How Much Do You Know About the History of Submarines?


By: John Miller

6 Min Quiz

Image: wikimedia

About This Quiz

From their earliest days, human beings looked to the skies in envy of birds, wishing for the freedom of flight. And for about just as long, people have wanted to glide beneath the ocean waves. For many centuries, inventive types have attempted all sorts of crazy schemes to submerse people safely (or not so safely) in the seas. What do you know about the history of submarines?

Our earliest history of submarines emerged so long ago that records of those attempts are, at best, rather scarce. So we have legends in place of facts, detailing the bravery of men who plunged beneath the surface of lakes and rivers in hopes of spying on their enemies or perhaps scavenging various types of valuables from the ocean floor. Do you know anything about the rudimentary craft that predated early submarines?

The first types of subs were so primitive that by today’s standards they’re actually kind of amusing. They were simple diving bells that allowed men to descend with just a bit of air to keep them alive, along with a tiny window so that they could have some idea of what creatures and features existed down below. These contraptions were, shall we say, rather unsafe. Do you know anything about the dangers and physical ills these early explorers faced?

Early subs relied on the most basic type of power — human effort. Men rowed and cranked their way around the depths in exhausting fashion. Later innovations relied on fossil fuels, electricity and battery power. What do recall about the technologies that increased sub range and safety?

Dive beneath the waves with us in this quiz about the history of submarines! Maybe you’ll be the next Jacques Cousteau, or perhaps you’ll meet your watery end in the darkness below.

Which great figure of history supposedly investigated submersible vehicles for the purpose of warfare?

Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great wanted to spy on enemy fortifications, and may have sent some of his men underwater in what were essentially simple diving bells. Since then, submarines have gotten a lot more sophisticated.


Englishman William Bourne devised the first plans for a navigable sub. In which century did he live?

Bourne was a visionary who lived in the 1500s. He was a mathematician who came up with the first real plans for a controllable submarine — it was basically a boat design but one that could be submerged.


How did William Bourne plan to propel his first sub design?

Bourne figured he could create a sub that was propelled by oars. The ship would have been covered completely in leather to keep it waterproof. The craft was never actually built.


In 1620, Cornelius Van Drebbel designed a sub. How did he plan to provide air to sailors in the craft?

Van Drebbel’s idea for air supply was pretty rudimentary. He planned to stick long tubes in the boat that stretched up above the waves.


True or false, did Van Drebbel’s sub ever actually take to the water?

True. Van Drebbel’s creation in 1602 is considered the first navigable sub in human history. His invention altered warfare in countless ways.


In 1620, Cornelius Van Drebbel tested his sub in the Thames River. How long could the sub remain underwater?

Van Drebbel’s creation was no toy. It could remain underwater for up to three hours before the crew had to resurface.


The 1620 Van Drebbel sub could dive about how deep?

Van Drebbel’s leather-coated sub could dive to depths of around 15 feet. The sub was tested in front of crowds numerous times, in part because Van Drebbel hoped to gain a military contract for his invention — the British commanders weren’t interested.


The 1620 sub made by Van Drebbel had a famous passenger. Who was it?

Van Drebbel’s concept was solid, so dependable that King James I felt confident to go for a ride. It was the first time a king ever boarded such an experimental underwater craft.


In the 1770s, David Bushnell built an early submarine called the _____.

Bushnell was a Revolutionary War veteran who had some revolutionary ideas about subs. In the 1770s, he built America’s first combat sub, named the Turtle, because everyone knew that the British were terrified of turtles.


David Bushnell intended his Turtle sub to destroy enemy ships using which means?

David Bushnell created the first time bombs ever — he figured his Turtle sub could attach the bombs to enemy ships and then scurry away before the device exploded.


What shape did the Turtle have?

The 1770s Turtle was a one-man attack machine that looked a little like an acorn. It had one tiny window and an auger meant to dig into a ship’s hull for the placement of a time bomb. A sailor named Ezra Lee unsuccessfully attempted to use the Turtle during one Revolution attack.


In 1691, Edmond Halley built a diving bell that could be resupplied with air via weighted barrels. He was famous for what other aspect of history?

