Peek inside a hand-cranked Civil War submarine
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Peek inside a hand-cranked Civil War submarine

Charleston : SC : USA | Jun 30, 2011 at 1:21 PM PDT
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The HL Hunley Story

Long before before U-Boats or Red October, the Confederate States of America were fighting bloody battles against the North on foot, on horseback, and with at least one hand-powered submarine. This month, almost 150 years after becoming what the U.S. Navy calls the first submarine in history to successfully attack another vessel--and then promptly and mysteriously sinking to the bottom of Charleston Harbor--one side of the C.S.S. Hunley is finally seeing the light of day again.

The psuedo-steampunk relic was finally found at the bottom of the Atlantic resting on its side at a 45-degree angle about 11 years ago, and it's been in a South Carolina lab, held in the exact same position in slings ever since. Until now. Last week, the Hunley was rotated to an upright position for the first time since Abraham Lincoln was still breathing--how's that for old-school heavy metal?


The view from inside the wreckage of the CSS Hunley. The manual crankshaft can be seen in the center.

(Credit: Friends of the Hunley/Cramer Gallimore)

New Clues?
Conservationists and researchers hope the newly exposed section of the hull will provide some clues to why the Hunley sank. They did find some major holes in the hull, but it's not clear if they're what sank the Hunley, or if they're the product of a century and a half of degradation at the bottom of the sea. But as it turns out, the primitive technology inside the Hunley holds some clues to what led to its eventual fate.

Before we try to solve the mystery, here's a look at some key components of the Hunley and its modern counterparts:

C.S.S. Hunley Modern sub Propulsion: Eight guys on a crankshaft Nuclear power Lighting: Single candle High-spec LED Weapons: Torpedo on a pole Long-range Tomahawk missiles Hull: Iron boiler High-strength steel Entrance: Size of the center of a tire Plenty of room

More deadly to its own side
Today, nuclear power is the propulsion system of choice for most military subs, but back in the days of the War Between the States, even internal combustion was still a distant dream and most things were powered by sweat or steam. The secret submersible warship C.S.S. Hunley may have been made from a converted boiler, but it was pure elbow grease that made its propeller turn.

In fact, it wasn't just the propeller that was hand-cranked--ballast water was also pumped in and out manually to make the Hunley dive or head for the surface. That's an awful lot of hand-pumping left to a tiny, apprehensive, and cramped crew with little room for error, which is perhaps why the first two times the Hunley attempted to attack the Union's naval blockade of Charleston, it promptly sank, killing everyone aboard.

Launched long before the dawn of internal combustion, the Hunley relied instead on internal exhaustion on the part of the crew.

(Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center)

Yet somehow a team was recruited for a third try. This time the Hunley succeeded in ramming the USS Housatonic, and detonating the resulting torpedo lodged in her hull. Both vessels ended up at the bottom of Charleston Harbor, but the Hunley was stuck so deep in the mud that it was not discovered until 2000 by a team led by author Clive Cussler. Interestingly, the bodies of the crew appeared to be at their stations as if nothing had happened, and studies show they died of lack of oxygen rather than drowning.

Tech or human fail?
So the mystery of what downed the Hunley for more than a century could be technology-related--the failed plan to tether a long detonation cord before blowing up the torpedo could have done the crew in with the strong concussion of the blast, or there may have been a simple miscalculationrelated to the distance to safety that left the crew pumping away until they simply ran out of air.

Now that the Hunley is upright once again, perhaps the mystery will be solved. More importantly, perhaps any insights gleaned will help those pedal-powered hovercrafts seem less crazy.

The Hunley was finally recovered in 2000.

(Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center)


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H. L. Hunley - First Submarine... ever!
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................ Darlene is based in Geneva, Genf, Switzerland, and is a Reporter on Allvoices.
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