecting mirror, or a control grid to help pinpoint accuracy of the explosions. Despite the success of the demonstration, military officers were skeptical of the battery and had little confidence of its use in war.

In the end, Colt would suffer a similar fate as Robert Fulton did with the British government. In the early 1800’s, the British government had not rewarded Fulton for advancements he had made in underwater mining while working with them. Secretary of the Navy, John Y. Mason did not attend the demonstration, nor did he try to understand how Colt’s battery worked so well. Without professional military evaluations and without all the key components to the system, Mason decided to end the Navy department’s role with the submarine battery. The secret of the Submarine Battery would lead to an eventual ongoing debate in Washington that played a major role in holding back submarine mine development in the United States for over a generation. Colt would end up pulling his application for a patent thus keeping the secrets of his Submarine battery with him forever. The inventor would not be reimbursed for the funds he used to build the battery and the situation would leave him almost bankrupt. Colt would eventually see success with his revolver and government arms contract. During the Civil War in the following years, a variety of underwater systems comprised of mines, obstructions, and semi-submersible torpedo crafts convinced military engineers that it was an absolute necessity to use undersea warfare in coastal defense, which was the very idea that Colt had had been pushing for so long. While Colt’s Submarine Battery may not have ended up as a part of the Navy’s system, the idea of hidden undersea defenses was the key motivation to submarine development. These early developments were the stepping stones to the powerful, silent service we have today.


[1] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 8.


[2] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 15.

[3] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 40.

[4] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 43-45.

Submarine Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. Now you may be wondering what that has to do with submarines. Poems, ballads and music have a long history in the naval world. In 1798, two musicians, a fifer and a drummer were put to sea on the USS Ganges. By the mid-1820’s, ship’s bands were extremely common. The USS Constitution had a 20-piece band onboard in 1825. The songs, poems and ballads sung by the crews, also known as “sea shantys” were set to a specific rhythm for hoisting the sails of a ship in unison. In 1865, in an early publishing that carried the term shanty, it was written that “Every man sprang to duty. The cheerful chatty was roared out and heard above the howl of the gale. The cable held very hard, and when it surged over, the windlass send the men flying about the deck, as if a galvanic battery had been applied to their hands” (G.E. Clark). The arts have played an integral role in naval tradition just as much as the strict codes and time-honored ceremonies have. This past January, we wrote a blog about New Year Eve’s deck logs. This is one manner in which poetry has found its way into the workings of a vessel. But poetry and music have long been a part of telling the stories of life on the sea. Below we have shared some of the submarine poems we know and love. Please share with us poems or songs you know, remember hearing or ones you may have even written yourself.
In 1915, Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem “Submarines”. The work was set to music by the English composer Edward Elgar as the third in a set of four war-related songs. The title of the whole work was called “The Fringes of the Fleet.” The piece goes as follows:


The Ships destroy us above

And ensnare us beneath,

We arise, we lie down, and we move

In the belly of death.

The ships have a thousand eyes

To mark where we come…

But the  mirth of a seaport dies

When our blow gets home.


The work Submarine comes from a larger piece by Kipling which was called Sea Warfare.  This book holds a poem titled The Trade which is also about the submarine service. It reads:


They bear, in place of classic names,

Letters and numbers on their skin.

They play their grisly blindfold games

In little boxes made of tin.

Sometimes they stalk the Zeppelin,

Sometimes they learn where mines are laid,

Or where the Baltic ice is thin.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”


Few prize-courts sit upon their claims.

They seldom tow their targets in.

They follow certain secret aims

Down under, far from strife or din.

When they are ready to begin

No flag is flown, no fuss is made

More than the shearing of a pin.



The Scout’s quadruple funnel flames

A mark from Sweden to the Swin,

The Cruiser’s thund’rous screw proclaims

Her comings out and goings in:

But only whiffs of paraffin

Or creamy rings that fizz and fade

Show where the one-eyed Death has been.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”


Their fears, their fortunes and their fames

Are hidden from their nearest kin;

No eager public backs or blames,

No journal prints the yarn they spin

(The Censor would not let it in!)

When they return from run or raid.

Unheard they work, unseen they win.

That is the custom of “The Trade.”


Another poet who wrote about submarines was Cale Young Rice. Born in Kentucky in 1872, Rice witnessed the birth of the United States Submarine Force and the beginning of submarine development as a part of the US Navy. Rice describes the idea of sailing beneath the ocean waves only as an outsider would. His poem titled Submarine Mountains was written in 1921.


