Sunday, January 01, 2006

Researchers look for evidence of battery in Hunley

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The State
June 25, 2005

CHARLESTON, S.C. - Researchers wonder if the Confederate submarine Hunley gave the world another first - the first vessel to use battery-powered weapons.

Those examining the sub say several items, like a rectangular copper plate and coils of wire, suggest the crew might have had a battery-powered torpedo when it sunk the Housatonic during the Civil War.

"It's the kind of thing if I were trying to build a battery in the 1860s that I would have used," said Mike Drews, a material science professor at Clemson University. "Having a piece of copper sheeting by itself isn't that strange, but this piece doesn't look like what you'd expect."

The rectangular plate had holes drilled in it. Scientists found trace amounts of zinc.

The evidence is far from definitive, but it raises hopes."It is not enough to say there was an electrical system on the Hunley, but we cannot rule it out," said Paul Mardikian, the sub's senior conservator.

Clemson researchers are going to analyze the plate, starting next week. But already, those working on the Hunley think the sub experimented with battery technology.

The copper and zinc plate was discovered in the captain's compartment - commander George Dixon was in charge of the torpedo - and found close by a coil of wire and a second strand of wire that may have been used a trigger.

At the time the Hunley was launched, leaders on both sides of the Civil War were experimenting with electronics.

Confederates allegedly sank the USS Cairo with the first electric mine, which was attached by wire to the shore.

The Union Navy's submarine, the Alligator, was meant to take divers underwater to plant electrically detonated charges beneath enemy ships, but it was lost before it ever saw action.

In August 1864, more than six months after the Hunley sank the Housatonic off Sullivan's Island on Feb. 17, Confederates used electric torpedoes to sink a Union ship in the James River.

Scientists had thought the Hunley's torpedo was triggered by a rope lanyard. They've speculated that friction or something else then detonated the 90-pound charge of gunpowder.

And that's still possible since other research has shown the Hunley came prepared with alternative methods of getting the job done.

"We had two pumps and deadlights reinforcing the glass ports along the top of the submarine," said Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission. "If the torpedo could also have been electrically detonated, this would be right in line with the Hunley to have fail-safe measures in place for all her critical functions. This would be a cutting-edge upgrade to an already state-of-the-art firing system."

Still, some think the wire could have been used as the lanyard trigger since wire would be less likely to tangle and would be hard to be seen by the enemy.

Drews says several parts of any onboard battery, like zinc plates, would have disintegrated over time, along with paper or cloth separating the plates. If traces of such items are there, Clemson's research would find them.


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