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Bushnell's Turtle
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Building the Replica of David Bushnell’s Turtle

In 1776, during the American Revolution, a Connecticut Yankee by the name of David Bushnell had a daring idea to break the British blockade of New York harbor: he would build a one-man submarine and somehow attach a bomb to the underside of the British ships and blow them up. Intrigued, Rick and Laura Brown of Handshouse Studio led the effort to re-create the building of a replica of this wooden submarine, nicknamed the "Turtle," using only the tools and technologies of the day. With help from students and professional craftsmen plus the submarine expertise of the United States Naval Academy, they built and tested and ultimately proved the seemingly radical idea of Bushnell's.

A Brief History of the Turtle

In the summer of 1776, the British controlled New York harbor with a massive fleet of gun ships. The British Army and Navy threatened to push George Washington and his continental troops up the Hudson River to gain control of the entire Hudson River Valley. This would effectively split the colonies in two. The Americans desperately needed to break up the naval blockade. David Bushnell of Connecticut, a Yale student and ardent patriot, envisioned and built the Turtle, a one-man submarine designed to discreetly attach a timed explosive to the underbelly of the of the British ships.

The goal of the Turtle's mission was to break this blockade by attacking the British fleet in New York harbor. The target was Admiral Richard Howe's flagship, the HMS Eagle. In August 1776, after a year of training, David Bushnell’s brother, Ezra Bushnell was prepared to pilot the Turtle but on the eve of the mission, he became ill and someone had to take his place. David Bushnell retreated with the Turtle back into Long Island Sound to teach Sergeant Ezra Lee of Old Lyme how to maneuver the submarine and deploy the mine.

Meanwhile, by August 28, 1776, the British had overrun Long Island, brutalizing Washington’s troops and forcing a retreat to the town of New York. This was a time of extreme measures for the survival of America. Bushnell cut short the training to return to New York. The Turtle set out on its historic mission the night of September 6, 1776 and before dawn it managed to reach the Eagle, submerge and slip beneath the ship's keel undetected. Sergeant Lee made two attempts to attach the mine to the bottom of the ship, but failed because he could not penetrate the copper sheathed hull. Exhausted and unable to attach the mine, he had no choice but to abandon his mission and return.

In his return from the ship to New York, he was discovered by the enemy as he passed near Governors Island, They took chase and in an effort to escape, Ezra Lee cast off the timed mine, as he imagined it retarded him in the heavy swells of the harbor. He was then spotted by his men waiting for his return on the shore and was safely retrieved. The freed magazine, which was set to go off at one hour, “drifted past Governors Island into the East River where it exploded with great violence, throwing large columns of water and pieces of wood high in the air.”

Despite the failure to sink the ship, it was the first attempt to end a naval blockade using a submarine, and marked the beginning of the development of the submarine by the American Navy. The basic underwater principles used by the Turtle still remain valid in underwater submarines today. Bushnell’s Turtle opened a window into underwater science and marks the beginning of man’s entrance into the submarine world.

The Recreation of the Turtle

Handshouse Studio directed and coordinated the making of the replica of Bushnell’s Turtle in collaboration with Massachusetts College of Art and the United States Naval Academy.

Rick Brown and Laura Brown, directors of Handshouse Studio and faculty members at the Massachusetts College of Art, led the making of the replica of the Bushnell Turtle through research, design and project development. The research included locating and analyzing original letters and written histories of the American Revolution period and investigating period technologies and materials that would have been used in the construction of the original Bushnell Turtle.

With this information, they attempted to remake the Turtle using similar materials, technologies and processes. Handshouse Studio collaborated with faculty, students and alumni at Mass College of Art and professional craftsmen from the Timber Framers Guild to create the Turtle. Period processes used included copper raising, bronze casting, brass braising, blacksmithing, glass blowing and felting. The wooden body of the Turtle is made from a single log -- a process used widely by the Pequot Native Americans at the time –- whereby the large log was split with wedges and hewn with period hand tools.

The fine skills and dedicated work contributed by Mass Art affiliates and members of the Timber Framers Guild during the intensive ten-day workshop at Handshouse Studio made the Turtle beautiful, historical and operable. It was successfully water tested at Snug Harbor in Duxbury, Mass. on January 9 and 10, 2003. It proved to be watertight and all the moving parts functioned properly.

From March 24 to 28, 2003, the Turtle was thoroughly tested at the United State Navel Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in their Hydromechanic Laboratory tow tank. Unmanned tests were made to assure water-tightness. Drag tests verified calculations made by Midshipmen in their Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering department proving, once again, the Replica to be seaworthy.

Professor Lew Nuchols of the Naval Academy operated the Turtle in manned tests diving to a depth of 15 feet and reenacted the attack of the Turtle on the HMS Eagle by screwing the auger screw into a mock up ship hull rigged in the tank. The Turtle replica performed similarly as the original described by Ezra Lee and David Bushnell in 1776 and the mock bomb successfully attached and deployed, albeit with difficulty. Finally, on April 6, 2003, the Turtle returned to open waters at Duxbury, Mass. in an exercise to demonstrate a traditional launch method using draft horses and a cart. Once in the harbor, it was operated on the surface by Rick Brown to understand how it maneuvered in open waters using the forward propeller and rudder. Again, it was a successful event.

In 2004, the Discovery Channel, England’s Channel 4 and France’s Channel 5 will air a one-hour documentary film about the reconstruction of the Turtle and its historic undersea warfare mission during the American Revolution. The film, one in a series entitled “ Machines Lost in Time,” is programmed to be broadcast in the U. S., Great Britain, France and Canada. A National Geographic magazine article appeared on this same subject in their November 2003 issue.

Handshouse Studio’s Method and Mission

Through the intense and intensive investigation of a single object in history, we can open doors to a wide range of related subjects that are usually studied separately. Handshouse is dedicated to developing programs that provide an interrelated educational format by linking subjects including history, science, mathematics, literature, arts, culture, and technology through the study of a single object and moment in time. Through this method we provide a richly layered understanding of the moment in history, a literally three dimensional view of the object and an interactive and engaging method of learning how this object fit into its world and what part it has played in the creation of our world today.

Handshouse Studio will use the information gathered from recreating and operating the working Bushnell Turtle replica for further educational materials that will extend far beyond the 60 minute Discovery Channel program. Handshouse is currently preparing to exhibit the 2003 Bushnell Turtle, along with copies of historic letters, documents regarding David Bushnell and his submarines, drawings, models, and documentation in several museums nationwide.

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