Under the sea, which is their sky, they rise

To watery altitudes as vast as those

Of far Himalayan peaks impent in snows

And veils of cloud and sacred deep repose.

Under the sea, their flowing firmament,

More dark than any ray of sun can pierce,

The earthquake thrust them up with mighty tierce

And left them to be seen but by the eyes Of awed imagination inward bent.


Their vegetation is the viscid ooze,

Whose mysteries are past belief or thought.

Creation seems around them devil-wrought,

Or by some cosmic urgence gone distraught.

Adown their precipices chill and dense

With the dank midnight creep or crawl or climb

Such tentacled and eyeless things of slime,

Such monster shapes as tempt us to accuse

Life of a miscreative impotence.

About their peaks the shark, their eagle, floats,

In the thick azure far beneath the air,

Or downward sweeps upon what prey may dare

Set forth from any silent weedy lair.

But one desire on all their slopes is found,

Desire of food, the awful hunger strife,

Yet here, it may be, was begun our life,

Here all the dreams on which our vision dotes

In unevolved obscurity were bound.

Too strange it is, too terrible!

And yet It matters not how we were wrought or whence

Life came to us with all its throb intense,

If in it is a Godly Immanence. It matters not,—if haply we are more

Than creatures half-conceived by a blind force

That sweeps the universe in a chance course:

For only in Unmeaning Might is met The intolerable thought none can ignore.


While these two poets wrote beautifully on submarines, nothing can compare to a poem written by a submariner himself.  Written by Tim Butterfield while deployed on the USS Houston in 2000, Ode to the Submariner is a wonderfully written piece telling the story of a submariner as only a submariner could.


Take her Deep, Take her Low
May you never have to Emergency Blow

Out in the Ocean’s Deep
Without even a Peep

You track both Man Made and natural things
Without even emitting a ping

Your shaft and screw run around
And run others into the ground

Your weapons are harnessed in racks
Just waiting for the word to target their tracks

Back during the Cold War
We tracked the enemy both near and far

The skimmers all wonder
How they could make such a blunder
When they think they see a periscope’s glare
But all it is a submariner’s Green Flare
The submariner outfoxed them again
And showed them who owns the Ocean’s Great Den

We sometimes take Seals
And feed them a great meal
Then off they go
To put on their own show

The Boomers patrol out there
In places no one else knows where
Silent and Deadly
But Smooth and Stealthy

When submariners return to port
Coming from places of every sort
They go from bar to bar
Just to see how much and how far
And how many and how much
They can outdo one another

In this and that way
So they can tell all on the boat
That they beat their sub brother

They also make new friends
Both yonder and here

Though they sometimes get wild and go bare
Are up until the crack of dawn or beyond
They are all quite fond
Of the sex that is so fair
Some people call it crazy
But never call a Submariner lazy
’cause come what will and what may
He knows how to make the enemy pay!

The Quartermaster plots our course
Through Nav Hazards both many and few
He keeps his calm even through ORSE
And we always arrive inport ahead or when we are due

The MS’ forever slave to get us our grub
Which is served with a flare by an FSA nub

The A-Gangers are always busy
Keeping their systems fixed so we get underway
Though their workload would make the rest of us dizzy
To them it’s just another part of the day

The Radioman makes sure we get our e-mail
Through State 5 seas, hurricanes, and tsunamis, without fail
They also ensure we receive all pertinent news
Like Sports, news, and the occasional birth news

The nukes back aft work as a team
So efficiently with a full head of steam
That we keep getting the Engineering “E”
For all to know and others to see

The IC men and NavETs work as a group
To ensure we never get out of the loop
From navigation and CAMS to monitoring and RADAR
They also ensure we pull in safe whether near or far

The Store Keepers
Are always the keepers
Keeping us up and running
So we have more time for funning

The Sonar Techs
Try to prevent all the wrecks
Listening for ships
Or the big bios blips

The FTs plot all our contacts
So none end up jumping on our back
The Torpedomen can’t wait for the day
When the weapons come out of their tray
And go for their targets out in the Great Way

The JOs are always in the Wardroom training
With knowledge they are a’gaining
Will help them in quals to join the halls
Of the qualified members of the Submariners band
Our Engineer owns the Reactor Plant
With all the power for the ship

To go at a mighty good clip

The smokers complain
Because they have only one lane
With which to enjoy
The sweet taste of nicotine

Out at sea we run out of milk, fresh fruit, and juice
Until we pull in and get us some more

The COB and XO love to make us clean
But they don’t do it just to be mean
For all the cleaning keeps dirt and dust out of machines
And also helps the crew from getting migraines

The Captain looks out for us one and all
And ensures we all have time with our families in the Fall.

