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Intelligent Whaleon display.

Between 1866 and 1870, Intelligent Whale underwent a series of unofficial and quasi-official trials. The former consisted of Halstead family outings in the Passaic River in New Jersey. During them, Halstead would leave his wife and two daughters in the boat while he explored the bottom in a diving suit. The one-armed General Thomas W. Sweeney supposedly tested Intelligent Whale on April 18, 1866, but the date was surely later as records show that he was then involved with the Fenian Raid on Canada. Furthermore, Sweeney was not serving in the U.S. Army between December 1865 and Nov. 8, 1866, and his trial has some degree of official status since Cols. John Michal and T.R. Tresilian, and Major R.C. Brocking witnessed it. Therefore, one must conclude that it occurred between November 1866 and October 1869. At any rate, Sweeney, with two other men on board the vessel, dove down 16 feet before anchoring it. Then he left the craft in a diving suit and planted a mine beneath a scow. After he returned to Intelligent Whale, the crew detonated the mine by a lanyard and friction primer as the boat pulled away, sinking the target. Sweeney and the other officers filed a report on the trial with the Secretary of the Navy.

Given the uncertainty of the date of Sweeney’s test, the length of time that passed before the Navy took action in 1869 is unknown. Some time in 1869, Cmdrs. C. Melancthon Smith, Augustus L. Case, and Edmund O. Matthews (head of the Navy’s Torpedo Factory) examined Intelligent Whale and a rendered a favorable report. In response, Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson appointed another committee “…to examine, inspect, and report on the merit of said boat.” Again, the boat received a favorable review and the Navy decided to buy it. Five years after the initial construction contract, the Navy agreed to purchase Intelligent Whale from Halstead. On Oct. 29, 1869, Robeson and Halstead signed a contract that called for the Navy to pay $50,000 for the boat. Halstead was to receive $12,500 on endorsing the agreement, a further $12,500 on the completion of trials, and $25,000 for secrets and inventions relating to air purification and pressure, diving and surfacing, with further compensation dependent upon Congressional approval. On Oct. 30, 1869, the Bureau of Ordnance paid Halstead the first sum of $12,500 “…on account of one Submarine Boat.” Between that date and March 3, 1871, he received a further $50 for towing the vessel from Hewes and Phillips dock in Newark, N.J., to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, N.Y. Unfortunately, the Navy showed little interest in testing Intelligent Whale.

Given Halstead’s personal knowledge of the submarine and its operation, his presence at her trials was essential. However, on July 2, 1871, Halstead was killed and his death provides some fascinating insights into Victorian America. George Botts, an English charcoal peddler and nearly a twenty-year resident of Newark, shot Halstead in the first Newark murder in nearly four years. Halstead had set up the rather plain looking, 37 year-old, Mary E. Wilson as his mistress in an apartment above a saloon at 95 South Street near his home at Parkhurst and Broad Street. Halstead had carried on publicly with his mistress for over three years and while his family endured Halstead’s actions, Botts, a former lover of Mrs. Wilson, could not. In a desperate attempt to regain her affections, Botts, became determined to kill Halstead. The murder created an uproar in Newark and hurt Intelligent Whale’s chances of successful trials.

Months passed with no steps taken to try the submarine’s capabilities, perhaps due to legal disputes between Halstead’s heirs and debtors. Although the U.S. Navy’s attention flagged, the Royal Navy became rather intrigued by the craft. On March 4, 1872, Rear Adm. Edward Augustus Inglefield, the British naval attaché in Washington, D.C., visited the New York Navy Yard to inspect Intelligent Whale. Admiral Inglefield, having failed to receive permission to inspect the craft, waited until lunchtime emptied the working area of the yard. Then he sneaked down to the remote part of the ordnance wharf where the boat was tied down. In his letter to the admiralty, Inglefield wrote, “I made ample notes and a sketch on my return to the hotel, but these would hardly convey the whole of the information I acquired. I therefore retain them for future service should it be desired.” Fortunately, the lax security of the Navy Yard did not cause the Navy any problems as far as “Halstead’s Folly” was concerned.

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

Although lacking Halstead’s expertise in handling the craft, the Secretary of the Navy finally ordered tests in the late summer of 1872. However, the delay of the test, originally scheduled for September 11 owing to the boat being unready, led to a week’s delay. On September 18, the following officers oversaw Intelligent Whale’s trials: Vice Adm. Stephen C. Rowan (commandant of the New York Navy Yard), Commodore Edward T. Nichols, Capts. William D. Whiting (inspector of ordnance at the yard), and Somerville Nicholson, Cmdrs. Weld N. Allen (on ordnance duty at the yard) and David B. Harmony, and Lt. Cmdr. C.M. Schoomaker (captain of the side wheel steamer and station ship USS Frolic). Abraham Halstead, nephew of the previous owner and a Navy Yard worker, manned the submarine during the test. Unfortunately for them, the packing around the hatch was defective and Intelligent Whale began taking on water. A further difficulty arose when the tide pushed the boat under the derrick, which prevented her from surfacing. Andrew Moorehouse quickly organized a group of workers who freed the craft. The boat, then half-filled with water, surfaced, allowing Halstead and his helper to escape. Without ever travelling or accomplishing anything, Intelligent Whale was then classified a failure.

Intelligent Whale exemplified the undersea ordnance experimentation undertaken by the Navy in the 1870s. In July 1869, the Navy established a torpedo station at Goat’s Island, Newport, R.I. The uniformed and civilian personnel studied spar and self-propelled torpedoes in an attempt to provide the nation with inexpensive and effective naval weapons. While Halstead’s boat failed in its trial, the test of John L. Lay’s self-propelled, remote-controlled torpedo in the summer of 1872 impressed the Bureau of Ordnance. The Bureau reported to the Secretary of the Navy, “…at Schenectady, New York, a successful trial of the torpedo-boat invented by Lay.” These small beginnings trace the foundation of American undersea warfare.

The vessel became an historical curiosity. It moved from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard in 1968. Despite remaining outside for years, the condition of Intelligent Whale is extremely good for a 130-plus year-old vessel. Her interior fittings remain much as they were when drawn by Barber. Only a piece of the crankshaft is missing. Intelligent Whale stands as a symbol of private enterprise in advanced armaments and the Navy’s interest in improving weapons systems. On April 15, 1999, Intelligent Whale was relocated to the National Guard Militia Museum in Sea Girt, N.J.

One can only speculate whether French Author, Jules Verne (1828-1905) read about Intelligent Whale or other American submarines when doing the research for his book, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which was first published in 1870. For more information on historical ships, go to or

The Naval Historical Center is the official history program of the United States Navy. It is located at the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

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