This 19th-century diagram shows the side views of Turtle.

In 1870, when Jules Verne wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the idea of a submarine was still a fantasy. While Verne was ahead of his time with the description of his vessel, he did base the idea of a submarine on the very real advancements of submersible vehicles which had already come to pass.

Turtle, also called American Turtle, was built in 1775 by American inventor David Bushnell as a means of attaching explosive charges to ships in a harbor, for use against Royal Navy vessels during the American Revolutionary War. Several attempts were made using Turtle to affix explosives to the undersides of British warships in New York Harbor in 1776. All failed, and her transport ship was sunk later that year by the British with the submarine aboard. Bushnell claimed eventually to have recovered the machine, but its final fate is unknown.

Despite its shortcomings, the Turtle marked an important milestone in submarine development. Bushnell created a military vantage point that had yet to be seen. And even though the Turtle failed its mission, it served as an important symbol of American inventions at a time when America was just beginning to discover its identity. Submarine development has come a long way since Bushnell’s time, becoming an essential member of naval warfare in addition to inspiring classic science fiction adventure novels.

Modern replicas of Turtle have been constructed and are on display in the Connecticut River Museum, Submarine Force MuseumAssociation, National Museum of the Royal Navy, and Musée océanographique Monaco