We run silent, we run deep
We may get little sleep
But our pride runs just as deep
But in the end it is all worth it
When those we protect tell us how proud they are
Of the way that we did it[1]


We Remember The USS Thresher

Two hundred and twenty miles East off the coast of Cape Cod lays the remains of one of the worst submarine disasters in the history of the U.S. Submarine Force. This week we remembered the USS Thresher and those who were lost 55 years ago. We also ask, how did this happen?

There were nine classes of submarines created before the Thresher. With each class, the Navy believed that they could do better. Before mass producing a specific kind of submarine, they knew that the design had to be perfect. The Thresher class of submarines was the first to have more than five ships built. They were built to be fast and deep-diving. They were the second class behind the Skipjack to be designed with a new streamlined hull that is still in use today. The Threshers were the first to use HY-80 steel alloy that would be used through the 1980’s. Built 30 percent larger than the Skipjack class, they weighed 4,369 tons while submerged. The primary sensor was the first bow-mounted sonar installed in an attack submarine. This moved the four torpedo tubes back, which is a design still used in the Virginia class. Carrying Mark 37 homing torpedos, Mark 57 deep water mines, Mark 60 CAPTOR mines and the SUBROC antisubmarine weapon, the Thresher would be the most powerful submarine to join the fleet. But in April of 1963, that power would be brought to the bottom of the ocean under 8,400 feet of water, and 129 lives ended before their time.

On April 9, 1963, the USS Thresher was conducting test dives off the coast of Cape Cod. Even though she had been in service for two years, The Navy was conducting more tests to determine how much strength the hull could truly withstand. The submarine rescue ship USS Skylark was waiting on the surface should anything happen. At nine in the morning, Thresher reported to Skylark that they were experiencing minor difficulties. Two more inaudible messages were sent before there was eerie silence. The Thresher was never heard from again. She was at a test depth of 1,300 feet. The hull was found ruptured into six pieces.  The question on everyone’s mind after the loss was how this could have happened. To this day, the submarine force prides itself on safety. Every effort is made on keeping the crew of the submarines as safe as they can be. Rickover, the father of the nuclear Navy, was known for being overbearing and at times extremely difficult in order to maintain safety regulations onboard ships. However, in the 1960’s, there was still a lot to learn about submarines – from developmental practices to the best materials to use. The best theory to have come from years of investigations has been that the use of silver brazing on the piping throughout the ship was to blame. It is estimated that three thousand silver-brazed joints were used on Thresher. The process of silver brazing involves a non-ferrous filler metal that is heated to melting temperature and distributed between two or more parts. It is believed that some of these joints were improperly made, causing a pipe to experience joint failure. As seawater came through the pipe, it shorted one of the main electrical boards and caused a loss of power aboard the vessel.

In 2003, a Navy testimony showed that the crew of the Thresher was unable to access equipment that was needed to stop the flooding from the failed pipe. As she took on water, the submarine’s ballast tanks failed to operate. Investigations show that restrictions on and moisture in the air system led to a buildup of ice on the valves which prevented them from being able to operate properly. The Navy was extremely quick after the loss to make sure that the lives of the 129 on board would not be in vain. Less than two months later, SUBSAFE was created to prevent another tragedy like the Thresher. The Submarine Safety Program is a quality assurance program that covers all systems exposed to sea pressure or that are critical to flooding recovery. Between 1915 and 1963, 16 submarines were lost due to non-combat related causes. Since the creation of SUBSAFE, only one submarine has been lost. SUBSAFE certification has four key areas- Design, Material, Fabrication and Testing. During each step, testing is done in order to make sure each element is up to standard. All work done, and materials used that relate to sea pressure are controlled by specific guidelines set forth in the certification manual. Every part is tracked and tested from its point of creation to its insulation. While these measures have created an extra cost with submarine development, it is a cost that has saved countless lives since 1963 and one everyone is willing to pay. While SUBSAFE only addresses the quality control for flooding concerns, other programs are in place to regulate safety concerns such as fire safety, weapons systems, and nuclear reactor safety.

