Undersea Warfare The Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force. Winter 2004 U.S. Submarines... Because Stealth Matters Cover for Winter 2004
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The Submarine Technology of Jules Verne. Illustration: Although the most familiar latter-day representation of Nautilus was created for the 1954 Walt Disney movie version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, there have been many others over the years. Here, for example, is an imaginative and superbly rendered concept by English artist Dave Warren.
by Edward C. Whitman

As an inspiration to the submarine pioneers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, no other literary figure loomed as large as Jules Verne, the “father of science-fiction” and the author in 1870 of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. American submarine inventor Simon Lake, for example, credited his life-long interest in undersea exploration to having read Verne’s novel as a boy – and in 1898, he was thrilled to receive a telegram of congratulations from the author himself when his own Argonaut completed its first substantial ocean-going voyage. Educated as a lawyer, Verne lacked formal training in science and engineering, but nonetheless chose so shrewdly from the speculative technologies of his day in creating a futuristic submarine for his protagonist, Captain Nemo, that the essentials of his undersea vision – examined here – have nearly all been realized.

Photo caption follows
Born in the French port city of Nantes, Jules Verne (1828-1905) was educated for the law
and worked as a stockbroker, but his literary and technical interests eventually brought him enormous success as the first real “science fiction” novelist. He wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea
in 1870.

Paris, the Law, and Literature

Jules-Gabriel Verne was born in 1828 in the French seaport of Nantes, upriver from the Bay of Biscay. Although his younger brother Paul became a naval officer, and Jules attempted to run away to sea in his early teens, his lawyer father intended that he should enter the legal profession and sent him to Paris in 1847 to study law. There, provided an entrée by his uncle, he joined the literary circle of Alexander Dumas, pere et fils, and while continuing his legal studies, turned increasingly to writing plays, articles, and stories. In 1849, Verne passed his law degree, but his father grudgingly agreed to his remaining in Paris to pursue a literary career. Over the next several years, he published a series of short stories to no particular acclaim, served as secretary of the Théâtre Lyrique, and collaborated on an operetta libretto. Then, in 1857, having married a young widow from Amiens with two children, he accepted employment as a stockbroker, presumably because it promised a more reliable income.

Even so, Verne continued his literary work and simultaneously began indulging a latent interest in natural science and technology by reading assiduously on geology, engineering, and astronomy in the libraries of Paris. The first fruits of this dual avocation were his 1863 novel Five Weeks in a Balloon, which achieved immediate success in establishing the new genre of “science fiction.” This was followed, with growing acclaim, by Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1864, From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, and then by Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1870.1 By then, Verne had given up his stockbroker practice and devoted himself entirely to writing.

Verne’s Tale of Undersea Adventure

Verne’s plot in Twenty Thousand Leagues is relatively simple and serves largely as a framework for describing both the wonders of the underwater world and the technologies needed to realize the author’s prophetic vision of undersea travel and exploration. The year is 1866, and the maritime community is shaken by sporadic sightings of what appears to be a gigantic sea creature unlike any seen before. When this “cetacean” collides with two merchant ships and nearly sinks them, the U.S. Navy sends the steam frigate Abraham Lincoln to hunt the creature down, augmenting her crew with a French naturalist, Professor Pierre Aronnax – who narrates the tale – his servant Conseil, and American master harpooner Ned Land. After fruitlessly searching down the eastern coast of South America and over much of the Pacific, Lincoln happens on the “monster” southeast of Japan and attempts to subdue it with both cannon-fire and harpoon. In response, the beast inundates the frigate with jets of water and carries away her rudder in a ramming attack that also throws Aronnax, Conseil, and Land into the sea.

Deserted by Lincoln, the three castaways soon find themselves marooned on the “back” of the creature, which is, in fact, an advanced submarine – the Nautilus – designed, built, and commanded by the mysterious Captain Nemo, who takes Aronnax, Conseil, and Land onboard as his prisoners but gives them the run of the ship. There follows a long underwater adventure – 20,000 leagues under the sea2 – in which the Nautilus explores virtually the entire world ocean and the sea floor beneath. Aronnax is fascinated by this extraordinary access to the undersea realm and the research opportunities it affords him in his specialty. From his long conversations with Nemo, we learn how Nautilus is designed and operated, of its total independence of support from land, and of the submarine’s “mission” to roam the globe supporting struggles against tyrannical oppression. Meanwhile, Ned Land is increasingly frustrated by his confinement and eventually convinces the professor and Conseil to join him in escaping from Nemo. Just as this attempt gets underway, the Nautilus is sucked into that legendary whirlpool, the Maelstrom, off the coast of Norway, and when the resulting violence subsides, presumably only Aronnax, Conseil, and Land have survived to be picked up by a passing ship and tell the story.3

