Popular Science Monthly/Volume 68/March 1906/Submarine Navigation



SUBMARINE navigation has engaged the attention of inventors and attracted general interest for a very long period. Its practical application to purposes of war was made about 130 years ago. The main object of that application was to threaten, or if possible destroy, an enemy's battleships engaged in blockade by means of under-water attacks, delivered by vessels of small dimensions and cost, which could dive and navigate when submerged. From the first, submarines were admittedly weapons favored by the weaker naval power; and as a consequence their construction found little favor with our naval authorities. Under the conditions which prevailed a century ago in regard to materials of construction, propelling apparatus and explosives, the construction of submarines necessarily proceeded on a limited scale, and the type practically died out of use, almost at its birth. Enough had been done, however, to demonstrate its practicability and to make it a favorite field of investigation for inventors, some of whom contemplated wide extensions of submarine navigation. Every naval war gave fresh incentive to these proposals, and led to the construction of experimental vessels. This was the case during the Crimean War, when the Admiralty had a submarine vessel secretly built and tried by a special committee, on which, amongst others, Mr. Scott-Bussell and Sir Charles Fox served. Again, during the civil war in America, the Confederates constructed a submarine vessel, and used it against the blockading squadron off Charlestown. After several abortive attempts, and a considerable loss of life, they succeeded in destroying the Federal Housatonic, but their submarine with all its crew perished in the enterprise.

It is impossible to give even a summarized statement of other efforts made in this direction from 1860 onwards to 1880; but one cannot leave unnoticed the work done in the United States by Mr. Holland, who devoted himself for a quarter of a century to continuous experiment on submarines and eventually achieved success. The Holland type was first adopted by the United States Navy, and was subsequently accepted by the British Admiralty as the point of departure for our subsequent construction of submarines. In France also successive designs for submarines were prepared by competent naval architects, and a few vessels were built and tried. The Plongeur, of 1860, was a submarine of large size, considerable cost and well-considered design; but her limited radius of action and comparatively low speed left her for many years without a successor on the French navy list. The high relative standing attained by the French navy as compared with our own, in consequence of the vigorous action of the Emperor Napoleon III. in developing steam propulsion and armor protection for sea-going ships, no doubt greatly influenced French policy at that time, and delayed development of submarine construction. When conditions were altered in consequence of the Franco-German war of 1870, and the position of the French navy in relation to the British became less favorable, it was natural that the question of submarine construction should assume greater importance in France. In the interval, moreover, great advances had been made in materials of construction and in means of propulsion available for submarines. The extended use of steel and the practical applications of electricity gave to designers greater facilities than existed previously, and public interest in the construction of submarines and small swift vessels was increased by the writings of the jeune école, who strongly condemned the continued construction of armored 'mastodons.'

