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David Bushnell Autographs, Memorabilia & Collectibles


Died: Circa 1824
Biography | show moreshow less
By the end of the summer of 1771, David Bushnell, a native of West Saybrook, Connecticut, had invented a vessel he called the "turtle": the first submarine. Made of oak reinforced by iron bands, it resembled a huge walnut: 7½ feet tall and six feet wide at the center. A single operator entered through the now familiar type of airtight hatch at the top, sat on a stool inside the vessel and maneuvered the machine with hand-cranked propellers, a large one at the front and a smaller one at the top, and a rudder at the back. The Turtle could float on the water's surface and pump fresh air in through a special, leak-proof intake valve before submerging. The operator could only keep the vessel under water until that fresh air became stale. The Turtle also had an oversized wood screw sticking straight up from its top, with its handle inside the vessel's chamber. Attached to this screw was a waterproof fuse that led to the mine, which was buoyant but fastened to the outer hull. Bushnell's plan of attack was for the operator to steer in secret under an enemy ship, drill the screw deep enough into the keel of the enemy ship to anchor it, then detach both the screw and the mine, set the fuse burning and drive away as quickly as possible. The mine, held by the drill-bit and its own buoyancy against the bottom of the enemy ship, would explode and sink the ship. The Turtle finally saw action in 1776. The British navy was blockading New York City, intending ultimately to invade along the Hudson River. He targeted the HMS Eagle, as the Turtle's first victim. The Turtle moved with perfect accuracy and stealth, but the operator, unable to drill the screw through the copper-plated hull of the British ship, had to abandon the mission. In two subsequent battles at Fort Lee on the Hudson River, the same thing happened. After 1776, Bushnell abandoned the Turtle and returned to inventing variations on the standard naval mine. They helped hamper, harass, as well as destroy, British ships throughout the War. In 1779, he joined the Army Corps of Sappers and Miners. Playing a major role in battle, the sappers led troops in clearing roads, digging trenches and establishing defensive and offensive positions. Bushnell stayed with the Army until it disbanded in December 1783. In 1787, he disappeared from his home in Saybrook. Only after his death in 1826 did it become known that he had moved to Georgia and became a doctor and professor under the name of David Bush. His reasons remain unknown to this day.

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