Nemo’s Submarine Precursors

Although very early submarine experimenters such as Cornelius van Drebbel in early 17th-century London and David Bushnell in the American Revolution had demonstrated occasional successes, it was only in the early and mid-19th century that the problems of underwater navigation were attacked in earnest. In France, for instance, the American Robert Fulton – later renowned as the “inventor” of the steamboat – attempted to win the support of the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte for an undersea craft capable of breaking the British blockade. Awarded a contract for building a man-powered submersible of his own design, Fulton christened his boat Nautilus – the same name chosen by Jules Verne 70 years later – and successfully demonstrated it on the Seine in 1800 and later at Le Havre. Napoleon soon lost interest in Fulton’s initiative, but subsequently, he supported the evaluation of a less-expensive wooden submersible built at Le Havre by two brothers named Coessin. Their prototype achieved some limited success, but then nothing more was heard of it.

In the 1830s and 1840s, several other French inventors – DeMontgery, Petit, Villeroi, and Payerne – offered other submersible concepts, and some were actually built. But it was only when the French Navy became interested in a design by Captain Simon Bourgeois and naval constructor Charles Brun that significant progress was made. In 1863, Bourgeois and Brun launched Le Plongeur (“the Diver”) at Rochefort and experimented with the boat for three years. Powered by a reciprocating engine driven by stored compressed air, the 140-foot long Le Plongeur managed to average five knots submerged but suffered from inadequate longitudinal stability and was eventually abandoned. At the same time, other European countries were pursuing their own submarine programs, and on the far side of the Atlantic, the American Civil War had stimulated more immediate interest in submersible combatants, particularly in the Confederacy, where raising the Union economic blockade was a primary objective. There, the most spectacular success was achieved by the hand-cranked submersible CSS Hunley, which in February 1864 sank the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor – the first-ever sinking of a warship by a submarine. In light of his voracious reading and exhaustive reportage of the Civil War by the European press, Jules Verne would certainly have known of these events at the time he embarked on writing Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

For the submarine community, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea raises fascinating questions: Just how prophetic was Verne in exploiting technologies nascent in 1870 to create Captain Nemo’s Nautilus? How accurately did he predict the actual evolution of the modern submarine? And how many of the undersea innovations he envisioned 130 years ago have actually been realized?

Illustration caption follows
Illustration caption follows
Reproduced from the original 1871 French edition published by J. Hetzel et Cie in Paris, this engraving shows Captain Nemo’s Nautilus underway as Verne himself must have envisioned it. In this view, the craft is moving from right to left, the course ahead illuminated by a powerful electric searchlight mounted abaft the pilothouse. In another first-edition engraving, Captain Nemo is portrayed at Nautilus’s wheel behind the “bi-convex” windows of the small pilothouse. Nemo’s cloudy origins are only fully revealed in Jules Verne’s 1875 novel, The Mysterious Island, where it emerges that he was born an Indian prince and educated in Europe, before his overthrow by the British led him to build Nautilus as a weapon against tyranny and oppression worldwide.

Designing and Building Nautilus

According to Verne’s tale, Captain Nemo and his men built Nautilus on a desert island in total secrecy by ordering components and materials from disparate sources and arranging their delivery to a variety of covert addresses. The design was entirely Nemo’s, based on the engineering knowledge he had gained from extensive study in London, Paris, and New York during an earlier part of his life. The steel double hull is spindle-shaped and 70 meters (230 feet) long, with a maximum diameter of 8 meters (just over 26 feet). As Captain Nemo describes it,

…Nautilus has two hulls, one interior, one exterior, and they are joined by iron T-bars, which gives the boat a terrific rigidity. Because of this cellular arrangement, it has the resistance of a solid block. The plating can’t yield; it’s self-adhering and not dependent on rivets; and the homogeneity of its construction, due to the perfect union of the materials involved, permits it to defy the most violent of seas.4

Submerged, the submarine displaces 1,507 metric tons (roughly 1,670 short tons) and surfaced, with only one-tenth of the hull above the water, it displaces 1,356 metric tons (1,495 short tons) – Verne is quite precise about this.5

Nautilus is controlled from a small, retractable pilothouse set into the top of the hull about a quarter of the way back from the bow. Several large bi-convex glass windows – 21 centimeters thick at the center – provide an all-around view, augmented by illumination from a separate electric searchlight mounted in an external pod abaft the pilothouse. There is no periscope – these would not come into general use for more than three decades. For use while surfaced, a small, flat deck fitted with removable manropes is apparently installed just behind the pilothouse, and this can be accessed by a hatch from below. Nemo and his first mate frequently use this platform for celestial navigation in conjunction with a pit log read out by electrical telemetry. The only other protuberance topside is a low “dry-deck shelter” faired into the hull for housing a metal dinghy that can be entered and launched from within, even while underwater.