Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics


A Submarine Project under the Directory

Translated by Tim Mahon

A translation of Un projet de sous-marin sous le Directoire in Revue d’histoire rédigée à l’État-Major de l’Armée (Section Historique), R. Chapelot et Cie, Paris, No. 15, March 1902, pp. 481-485

In his work Projets et tentatives de débarquement aux Iles Britanniques,[1] capitaine Desbrière referred to a work by lieutenant de vaisseau Émile Duboc,[2] thereby bringing to his readers’ attention the efforts made in 1797 and 1798 by the American Fulton to provide France with a submarine, which he named the Nautilus.

The inventor was unable to obtain from ministre de la marine Fléville[3] or his successor, amiral Bruix, any military commission ensuring that his crew would be treated as belligerents, despite a very favourable report from the Commission tasked with examining the plan.

Eventually, Fulton decided to construct his vessel without waiting to be commissioned and on 10th April 1800 reported to ministre de la marine Forfait that his work was practically complete. The Nautilus was actually launched at Rouen on 30th July, when its trials succeeded perfectly.[4]

Neither this success nor the intervention of Monge and Laplace, who presented Fulton to the First Consul, were able to convince the latter to grant the inventor the 60,000 francs he requested for weapons testing. With great difficulty he did obtain 10,000 francs to this end on 30th March 1801, when he took the Nautilus to Brest and in the following July blew out of the water an old rowing boat that had been placed at his disposal.[5] Even so, this result, as well as a new attempt by Monge, made no impression on the First Consul, who turned Fulton away once and for all.

Another submarine inventor, who remains unknown, was no more fortunate with the Directory, to whom he had submitted his plans and a memorandum describing his vessel in 1798. Receiving no response, and learning that experiments with a vessel of this nature had taken place at Rouen and Brest, he went to see Moreau and on 1st January 1801 wrote him the following letter, which was found in the Archives de la guerre among the private papers of this general officer.

The machine I have invented, and which I have had the honour of speaking to you about, General, is a boat constructed of copper[6] in the shape of a fish, enclosed on all sides, in which two or three men may navigate beneath the water, at any depth comfortable to them and in any direction, without being exposed to the slightest danger or inconvenience. Using very simple methods, they may move forwards or backwards, turn, rise or decend in a vertical or oblique direction and can hold their position at any desired moment.[7] In order to see clearly to the outside, there are small openings on top and on the sides, hermetically sealed with glass, through which all external objects may be seen. In order to maintain course, there is a rudder[8] and a compass, and in order to determine the depth beneath the surface there is a type of barometer, which indicates, on a small scale in the interior, the exact height of the column of water above the vessel. The capacity of the vessel is such that the volume of air contained will be sufficient to cater for the respiration of the three men therein for at least two or three hours. If in the end, however, the air should become foul and incapable of sustaining respiration, it will need to be refreshed from time to time. To this end, the crew of the vessel may have it rise to six or eight feet beneath the surface, without causing it to be unncovered and, causing a pipe from within the vessel to project above the surface, may evacuate the foul air from the vessel through this pipe by means of a pneumatic machine within, at the same time introducing an equal volume of fresh air from outside. Having completed this operation, they may retrieve their pipe and descend once more to their desired depth in order to continue their voyage or carry out specific operations.

The applications to which this new invention may be put are as varied as they are crucial.

1. It might first be used to explore the seabed, retrieving coral and other substances to be found there. It might also assist in the observation of all the sea monsters and fish that inhabit the shdowy depths of this vast abyss, even allowing them to be sketched without the slightest fear.

2. After a shipwreck, one could easily recover caskets of papers or other precious objects without the need for divers, who are difficult to find and who, besides, must always risk their lives and are unable to spend long periods under water. To this end, it would be useful to have one of this vessels on every large ship, as well as in every port.

3. In time of war, one or more of these vessels might be used to communicate with the garrison of a blockaded port, funrishing them with medication or even supplies, without the enemy’s knowledge and invisible to their fleets.

