The possibilities of a submersible boat that could cruise below the water’s surface undetected and ambush enemy ships has fascinated military leaders of the world since antiquity. Legend has it that Alexander the Great himself had got into a primitive form of submersible to conduct underwater reconnaissance.
One of the first concepts for an underwater rowing boat was drawn up by an Englishman named William Bourne in 1578, but it was not until 1620 when the plans were eventually realized by the Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel. Drebbel’s submarine, built of wood and propelled by oars, could stay underwater for several hours. Floats with attached tubes brought air from the surface to the crew below. When he demonstrated the submarine’s capabilities by diving on the River Thames and staying underwater —as rumor has it— for three hours, the thousands of Londoners who had assembled on the banks to see the feat perform were convinced the men had perished.
The Dutch poet and composer Constantijn Huygens, who witnessed the tests, later wrote how this “bold invention” could be used at times of war, attacking and sinking enemy ships lying in apparent safety at anchor. Like Huygens, many others recognized the submarines’ military potential although it would take another one hundred years before the first military submarine could be built.
In 1718, a Russian carpenter named Yefim Nikonov wrote to Peter the Great claiming that he could build a “secret vessel” that could sail underwater and destroy all enemy ships with cannons. Curious and interested, the Tsar invited Nikonov to Saint-Petersburg and asked him to get down with the construction.