"Bushnell is a man of great mechanical powers, fertile in inventions, and master of execution - I then thought, and still think, that (his submarine) was an effort of genius."
- George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, September 26, 1785
Humility and secrecy, and an act to create a new county out of the portion of Columbia County where he lived, helped obscure the name of David Bushnell from the list of prominent, early residents of Columbia County.
Bushnell, who after 1793 was known in Warren County as the respected doctor and teacher, Dr. David Bush, invented the world's first combat submarine. But it would take his death three decades later before his community learned the famous inventor had been in their midst.
Frail, bookish David Bushnell was born in Saybrook, Connecticut in 1740, and spent his early years working on his father's farm. But farming was not in his blood. So when his father died and David was nearly 30, he sold his share of the farm and used the money to enter Yale College for the first formal education of his life.
The education of David Bushnell took place against the backdrop of approaching war, which influenced his course of study. Already a scientific mind, he experimented with gunpowder while at Yale, trying to create an effective, underwater weapon. His early attempts were so successful that by 1775 when the war began, he had developed a functioning, 150-pound sub-marine mine. Now he needed an underwater vessel for moving the weapon to its intended target.
After graduating from Yale, Bushnell returned to Saybrook where, with help from his brother Ezra, he worked another year to construct a small, walnut-shaped vessel he called The American Turtle. Made of a two halves of a split, hollowed-out log and resembling two turtle shells sealed together, the 7-foot-by4-foot enclosure with its assortment of pedal-operated levers was just large enough for one man. Make that one strong man, which excluded the inventor himself. Enter his much stronger brother Ezra, who was also familiar with the vessel's operation.
By August 1776, after 300 British ships had formed a blockade around New York Harbor, the Bushnell brothers believed the Turtle was ready to leave its berth near the mouth of the Connecticut River and head south. But just then Ezra came down with typhoid fever, and Army Sgt. Ezra Lee was hired to take the other Ezra's place.
On the dark night of Sept. 6, and with the hastily trained, substitute pilot at the controls, two longboats towed the Turtle out into Long Island Sound and toward that enemy blockade. When the ships were in sight the oarsmen cut the vessel loose, and Lee continued on alone to attach one of Bushnell's mines to one of those British ships.
It was a harrowing ride, but after fighting tide and choppy water for half the night, Lee finally guided the Turtle to the HMS Eagle and began pounding the screw atop the mine into the ship's hull. Yet no matter how many times he tried, Lee kept striking metal strips around the ship instead of the anticipated wood.
After resurfacing every 30 minutes for more air and sensing his imminent discovery in the approaching dawn, Lee was forced to abort the mission. But whether by luck, pluck, or a bungling gone good, as soon as the Turtle cleared the row of ships Lee released the mine, triggering the timing device that detonated the charge.
What a blast! Though the mine didn't sink a single ship, that early morning explosion in New York Harbor frightened the entire British fleet into moving their ships away from the harbor, essentially ending the blockade.
Bushnell continued experimenting with his new weaponry until both the war and his financial backing ended. With excellent credentials and needing a new line of work, he accepted an invitation from his friend Abraham Baldwin to come to Georgia. Like Baldwin, he settled in Columbia County, but later was considered a resident of Warrenton, where he established an academy and practiced medicine under the assumed name of Dr. David Bush.
The publicity-shy Dr. Bush " or Bushnell " remained in Georgia until his death in 1824. His secret might have died with him had his attorney not discovered his identity when probating his will. The authentic David Bushnell had bequeathed his possessions to the University of Georgia unless any living heirs may be found in Connecticut.
Though the 84-year old inventor-doctor had never married, heirs of his brother Ezra were found, and their uncle's worldly goods " including drawings and a small model of the Turtle " were divided among them.
David Bushnell's possessions may not have remained in Georgia, but the citizens of Columbia County and nearby Warrenton will always share in his legacy. Much of the basic technology first devised by a nearly anonymous inventor more than two centuries ago is still used in the most sophisticated submarines today.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. The above is an excerpt from her work in progress on the history of Columbia County. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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