4. But of all these applications, the most important, the most marvellous but admittedly the most terrible in terms of its results, is that in which this machine might be used to destroy enemy vessels without risking the life of a single man. By virtue of its ability to move without being seen, it might approach an enemy fleet and attach to the exterior of a vessel, close to the keel, a mine whose explosion would open up the vessel and cause it to sink with no possibility of rescue or even, should the mine be close to the powder magazine, cause the explosion of the entire vessel.[9]

My genuine admiration for the French nation and the strongest possible desire to see the cause of liberty and humanity triumph have inspired me to perfect this invention and to dedicate it exclsively to your government, at the very moment when the most serious preparations for an invasion of England lead me to believe that such a discovery might make a significant contribution to such an undertaking. I therefore made haste to send to the then current Directoire exécutif a detailed plan together with a descriptive memorandum, but without signature and hidden in a paper roll, delivered by one of my friends at Mainz to Commissioner Rudler, who gave him a receipt. The following year, when Citizen Alquier took up the post of chargé d’affaires of the French government to the Elector Palatine at Munich, I took it upon myself to ask him about the fate of this package. As the minister was of the opinion that my sketches and anonymous memorandum, not having been supported by anyone in authority, had been put on one side without receiving the attention they merited, he invited me to recreate the documents, promising me he would pass them to the Directoire with his personal recommendation. I therefore straight away recreated the same drawings, taking the greatest possible care, and had the satisfaction to deliver them to him, with a descriptive memorandum, a few days prior to his departure from Munich. He gave me a receipt and a very positive assurance that he would deliver them to the Directoire personally, as soon as he arrived.

Since then I have heard nothing further on this matter, but as I have been informed of the experiments that have been conducted at Rouen and Brest with vessels of this type of construction, and as I have no doubt that these machines could not have been built except in accordance with the same designs that I passed to Minister Alquier, which he must surely have delivered to the Directoire exécutif three years ago, I am taking the liberty of contacting you, General; not to claim public recognition of my rights to this invention (which in my current situation could even prove fatal for me), but to claim from you and the French government recognition that I was the first to offere you this idea, with the purest of intent and with no other object in mind than to serve a righteous cause. That is the limit of my ambition and I shall be content that another shall be conisdered by the world at large as the inventor of this machine. I shall be very happy if one day it might assist your government’s plans, particularly in facilitating an undertaking to whose execution you are entirely dedicated, General, and which can only add to your reputation and the recognition owed you by all supporters of liberty.

Salzburg, 1st January 1801


[1] Chapelot, Paris, 1901. Vol. II, p. 255 ff.

[2] Revue des Revues, 1896

[3] In the margin of a report on this subject to the Directoire, in Fléville’s handwriting, appears the following: “…and that the government may not openly admit [to responsibility for] men engaged in this type of operation. The English, ingenious regarding destructive machines, would soon allow themselves to seek shelter under the same pretence, which might lead, in some respects, to deleting from the codes of war those punishments justly levied against those naturally inclined to commit such atrocities.”

[4] The following passage is found in the conclusions of the Commission, which were still very favourable: “This weapon is particularly suitable for the French since, having a much weaker navy than those of its adversaries, the complete destruction of one or the other of them would give us significant advantage.”

[5] “The boat was blown into the air, broken into a thousand pieces,” wrote préfet maritime Caffarelli in a report to the Minister. “The [warhead} contained no more than 20 pounds of powder and was maoeuvred by Fulton, who was at some distance in his vessel.”

[6] Fulton’s was made of wood, 6.5 metres long and 2 metres in the beam.

[7] The inventor does not indicate the method of propulsion. Fulton’s was a man-powered propeller.

[8] Fulton’s submarine had two rudders – one vertical, one horizontal.

[9] Fulton’s submarine forced a barbed point into the enemy vessel, to which was fixed a torpedo towed at 100 metres. In withdrawing, the Nautilus brought this into contact with the target vessel and, once contact was made, an external mechanism caused a battery to initiate the explosion.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2008

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