The loss of the USS Thresher will forever be a part of the submarine force’s collective memory. The creation of SUBSAFE and every precaution that has bee taken since is in honor of those men we lost on April 10, 1963. The men and women who choose the submarine force are choosing a service that is still highly unknown. A submarine sails silently underneath the waves, leaving no trace of where it has been or where it is going. Extreme pressure from the water that surrounds the steel hull is consistently beating against it. We must protect those that dive to great depths to protect us here and abroad. The loss of the Thresher is a reminder that we must always do better. Rigid guidelines and advanced testing has led to countless lives saved. But to continue doing better we must remember and honor those that came before and will never be forgotten.

The Aluminum Submarine

What do Reynolds wrap and submarines have in common? Well in the 1960’s, the Reynolds Metal Company experimented with the idea of an aluminum submarine. Due to this innovated thinking, the same company that brought us quick ways of wrapping our food also brought us a new way of looking at the submarine.

The Reynolds Metals Company was looking for an exciting way to market the many uses of aluminum in the 50’s and 60s. They developed ideas for aluminum buses and cars but probably there most interesting experiment was the Aluminaut. Reynolds started designing the experimental submarine during WWII. It would be a full 20 years before the idea would becoming a reality. In 1964, Aluminaut was launched in Groton, Connecticut. She weighed 80 tons, was 50 feet long, and could hold crew of three or four. The submarine designed in the hopes that she could operate at depths of up to 15,000 feet and could be used for oceanographic research as well as salvage missions. The deep-submergence vehicle had four view ports, active and passive sonar and a side scan sonar. Aluminaut was equipped with some unique specifications, a 51 foot hull with 11 forged cylinders. The vessels strength-to-weight ratio exceeded the of steel so that the shell could withstand pressures of 7,500 pounds per square inch at the vessels maximum diving range. In an article from “Underseas Technology” in 1964, it was written that “The Aluminaut is the first major response to the challenge of full scale deep-ocean research and exploration. With its 15,000-foot depth capability, self-propulsion, 80-mile range and 32-hour routine submergence time, the Aluminaut can explore the very bottom of 60 per cent of the ocean areas of the world. Beyond question, it is the forerunner of tomorrow’s deep-diving undersea fleet to probe the mysteries of the oceans.” [1]

While the future seemed bright for Aluminaut, she would have a short career, being decommissioned in 1970. During her six short years, Aluminaut participated in a search for a missing thermonuclear bomb in 1966. The bomb was lost in the Mediterranean after a B-52 bomber and a refueling plane crashed over Spain. The recovery mission took nearly three months. In 1968, she participated in the recovery of a torpedo at the navy’s request. It was in October 1968, which saw Aluminaut’s claim to fame. In 1964, the U.S. Navy commissioned their own deep-ocean research submarine named Alvin. In 1968, while aboard the Navy tender ship Lulu, Alvin was lost while being lowered into the ocean. Three crew members were on board and the hatch was open. As soon as she hit the water, Alvin sunk quickly but thankfully, the three crew members were able to escape. Alvin sunk into the Atlantic, about 100 miles off the south side of Nantucket Island. Weather prevented any chance of recovering Alvin during the remaining months of 1968. Photographs of the sub in 1969 found that while at the bottom, it was upright and intact. Up until this point, no rescue had ever been attempted at such a depth level. On August 27, 1969, Aluminaut was able to descend nearly 5,000 feet to Alvin’s resting spot. Securing lines around the hull, Alvin was able to be towed while submerged to Woods Hole Massachusetts and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Alvin is still in commission today.

In 1991, Aluminaut was donated to the Science Museum of Virginia where she sits today and a reminder of the innovation and creativity of a group of people who sought to bring Aluminum into the spotlight. At the end of her short career, Aluminaut had set a world record for deepest recorded dive by a submarine and had traveled the globe. Aluminaut may seem an oddity in today’s eyes, but in 1960- she was a pioneer for what the future could hold. Research and deep-sea vessels are an important tool to understanding the vast ocean that lays before us. They also play a crucial role, as we saw with Alvin, with providing undersea support that many vessels cannot compete with.  Below you will find a photo gallery of the Aluminaut. Just another testament to human innovation.

Figure 1A mockup of the 42-foot Aluminaut, shown at WHOI in 1961. Photo Courtesy of Wood Holes Oceanographic Institution Archives

Aluminaut at the Science Museum of Virginia.

[1] Covey, Charles W., 1964