The modern development of submarines for war purposes is chiefly due to French initiative. During the earlier stages of this development progress was extremely slow. The Gymnote was ordered in 1886 and the Gustave Zédé in 1888, and her trials continued over nearly eight years, large sums of money being spent thereon. In 1896 competitive designs for submarines were invited, but no great activity was displayed in this department of construction until the Fashoda incident two years later. Since that time remarkable developments have been made in France, considerable numbers of submarines have been laid down, rival types have been constructed, and many designers have been engaged in the work. Up to the present time about seventy submarines and submersibles have been ordered; in July, 1904, the total number of completed vessels was twenty-eight; and at the end of 1907 it is estimated that France will possess sixty completed submarines, with a total displacement of nearly 13,600 tons. The first French submarine of modern type, the Gymnote, was 56 feet long, and of 30 tons displacement. The latest types are nearly 150 feet long and of 420 tons displacement. The cost of a French submarine designed in 1898 was about 26,000l. The estimated cost of the latest and largest vessel is about 70,000l. The French have pursued no continuous policy in this development, but have alternated between vessels of comparatively large, and others of much smaller displacement. This course had much to recommend it, no doubt, as it brought many accomplished naval architects into competition; but the lack of a continuous and progressive policy has resulted in dissatisfaction and difficulty, and this is frankly acknowledged by French authorities. Two years elapsed after the date when the French resolutely undertook the construction of submarines before the British Admiralty ordered five vessels of the Holland type from Messrs. Vickers, Maxim and Co., who had acquired the concession for the use of the Holland Company's patents. These first vessels in essentials were repetitions of the type which had been tried and officially approved by the authorities of the United States Navy. It was agreed that all improvements made by the Holland Company should be at the service of the British Admiralty through the English concessionaires. In this manner the royal navy at once acquired advantages attaching to the long experience and great skill of Mr. Holland; and with that advantage there was associated the possibility of utilizing their own technical resources and those of Messrs. Vickers, Maxim and Co. For five years a continuous policy has been followed in the development of our submarines, all of which have been constructed at Barrow-in-Furness. There has been a great development in size, speed and general efficiency, resulting necessarily in correspondingly greater cost per vessel. Information of an official and authoritative character relating to submarines is freely published in France and the United States, but for British submarines, corresponding official information is scanty. It has for years been the rule to give in the navy estimates full particulars of dimensions and costs for all other classes of British warships; but for submarines a policy of secrecy is adopted that is most unreasonable and unnecessary. From the best sources of information accessible, it appears that the growth in size, with a correspondingly increased cost, has been even more rapid here than in France. Our first five submarines are 63 feet in length, 120 tons in displacement, with gasolene engines of 160 horse-power for surface propulsion, giving a speed of 8 to 9 knots. The electric motors for submerged propulsion are estimated to give a speed of about 7 knots. The contract price for each vessel in the United States was about 34,000l., and that is about the price paid for our earliest vessels. The latest type of which particulars are available are said to be about 150 feet in length, 300 tons in displacement, and with gasolene engines of 850 horse-power for surface propulsion, giving a surface speed of 13 knots and a radius of action of 500 miles. The under-water speed is 9 knots, and the radius of action when submerged about 90 miles. No official particulars have been published as to the contract price for these vessels, which is certainly an undesirable course to adopt, seeing that for other and admittedly sufficient reasons these contracts have not. been subject to competition as yet. It may be hoped that the admiralty will reconsider this matter and treat submarines similarly to other vessels.

In French official classification a distinction is made between submarines and submersibles, and this terminology has been the cause of some confusion. Both classes are capable of diving when required, and both can make passages at the surface. In this surface condition a considerable portion of the vessel lies above the water-surface and constitutes what is technically called a 'reserve of buoyancy.' In the submersible this reserve of buoyancy and the accompanying freeboard is greater than in the submarine type, and in this respect lies the chief difference between the two types. The submersible has higher freeboard and greater reserve of buoyancy, which secure better seagoing qualities, and greater habitability. The deck or platform is situated higher above water, and to it the crew can find access in ordinary weather when making passages, and obtain exercise and fresh air. Recent exhaustive trials in France are reported to have established the great superiority of the submersible type when the service contemplated may involve sea passages of considerable length. The French policy, as recently announced, contemplates the construction of submersibles of about 400 tons displacement for such extended services, and proposes to restrict the use of submarines to coast and harbor defence for which vessels of about 100 tons displacement are to be employed. All recent British submarines would be ranked as submersibles according to the French classification, and it is satisfactory to know, as the result of French experiments, that our policy of construction proves to have distinct advantages. In addition to these two types of diving or submarine vessels, the French are once more discussing plans which have been repeatedly put forward and practically applied by M. Goubet, namely, the construction of small portable submarine vessels which could be lifted on board large ships and transported to any desired scene of operations. In the Royal Navy for many years past, it has been the practise to similarly lift and carry second-class torpedo or vedette boats about 20 tons in weight. Lifting appliances for dealing with these heavy boats have been designed and fitted in all our large cruisers and in battleships, and a few ships have been built as 'boatcarriers.' The first of these special depot ships in the royal navy was the Vulcan ordered in 1887-8, the design being in essentials that prepared by the writer at Elswick in 1883. The French have also built a special vessel named the Foudre which has been adapted for transporting small submarines to Saigon, and performed the service without difficulty. Whether this development of small portable submarines will take effect or not remains at present an open question, but there will be no mechanical difficulty either in the production of the vessels themselves or in the means for lifting and carrying them. M. Goubet worked out with complete success designs for vessels about 26 feet long and less than 10 tons displacement, with speeds of 5 to 6 knots, the trials of which have been very fully described, but French authorities have not adopted the type, and no decision seems to have been taken to introduce it. In this country no similar action has been taken, and our smallest submarines weighing 120 tons cannot be regarded as 'portable.' Indeed, some leading British authorities on submarines have indicated that experience is adverse to the construction of vessels in which not more than two or three men would form the crew, and on that ground have condemned the construction of these small submarines. They would necessarily be of slow speed and very limited radius of action, while their efficient working would depend upon the nerve and skill of only two or three men working in a very confined space.

