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Turtle Dives Again Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005
by Tom Gidwitz

Re-creating George Washington's revolutionary submarine

[image] In 1776, the experimental sub Turtle was the most revolutionary weapon in George Washington's arsenal. Artists Rick and Laura Brown have created a faithful replica of the vessel. (Cary Wolinsky) [LARGER IMAGE]

At midnight, September 7, 1776, a strange craft on a deadly mission made its way down the Hudson River. Shaped like an egg, with a windowed copper conning tower, two spindly propellers, and a 100-pound time bomb on its back, the seven-foot-tall wooden submarine Turtle was the most daring invention of the Revolutionary War.

The brainchild of David Bushnell, a frail Connecticut ex-farmer and mechanical genius, Turtle's task was to affix the bomb to Eagle, the 64-gun flagship of the British fleet anchored in New York Harbor. Hundreds of men-of-war, transport ships, and gunboats also crowded the waters, and 30,000 British troops were bivouacked on Staten Island and Long Island. The force threatened to cut the colonies in half and crush the Continental army. If Turtle could destroy Eagle, it might alter the course of the war.

As the sub approached its target, its only occupant, Sergeant Ezra Lee, feverishly cranked two propellers and let enough water into the ballast tanks to submerge the craft and slip beneath the ship. But the auger mounted atop the sub, meant to penetrate Eagle's hull and attach the bomb, bounced off. When Lee tried again, the sub skidded out from beneath the British ship and shot to the surface.

Dawn was breaking, and Lee turned the ungainly Turtle back to Manhattan. As he powered past Governor's Island, British sentries spotted him and gave chase in a barge. The Turtle couldn't even make one mile an hour and as the barge caught up, Lee released the time bomb. It drifted on the surface, and the Red Coats, sensing danger, hurried back to shore. An hour later, not long after Turtle was back in Manhattan, the bomb exploded, rocking the harbor and blowing a column of water high in the air.

A month later Bushnell was transporting Turtle up the Hudson aboard a sailboat when the British attacked, sinking the ship and destroying the innovative vessel in the process. The sub was the first ever used in warfare, but Bushnell never built another. The only surviving evidence of its design to survive are eyewitness accounts and letters Bushnell wrote at the request of a fellow inventor, Thomas Jefferson, 15 years later.

But now Turtle sails again, thanks to Rick and Laura Brown, two Massachusetts artists who resurrect lost technologies to help them better understand human ingenuity over time. With the help of historians, archaeologists, timber framers, blacksmiths, glassblowers, museum curators, U.S. Navy cadets, and the Browns' students at Boston's Massachusetts College of Art (MassArt), they built a new Turtle faithful to the design, materials, and techniques that Bushnell used himself. The result is an ungainly, oddly beautiful vessel reminiscent of a mad wizard's flying machine, with a nut-brown hull of carved wood and hammered metals bearing the marks of many hands.

The Browns are experts at revealing the past, but not with archaeological excavations. In their MassArt classes, they re-create ancient objects with rigorous exactitude, using the same materials and tools used for the originals. By tracking down "very specific skills to a very specific location to a very specific material and a very specific time frame," Laura says emphatically, they can access the past through "the world of objects that reflect the humans that made them."

Tom Gidwitz is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY.

* Learn more about Rick and Laura Brown's brand of experimental archaeology at

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America