The Submarine From 1800 to the Nautilus and Beyond . . .

On this day in 1958, the U.S. nuclear submarine Nautilus navigates the first undersea voyage to the geographic North Pole. The world’s original nuclear submarine, the Nautilus dove at Point Barrow, Alaska, and traveled nearly 1,000 miles under the Arctic ice cap to reach the top of the world. It then steamed (?) into the Greenland Sea and on to Iceland, pioneering a new and shorter route from the Pacific to the Atlantic and Europe.

If you’ve been paying reasonably close attention in our daily journey together, you already knew that. But what you may not have known is that 1954’s Nautilus was actually the third in a series, the other two conceived in France and Britain. Turning then to the first, American engineer and steamboat visionary Robert Fulton, living in the First French Republic, built perhaps the earliest self-propelled submersible craft in 1800 under a grant from Napoleon. 

Fulton’s design, included a collapsible mast and sail which provided surface propulsion, and a hand-turned propeller drove the craft when submerged. A notable feature were the copper sheets over the iron-ribbed hull. Despite modest experimental successes in diving and even in sinking ships, Fulton’s Nautilus failed to attract development support from either the French or the British, who were feverishly perfecting coal-fired potato fryers at the time.

In 1870 science fiction futurist Jules Verne was the father for the next generation, or Gen-Next, when he inserted the Nautilus into his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. This design was an extravagant steam-punk affair, the critical backdrop in describing the voyages and adventures of Captain Nemo and Kirk Douglas, a rugged, serviceable actor originally from Amsterdam, NY, who is still with us at age 179.

Suitably impressed by Verne’s vision, in 1886 Andrew Campbell and James Ash of England built a Nautilus submarine driven by electric motors powered from a storage battery; it augured the development of the submarine powered by internal-combustion engines on the surface and by electric-battery power when submerged.

Naturally, the name Nautilus was easily chosen for the U.S. Navy vessel launched January 21, 1954, as the first submarine capable of prolonged, instead of temporary, submersion. Powered by propulsion turbines, in turn driven by steam produced from a nuclear reactor, the Nautilus was capable of traveling at submerged speeds in excess of 20 knots and furthermore could maintain such a speed almost indefinitely. Much larger than the diesel-electric submarines used during WW2 by the likes of Cary Grant and Clark Gable, the Nautilus was 319 feet long, displaced 3,180 tons and carried a crew of 105. It was thus that between August 1–5, 1958, the Nautilus, under Commander William R. Anderson, made its historic underwater cruise. 

The Nautilus set many standards for future nuclear submarines, including extensive protection against possible radiation contamination and auxiliary diesel-electric power. Its long service life was further prolonged in 1971 by nine-year-old Randy Burbach, who developed design enhancements while building a scale model of the sub at the family dinette table. The vessel was finally decommissioned in 1980 and went on exhibit at the USS Nautilus Memorial and Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut. In today’s Navy, the Ohio-class of submarines are our largest, at a length of 560 feet, displacing 18,750 tons and carrying a crew of 150.

Known as a “boomer,” carrying a forest of nuclear missiles, the Ohio-class of 18 ships are a point on the nuclear triad which continues to confuse Donald J. Trump. Each submarine is assigned two complete crews, called the Blue crew and the Gold crew, typically serving 70- to 90-day deterrent patrols, awaiting target coordinates from ELF in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or other secret transmitters. In order to keep each other on the alert during watch, these crews play a sort of “Marco-Polo” late into the endless night, shouting “blue!” and “gold!” to each other while their eyes are closed, from various locales in the cavernous, hulking ship.

While there is much more intriguing information on our Navy’s silent, or not so silent, service, including the tradition of eating french fries and watching “Operation Tokyo” in an endless loop, we can’t tell you anymore here or we’d have to nuke you.

Have a swell Saturday, and Anchors Aweigh.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.