Take a peek inside a Civil War hand-cranked submarine

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The Hunley was designed and named in honor of WL Hunley, who died in his ship the second time she sank while attempting to attack a Union blockade. The third time it was successful, but then sank for good.

US Navy Historic Center

Long before the submarines or Red October, the Confederate States of America waged bloody battles against the North on foot, on horseback, and with at least one manually powered submarine. This month, nearly 150 years after becoming what the US Navy calls the first submarine in history to attack successfully another ship – then quickly and mysteriously sinking to the bottom of Charleston Harbor – one side of the CSS Hunley is finally see the light of day again.

The pseudo-steampunk relic was finally found at the bottom of the Atlantic, lying on its side at a 45-degree angle about 11 years ago, and has since been found in a South Carolina lab, kept exactly in the same position in slings since. Until now. Last week, the Hunley was put into an upright position for the first time since Abraham Lincoln was still breathing.

The interior view of the wreck of the CSS Hunley. The manual crankshaft is visible in the center.

Friends of the Hunley / Cramer Gallimore

New clues?
Environmentalists and researchers hope the newly exposed section of the hull will provide clues as to why the Hunley sank. They found some significant holes in the hull, but it is not known if this is what sank the Hunley, or if they were the product of a century and a half of degradation at the bottom of the sea. But it turns out that the primitive technology inside the Hunley contains clues as to what led to its eventual fate.

Before we try to solve the mystery, here are some key things about the Hunley and its modern counterparts:

  CSS Hunley Modern submarine
Propulsion: Eight guys on a crankshaft Nuclear power
Lighting: Simple candle High specification LED
Weapons: Torpedo on a pole Long Range Tomahawk Missiles
Shell: Iron boiler High tensile steel
Entrance: Tire center size Many places

More deadly on his side
Today, nuclear power is the propulsion system of choice for most military submarines, but in the days of inter-state warfare even internal combustion was still a distant dream and most things were fed by sweat or steam. The CSS Hunley secret submersible warship may have been made from a converted boiler, but it was pure elbow grease that spun its propeller.

In fact, it wasn’t just the propeller that was cranked – the ballast water was also manually pumped to make the Hunley dive or head for the surface. That’s a lot of manual pumping left to a tiny, fearful, cramped crew with little margin for error, perhaps that’s why the first two times the Hunley attempted to attack the naval blockade of the Charleston Union, it quickly sank, killing everyone a plank.

Launched long before the dawn of internal combustion, the Hunley relied instead on internal crew exhaustion.

US Navy Historic Center

Yet somehow a team was recruited for a third try. This time the Hunley managed to crash into the USS Housatonic, and detonate the resulting torpedo lodged in its hull. The two ships ended up at the bottom of Charleston Harbor, but the Hunley was stuck so deep in the mud that it was not discovered until 2000 by a team led by author Clive Cussler. Interestingly, the bodies of the crew appeared to be at their posts as if nothing had happened, and studies show they died from lack of oxygen rather than drowning.

Technological or human failure?
So the mystery of what brought down the Hunley for over a century could be linked to technology – the failure of the plan to tie a long detonating cord before detonating the torpedo could have caused the crew to detonate with it. the strong commotion of the explosion, or there maybe a simple miscalculation related to the safe distance that allowed the crew to pump until they simply ran out of air.

Now that the Hunley is on her feet again, maybe the mystery will be solved. More importantly, perhaps all the information gleaned will help these pedal hovercraft seems less crazy.

The Hunley was finally recovered in 2000.

US Navy Historic Center


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