article The Untold Story of Intelligent Whale

THE submarine, Intelligent Whale, which has a tangled and complex history, was displayed at the Washington Navy Yard, D.C., from 1968 until its recent move to the New Jersey National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt, N.J. The wrought iron, hand-cranked craft originated amid the turmoil of the Civil War, but legal disputes prevented it from reaching the U.S. Navy until 1870. Having failed to impress naval inspectors, the vessel became an historical curiosity first at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, then at the Washington Navy Yard. Intelligent Whale was not the first submarine purchased by the Navy, but it exemplified the service’s continuing interest in submarine warfare in the post-1865 period.

The submarine’s history began in the midst of the Civil War as new inventions pushed to the fore in an effort to provide combatants a winning edge. On Nov. 2, 1863, the designer Scovel S. Merriman contracted with Augustus Price and Cornelius Bushnell to build Intelligent Whale for $15,000.

In April 1864, the American Submarine Company replaced Price and Bushnell as the builder. The craft measured 28 feet eight inches long, nine feet high and seven feet wide and was made of half-inch thick boiler iron. The building cost overran the initial estimate by 400 percent. The additional $45,000 cost led to a series of lawsuits that prevented completion before April 1865.

By Sept. 23, 1865, the trustees of General Nathaniel Norris Halstead and Col. Edward W. Serrell in Newark, N.J., had received a decision granting them control of the “Submarine or Torpedo boat…Merriam’s Submarine Boat.” In 1865, a lawsuit between the lawyer and lobbyist Oliver S. “Pet” Halstead, Jr., and Thomas M. King of New York City ended on Dec. 22, 1865, when King sold $1,000 of equipment from Intelligent Whale as part of the settlement of the ship construction debt owed to King. Problems characterized Halstead’s ownership of the boat. For instance, a bill from the Hewes & Phillips Engineers and Machinists of Ogden Street, Newark, N.J. remained unpaid for four years.

Nevertheless, Halstead managed to bring the project to completion by April 18, 1866. To propel the submarine, four men turned cranks attached to a four-bladed propeller, achieving a speed of four knots. The submarine carried enough compressed air in two tanks located fore and aft for ten hours of submerged operations. Two large ballast tanks fore and aft were connected to the air tanks and to the water surrounding the craft. A rudder and aft trim planes allowed the pilot to control the boat’s course, diving, and surfacing. A short conning tower with bull’s eye glass provided the skipper with limited visibility while partially submerged. Other navigational aids included a compass, a depth gauge, and air pressure indicator. The crew embarked via a central hatch topside, but the craft’s divers deployed through two wooden “gates” in the floor. To submerge Intelligent Whale the crew filled the water tanks by opening a valve. To anchor the submerged craft the crew deployed two 15 inch shot (weighing 350 pounds each) by working windlasses attached to wire cable in two watertight boxes. To maintain air quality while submerged, the craft had a device for spraying water through the air, and thumb valves at the top of the boat, which could be opened to release foul air. To surface, the crew pumped the water from the tanks by hand or forced it out with compressed air.















Illustration by Brad Bawek, adapted from an original drawing ofIntelligent Whaleby Lt. F.M. Barber, USN (1875).

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Intelligent Whale undertook several tests using the following method. The crew flooded the ballast tanks, which allowed the boat to sink slowly. The crankshaft crew propelled the boat while the pilot maintained course and trim. Upon reaching the target area, the crew released two anchors. They then released enough compressed air until the pressure gauge showed a higher pressure than the water pressure gauge. The disequilibrium in pressure allowed the crew to open the floor gates without permitting water to enter. A man in a hard-helmet diving suit would then leave Intelligent Whale with a (torpedo) mine wired to the craft through holes in her sides. Once he planted the mine beneath the target vessel and returned to the craft, the gates would be closed. The crew then detonated the mine with a battery, sinking or damaging the target. Afterwards, the craft would return to base.

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