Monday, April 14, 2008

Tonight's submarine talk dives into history

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The Plainville Citizen
April 14, 2008

"David Bushnell's ‘Infernal Machine'" will be the subject of an illustrated talk at the Plainville Historic Center, 29 Pierce St., tonight, April 15, at 7 p.m. Bushnell, of Saybrook, invented the world's first fully operational submarine, the American Turtle, at the time of the American Revolution. The event is being sponsored by the Plainville Historical Society.

Brenda Milkofsky, senior curator of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, will present the history of the original submarine that was used in the New York City harbor against the flagship of the British Navy, its subsequent missions, and the 20th century development and preservation of Bushnell's life story. A mystery surrounds the final disposition of the underwater craft and Milkofsky will talk about ongoing research, new interpretations and future projects related to what the British called an "infernal machine."

The Connecticut River Museum, which owns the only working, full-scale model of Bushnell's 1776 invention, provided the following information about the American Turtle.

This first submarine ever to be used in combat was actually constructed as an afterthought. Bushnell and fellow Yale University intellectual, Phineas Pratt, had conceived of the underwater bomb with a time-delayed flintlock detonator. The one-man, hand-propelled submarine was designed simply to transport the bomb to the enemy vessel.

The American Turtle was successfully launched in the dark of night on Sept. 6, 1776 against the British flagship, HMS Eagle, a 64-gun frigate moored in New York harbor off of the island now occupied by the Statue of Liberty. The Turtle had undergone extensive test trials in the safe colonial waters of the Connecticut River off Old Saybrook, piloted by the inventor's brother Ezra Bushnell. Unfortunately, on the eve of the submarine's first combat mission, Ezra Bushnell was, according to one version of the story, taken ill and unable participate.

With a freshly recruited, but less-practiced pilot, Ezra Lee, of Old Lyme, the American Turtle made its way underwater to the rudder of the Eagle's hull. Unfortunately, Lee first struck metal rather than wood with the screw intended to attach the bomb to the enemy's hull. After a second failed attempt, Lee propelled the American Turtle away, only to be observed and chased. The bomb was released into the water and resulted in a frightening explosion. While the American Turtle failed to destroy its target, the British recognized the threat and moved the fleet. Weather problems, and other operating difficulties prevented a successful attack by the submarine before it was scuttled by the British while being transported.

The model on exhibit at the Connecticut River Museum was designed by Joseph Leary and built by Fred Frese in 1976 as a U.S. bicentennial project. Christened by Gov. Ella Grasso and launched in the Connecticut River, the model was tested for its maneuverability and submersible ability. This demonstrated for modern viewers that the submarine worked as intended and confirmed the ingenuity of early American inventor David Bushnell. Last November, a second reproduction built by students of Old Saybrook High School was also launched at the museum.

Milkofsky, who is the past director of Wethersfield Museum and Historical Society, is a consultant to several Connecticut museums, as well as the Merchant Marine Museum at King's Point, N.Y. She has written and lectured widely on river valley topics.

A $2 donation for the historical society is suggested at the lecture.

For more information, call the historic center at (860) 747-6577. For more information about the Connecticut River Museum, call (860) 767-8269 or visit the Web site Ctrivermuseum.org.


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