Progress in mechanical engineering and in metallurgy has been great since Bushnell constructed and used his first submarine in 1776, during the war between the United States and this country. These advances have made it possible to increase the dimensions, speed and radius of action of submarines; their offensive powers have been enlarged by the use of locomotive torpedoes; and superior optical arrangements have been devised for discovering the position of an enemy while they themselves remain submerged. But it cannot be claimed that any new principle of design has been discovered or applied. From descriptions left on record by Bushnell and still extant, it is certain that he appreciated, and provided for the governing conditions of the design in regard to buoyancy, stability, and control of the depth reached by submarines. Indeed Bushnell showed the way to his successors in nearly all these particulars, and—although alternative methods of fulfilling essential conditions have been introduced and practically tested—in the end Bushnel's plans have in substance been found the best. The laws which govern the flotation of submarines are, of course, identical with those applying to other floating bodies. When they are at rest and in equilibrium they must displace a weight of water equal to their own total weight. At the surface they float at a minimum draught and possess in this 'awash' condition a sufficient freeboard and reserve of buoyancy to fit them for propulsion. When submarines are being prepared for 'diving' water is admitted to special tanks, and the additional weight increases immersion and correspondingly reduces reserve of buoyancy. In some small submarines comparative success has been attained in reaching and maintaining any desired depth below the surface simply by the admission of the amount of water required to secure a perfect balance between the weight of the vessel and all she contains, and the weight of water which would fill the cavity occupied by the submarine when submerged. For all practical purposes and within the depths reached by submarines on service water may be regarded as incompressible; the submarine should, therefore, rest in equilibrium at any depth if her total weight is exactly balanced by the weight of water displaced. If the weight of the vessel exceeds by ever so small an amount the weight of water displaced, that excess constitutes an accelerating force tending to sink the vessel deeper. On the contrary, if the weight of water displaced exceeds by ever so small an amount the total weight of the vessel, a vertical force is produced tending to restore her to the surface. Under these circumstances, it is obvious that if the admission or expulsion of water from internal tanks (or the extrusion or withdrawal of cylindrical plungers for the purpose of varying the displacement) were the only means of controlling vertical movement, it would be exceedingly difficult to reach or to maintain any desired depth. This difficulty was anticipated on theoretical grounds, and has been verified on service—in some cases, with considerable risks to the experimentalists—the submarines having reached the bottom before the vertical motion could be checked. It has consequently become the rule for all submarines to be left with a small reserve of buoyancy when brought into the diving condition. Submergence is then effected by the action of horizontal rudders controlled by operators within the vessels. Under these conditions, submergence only continues as long as onward motion is maintained, since there is no effective pressure on the rudders when the vessel is at rest. The smallest reserve of buoyancy should always bring a submarine to the surface if her onward motion ceases, and, as a matter of fact, in the diving condition that reserve is extremely small, amounting to only 300 lbs. (equivalent to 30 gallons of water) in vessels of 120 tons total weight. This is, obviously, a narrow margin of safety, and necessitates careful and skilled management on the part of those in charge of submarines. A small change in the density of the water, such as occurs in an estuary or in the lower reaches of a great river, would speedily obliterate the reserve of buoyancy and cause the vessel to sink if water was not expelled from the tanks. Moreover, variations in weight of the submarine (due to the consumption of fuel, the discharge of torpedoes or other causes) must sensibly affect the reserve of buoyancy, and arrangements must be made to condensate for these variations by admitting equal weights of water in positions that will maintain the 'trim' of the vessel. Additional safeguards against foundering have been provided in some submarines by fitting detachable ballast. The more common plan is to make arrangements for rapidly expelling water from the tanks either by means of pumps or by the use of compressed air. In modern submarines, with locomotive torpedoes, compressed air is, of course, a necessity, and can be readily applied in the manner described if it is desired to increase their buoyancy.