Halley was a brilliant man who calculated the path of a comet, which was famously named Halley’s Comet in his honor. His diving bell was sucessfully tested, with five men diving to depths of around 60 feet in the Thames River.


Edmond Halley spent hours deep underwater in his fancy diving bell. He was also the first person recorded to suffer from what ill effects of deep water activity?

Halley is the first known person to suffer from barotrauma, physical trauma caused by pressure differences inside and outside the body. It’s a common problem for deep water divers.


In the early 1700s, John Lethbridge built an underwater diving craft for what purpose?

Lethbridge wanted a practical way to salvage sunken ships and cargo. His primitive craft looks like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon show.


John Lethbridge’s diving apparatus was basically a ____.

Lethbridge essentially put two arm holes in a big barrel and called it good. The idea was to let divers withstand pressure long enough to snatch some salvagable goodies from the ocean floor without dying. It was called a diving dress.


How well did John Lethbridge’s "diving dress," a barrel with arm holes, work out?

Lethbridge and his simple diving barrel, or diving dress, actually made out like bandits. His divers recovered many pieces of sunken cargo and he became rich as a result.


In the 1860, Julius H. Kroehl built the Sub Marine Explorer for what purpose?

Kroehl build the very successful Sub Marine Explorer for pearl diving. The craft could go to around 100 feet deep, much deeper than any sub had gone before.


The deep-diving 1860s Sub Marine Explorer created which problem for its crews?

No one understood decompression sickness in the 1860s, so time and again, crews plunged more than 100 feet in the Sub Marine Explorer and then quickly ascended at the end of a pearl-diving shift. The men always became ill and were unable to continue working.


Which country was the first to build a combat submarine?

In 1720, under the budget of Russian Tsar Peter the Great, a carpenter named Yefim Nikonov built the world’s first sub for military service. It was meant to use glorified flamethrowers to destroy enemy ships.


In the 1790s, American inventor Robert Fulton was the first to make a sub with dual propulsion. What propulsion did it use?

Fulton’s Nautilus sub featured two types of propulsion, hand crank and sail, for when the craft was at the water’s surface. It was the first dual-propulsion sub in history.


The H.L. Hunley was the first combat sub to actually sink an enemy ship. It was used by which military force?

In 1864, the Confederacy used the H.L. Hunley to sink the USS Housatonic near South Carolina. Most Housatonic sailors escaped with their lives after the attack.


How did the H.L. Hunley manage to sink the USS Housatonic in 1864?

The H.L. Hunley used a spar torpedo (a long spear with an explosive tip) to ram the USS Housatonic. The crew of the Housatonic saw the Hunley coming, but they saw the danger too late to escape.


U-boats were famous submarines built by which country?

During both World Wars, Germany deployed vast number of its infamous U-boats to sink both cargo and military ships all over the Atlantic. The U-boats roamed the sea in dreaded "wolfpacks" that used coordinated attacks to destroy ships.


In the 1880s, which technology transformed subs?

In the 1880s, electric battery power was coming into vogue. Batteries, of course, became a vital technology for submarine power for decades.


When did the first usable self-propelled torpedoes appear?

In the 1860s, a British engineer develped the so-called Whitehead torpedo, the first truly usable self-propelled torpedo. These weapons made submarines fearsome machines of war.


At the turn of the 20th century, which power system became common in subs?

Diesel electric power sources were common around the turn of the century. These systems provided plenty of range and helped subs dive deep below the waves.


In 1900, the French sub Narval introduced which innovation?

Commissioned in 1900, the Narval was the first sub with a double-hull design, all the better to help the craft withstand the pressure of deep water.


WWII-era subs often had snorkels, which served which purpose?

In WWII, some subs had long snorkels that provided air for the boat’s diesel engines. These snorkels made it much easier for subs to travel a lot farther.


When did nuclear-powered submarines begin replacing diesel engines?

In the 1950s, engineers found ways to make nuclear-powered engines work aboard subs. They began supplanting diesel engines.


How did combat subs communicate during the First World War?

During WWI, radio was still in its infancy for military applications. But some subs used radio to relay communications between crews.


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