Brandtaucher: World’s Oldest Surviving Submarine

May 28, 2024 0 comments

At the German Armed Forces Museum of Military History in Dresden, there is a big fat iron submarine on display. Built in 1850, this pioneering vessel, named the Brandtaucher, holds the distinction of being the first German submarine ever constructed and the oldest surviving in the world. Despite sinking on its very public trial, the Brandtaucher offers a fascinating glimpse into the early innovations of underwater navigation and military technology.

The Brandtaucher, which means "Fire-diver" in German, was designed by Wilhelm Bauer, a German engineer born in Dillingen in the Kingdom of Bavaria. Initially trained as a wood turner, Bauer eventually followed in his father’s footsteps—a sergeant in a Bavarian cavalry regiment—and joined the army. As an artillery engineer during the German-Danish War (1848—1852), Bauer witnessed the ease with which the Danish navy blockaded the Prussian coast. This experience inspired him to develop a submersible ship capable of breaking such blockades.

Photo credit: Jan Rehschuh/Wikimedia Commons

Submarines were not a new idea. Among the first successful submarines was the one designed by the Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel for King James I of England in 1620. Drebbel’s submarine, built of wood and propelled by oars, could stay underwater for several hours. In 1776, David Bushnell built the "Turtle," a hand-powered, egg-shaped device that could move underwater independently using screws for propulsion. During the American War of Independence, the Turtle was used unsuccessfully against an English ship. Even Napoleon became interested in the "Nautilus," built by the American Robert Fulton in 1801.

How much Wilhelm Bauer was inspired by these predecessors is unclear. In any case, he began studying hydraulics and ship construction. It is said that while stationed in Jutland, Bauer observed the natural movements of seals, which he took as a model to further his design. In fact, the shape of his boat resembled a fattened seal, leading to the submarine being nicknamed the "iron seal."

Bauer returned to Bavaria in 1849 and presented his invention to a military commission, but they dismissed the project. Undeterred, he went to Northern Germany and joined the Army of Schleswig-Holstein, which showed interest in the project and asked him to develop it further and build a model. Bauer built a working model of his submarine, but the military was still not willing to pay for its realization, forcing Bauer to seek private funding. He managed to raise some money and, together with engineer August Howaldt, started construction.

However, the lack of sufficient funds forced Bauer and Howaldt to make several significant compromises to the original design, such as reducing the thickness of the walls and eliminating ballast tanks. Instead, water was allowed to pool inside the bottom of the hull, below the main floor, and moved relatively unobstructed within this area when the ship changed orientation. This design flaw resulted in significant instability, which likely contributed to the vessel's eventual loss.

Wilhelm Bauer

The Brandtaucher was 28 feet long and weighed about 70,000 pounds. It was powered by two sailors turning a large tread wheel with their hands and feet. The third crew member, positioned at the stern of the submarine, operated the rudders and other controls. The Brandtaucher was designed to attack enemy ships. It would maneuver under the hull of the target ship, where the captain would reach out through a pair of rubber gloves fixed to an opening in the hull, grab a mine located within reach on the submarine, and attach it to the target.

More like this: This Wooden Barrel Was The World’s First Military Submarine

On February 1, 1851, a demonstration was organized at Kiel harbor. Inside the submarine were Bauer, the carpenter Friedrich Witt, and the blacksmith Wilhelm Thomsen. The first few minutes went well, but when Bauer headed for the deepest part of the harbor basin to dive, the hull began to leak, unable to withstand the water pressure. As the submarine began to flood, it slowly sank to the bottom of the harbor. Bauer and his companions kept their nerve and waited for six hours, until enough water had seeped in to equalize the pressure inside the sunken craft. This allowed the hatch to be opened, and the three sailors escaped to the surface.

The wreck of the Brandtaucher was salvaged in 1887 and is now on display at the Museum of Military History of the Bundeswehr in Dresden.

A model of the Brandtaucher at the Bundeswehr Museum Dresden. Photo credit: Jan Rehschuh/Wikimedia Commons

Internal mechanism of the Brandtaucher submarine in Dresden. Photo credit: Stephencdickson/Wikimedia Commons

Bauer went on to build a second submarine, called the Seeteufel (Sea Devil), for Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Learning from his previous experience with the Brandtaucher, Bauer rectified the issues that had plagued his first design. The Seeteufel was much larger and more advanced, allowing it to make 133 successful diving runs within four months. However, during the 134th dive, the submarine became stuck in the sand on the seafloor. By emptying the water cylinders with the pumps, the crew managed to raise the submarine high enough so that the hatchway was above the waterline. The entire crew, including Bauer, was saved, but unfortunately, the submarine sank back to the bottom of the sea.

A scale model of the Sea Devil is displayed at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Today, visitors to the German Armed Forces Museum of Military History in Dresden and the Deutsches Museum in Munich can appreciate Bauer's pioneering work. These exhibits not only honor Bauer's legacy but also provide insight into the early days of submarine development, illustrating how far technology has come since the mid-19th century.

Photo credit: Marcin Szala/Wikimedia Commons

# 170 years ago: Patent for the first German submarine, DPMA
# Experimental submarine Brandtaucher, Internationales Maritimes Museum Hamburg


More on Amusing Planet


{{posts[0].date}} {{posts[0].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[1].date}} {{posts[1].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[2].date}} {{posts[2].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}


{{posts[3].date}} {{posts[3].commentsNum}} {{messages_comments}}