The conditions of stability of submarines when diving, are also special. At the surface, owing to their singular form, the longitudinal stability is usually much less than that of ordinary ships. When submerged, their stability is the same in all directions, and it is essential that the center of gravity shall be kept below the center of buoyancy. This involves no difficulty, because water-ballast tanks can be readily built in the lower portions of the vessel. Small stability in the longitudinal sense, however, necessitates great care in the maintenance of trim, and in the avoidance of serious movements of weights within the vessels. Moreover, when a vessel is diving under the action of her longitudinal rudders, she is extremely sensitive to changes of trim, and great skill is required on the part of operators in charge of working the rudders. As the under-water speed is increased, the pressure on the rudders for a given angle increases as the square of the velocity, and sensitiveness to change of trim becomes greater. This fact makes the adoption of higher under-water speed a matter requiring very serious consideration. Some authorities, who have given great attention to the construction of submarines, have been opposed to the adoption of high speeds under water, because of the danger that vessels when diving quickly may reach much greater depths than are desirable. Causes of disturbance which might be of small importance when the under-water speed is moderate, may have a greatly exaggerated effect when higher speeds are reached. Cases are on record where modern submarines in the hands of skilled crews have accidentally reached the bottom in great depths of water, and have had no easy task to regain the surface. For these reasons, it is probable that while speeds at the surface will be increased, under-water speeds will not grow correspondingly. Indeed, the tactics of submarines hardly appear to require high speed under water, seeing that it is an important element in successful attack to make the final dive at a moderate distance from the enemy. It is authoritatively stated that in our submarines complete control of vertical movements has been secured by means of skilled operators, and that a constant but moderate depth below the surface can be maintained. Proposals have been made and successfully applied to small submarines for automatically regulating the depth of submergence by apparatus similar to that used in locomotive torpedoes. For the larger submarines now used such automatic apparatus does not find favor, and better results are obtained with trained men.

The possibility of descending to considerable depths has to be kept in view when deciding on the form and structural arrangements of submarines, which may be subjected accidentally to very great external pressure. It is absolutely necessary to success that, under the highest pressure likely to be endured, there shall be rigidity of form, as local collapse of even a very limited amount might be accompanied by a diminution in displacement that would exceed the reserve of buoyancy. This condition is not difficult of fulfillment, and the approximately circular form usually adopted for the cross-sections of submarines favors their resistance to external pressure.

Under former conditions, there was difficulty in remaining long under water without serious inconvenience from the impurity of the air. Now, by suitable arrangements and chemical appliances, a supply of pure air can be obtained for considerable periods, sufficient indeed for any operations likely to be undertaken.

The use of gasolene engines for surface propulsion has many advantages. It favors increase in speed and radius of action, and enables submarines to be more independent and self-supporting. Storage batteries can be recharged, air compressed and other auxiliary services performed independently of any 'mother' ship. At the same time, it is desirable to give to each group of submarines a supporting ship, serving as a base and store depôt, and this has been arranged in this country as well as in France. With gasolene engines, care must be taken to secure thorough ventilation and to avoid the formation of explosive mixtures of gas and air, otherwise accidents must follow.

Little information is available as regards the success of 'periscopes' and other optical instruments which have been devised for the purpose of enabling those in command of submarines to obtain information as to their surroundings when submerged. In this department secrecy is obviously desirable, and no one can complain of official reticence. From published accounts of experimental working abroad as well as in this country, it would appear that considerable success has been obtained with these optical instruments in comparatively smooth water. It is also asserted that when the lenses are subjected to thorough washing by wave-water, they remain efficient. On the other hand, the moderate height of the lenses above water must expose them to the danger of being wetted by spray even in a very moderate sea, and experience in torpedo-boats and destroyers places it beyond doubt that the resultant conditions must greatly interfere with efficient vision. In heavier seas, the comparatively small height of the lenses above water must often impose more serious limitations in the use of the periscopes and similar instruments. Improvements are certain to be made as the result of experience with these optical appliances, and we may be sure that in their use officers and men of the Royal Navy will be as expert as any of their rivals. But when all that is possible has been done, it must remain true that increase in offensive power and in immunity from attack obtained by submergence will be accompanied by unavoidable limitations as well as by special risks, resulting from the sacrifice of buoyancy and the great reduction in longitudinal stability which are unavoidable when diving. These considerations have led many persons to favor the construction of so-called surface-boats rather than submarines. They would resemble submersibles in many respects, but the power of diving would be surrendered, although they would be so constructed that by admitting water by special tanks they could be deeply immersed and show only a small target above the surface when making an attack. There would be no necessity in such surface vessels to use electric motors and storage batteries, since internal combustion engines could be used under all circumstances. Hence it would be possible without increase of size to construct vessels of greater speed and radius of action and to simplify designs in other important features. It is not possible to predict whether this suggestion to adopt surface-boats: rather than submersibles will have a practical result; but it is unquestionable that improvements in or alternatives to internal combustion engines will favor the increase of power in relation to weight, and so will tend to the production of vessels of higher speed. The comparatively slow speed of existing submarines as compared with destroyers and torpedo-boats of ordinary types admittedly involves serious limitations in their chances of successful attack on vessels under way, and higher surface speeds are desirable.

Concurrently with the construction of submarines, experiments have been made in this country and abroad to discover the best means of defence against this method of attack. Here again authentic details are necessarily wanting, since the various naval authorities naturally wish to keep discoveries to themselves. It is very probable, however, that published accounts of tests between swift destroyers, vedette boats and submarines are not altogether inaccurate, and according to these accounts the periscopes of submarines have been found useful by assailants as the means of determining the position of the submarines, and aiding their entanglement. Comparatively limited structural damage to a submarine in the diving condition may be accompanied by an inflow of water in a short period, which will result in the loss of the vessel. The accident to Submarine A 1, which was struck by a passing mail steamer, illustrates this danger. It is reasonable to accept the published reports that large charges of high explosives exploded at a moderate distance may have a serious effect against submarines, and cause them to founder. Their small reserve of buoyancy in the diving condition makes them specially liable to risks of foundering rapidly, and little more than a crevice may practically fill the interior with water in a very short time when the vessel is submerged even to a moderate depth. On the other hand, reports which have appeared of the manœuvres in France and elsewhere, when attacks have been made by submarines on vessels at anchor or under way, show a considerable percentage of successes. Such exercises are valuable no doubt for purposes of training, but under peace conditions it is necessary to avoid the risks of damage to submarines, which might easily become serious if the defence were pressed home as it would be in war. When the officers and crews of submarines know that they will be treated more considerately than in real warfare, they will naturally take chances, and make attacks involving possible destruction under the conditions of a real action. In short, naval manœuvres in this department, while they may be useful in increasing the skill and confidence of officers and men in the management of submarines, can be no real test of fighting efficiency.

Submarines and airships have certain points of resemblance, and proposals have been made repeatedly to associate the two types, or to use airships as a means of protection from submarine attacks. One French inventor seriously suggested that a captive balloon attached to a submarine should be the post of observation from which information should be telephoned to the submarine as to the position of an enemy. He evidently had little trust in periscopes, and overlooked the dangers to which the observers in the car of the balloon would be exposed from an enemy's gun-fire. Quite recently a proposal has been made by M. Santos Dumont to use airships as a defence against submarines; his idea being that a dirigible airship of large dimensions and moving at a considerable height above the surface of the sea, could discover the whereabouts of a submarine, even at some depth below the sin rare and could effect its destruction by dropping high explosive charges upon the helpless vessel. Here again, the inventor, in his eagerness to do mischief, has not appreciated adequately the risks which the airship would run if employed in the manner proposed, as submarines are not likely to be used without supporting vessels. Hitherto, submarines themselves have been armed only with torpedoes, but it has been proposed recently to add guns, and this can be done, if desired, in vessels possessing relatively large freeboard. No doubt if gun armaments are introduced, the tendency will be to further increase dimensions and cost, and the decision will be governed by the consideration of the gain in fighting power as compared with increased cost.

Apart from the use of submarine vessels for purposes of war, their adoption as a means of navigation has found favor in many quarters. Jules Verne in his 'Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea,' has drawn an attractive picture of what may be possible in this direction, and others have favored the idea of combining the supposed advantages of obtaining buoyancy from bodies floating at some depth below the surface with an airy promenade carried high above water. Not many years ago an eminent naval architect drew a picture of what might be accomplished by utilizing what he described as the 'untroubled water below' in association with the freedom and pure air obtainable on a platform carried high above the waves. These suggestions, however, are not in accord with the accepted theory of wave motion, since they take no note of the great depths to which the disturbance due to wave-motion penetrates the ocean. The problems of stability, incidental to such plans, are also of a character not easily dealt with, and consequently there is but a remote prospect of the use of these singular combinations of submarine and aerial superstructures. There is little likelihood of the displacement of ocean steamships at an early date by either navigable airships or submarines, and the dreams of Jules Verne or Santos Dumont will not be realized until much further advance has been made in the design and construction of the vessels they contemplate.

  1. An address before the Royal Institution of Great Britain.