Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph G. Chambers, 17 November 1807

West Middleton, Penna.—Novr. 17. 1807.—


From certain insinuations in the public papers I have supposed it probable that the President had given some attention to Mr. Fultons Experiment of Submarine Navigation. Considering likewise that this Experiment (if susceptible of any practicable degree of Perfection) might be of very great importance to our Country as well as to Human Society in general by preventing the usurpations & annoyance of naval Armaments & Wars: And having myself been engaged in the investigation of Similar principles (in the American Revolution) I have thought it possible that a communication of my Ideas might throw some light upon that Subject conducive to its more practicable effect & application to the objects contemplated. A comparison of original Ideas has the most efficacious tendency to the perfection of any discovery or art. As I have no knowledge of Mr. Fulton’s method of operation it may be original in relation to me: & mine may also be equally so to him. The Idea of such an operation first occurred to me at the time the British invested New York, in ‘76. And I had nearly prepared for a decisive experiment of the principles when their sudden irruption through Jersey (which was the place of my residence) destroyed all my preparation & so deranged the oportunities that I was constrained to abandon the Project as incommensurate with private funds. I had also some communications with General Washington on the Subject but soon gained the impression That persons of eminence who have the reputation of excelling in any Art are not always the most penetrating & quick-sighted to improvements derived from novel principles. Their Reputation is founded on the principles already extant: And the idea of a revolution of principles or of practice in their favorite art presents no flattering inducements. I dare say Mr. Fulton (as a Brother Projector) would easily appreciate these ideas verified by his own experience. I might (& should) have made this communication to him; only for the uncertainty where to direct. If his propositions are deemed worthy of the public attention I shall be happy in any occasion (by the comparison of ideas) of possibly contributing some shade or Suggestion of improvement which may conduce to its greater success & to the common benefit & reputation of our country. I will therefore give a brief description of the idea & plan of operation contemplated by me. And first as to the operator himself. He is to be furnished with a dress made or Leather (or other flexible material) impervious to the water The Body furnished with circular elastic Ribs which would give free room & convenience to respiration. This was divided into several parts: as the pantaloons which covering the lower extremities were joined to the body piece by an insertion similar to the closing of lids upon snuff boxes &c. The arm pieces & head piece were united to it in the same manner. Suppose this Dress thus fixed on, impervious to the Air or water & other loose Clothing under according to the temperature of the Season or Water. Suppose the head piece (which must sit close, especially on the face, by means of an elastic lining) furnished with a Tube passing across the mouth from one ear to the other & so from the Ears to the top of the head where they open to the external Air for breathing, having a suitable stoppage or covering that can be opened or Shut at pleasure at this superior orifice. The face piece must be of some thickness & solid; the eyes furnished with glasses to see withal. And for the practicability of breathing in this manner the Tube which crosses the mouth (& there communicates) is furnished with two delicate valves with springs so that in risperation the air must enter at one side & pass out at the other (that is, pass through the tube entering at one end & issuing out of the other in the same manner that Water passes through a pump, supposing the communication, as of the mouth, between the two valves). There was also a precautionary apparatus against the effect of water accidentally falling into the Tubes which need not be particularised. Now it is obvious that a person furnished in this manner (the whole apparatus adapted in a small degree specifically lighter than the Water) would have a great facility in enduring & swimming about upon the Surface.

In the next place for the purpose of passing under the water we prepare a vessel as follows, to carry a sufficient stock of air for the use & consumption of the operators. Suppose a vessel of an oblong form adapted to the best progressive motion through the fluid to contain from One or two Hundred gallons to any great or requisite quantity. I need not mention the mechanism for moving or rowing this vessel with a celerity nearly equal to that of any vessel of equal weight above water (by the operator who may be placed either before or behind it) as not composing any novel principles. This vessel (being air tight) is furnished with a Curtain or separating membrane (of thin moist parchment skins or other thinest lightest flexible material) adapted to the shape of the internal cavity & attached to its sides horizontally (in a line dividing it equally) to stop all communication between the air which may be inflated on one side of this curtain with the air on the other side of the same. The curtain thus fitted to the cavity & attached to the sides may be understood to fill or line the lower half of the cavity & by its own weight will lie & rest in that position. But if air be inflated into the lower division under the curtain (the upper having vent) the membrane will be raised up till it shall fill or line the upper half of the Cavity (& vice versa) and thus is produced a compleat separation between the air which may be contained on the one & on the other side of this curtain, that is, above & below the same.—Into this vessel thus prepared is inserted two flexible tubes (which may be enclosed in one sheath) the one communicating with the lower division & the other with the upper (of any most convenient length) which, at their other ends, are inserted (by a convenient Junction) into the Tube of the head piece of the operator, at the two sides of his mouth, beyond the valves, so that when the superior orifices are stopped (above his head) he will draw the air out of the upper cavity of the vessel & return it into the lower cavity, or division under the curtain. The returning Tube has also a communication (at the neck) with the room or space around his Thorax the better to support the free circulation & equilibrium of the air in & out of the vessel. This whole apparatus with the operator attached is somewhat specifically heavier than the water (for the greater security of concealment before an Enemy) And if any accident or difficulty should occur the operator can instantly detach himself stopping the lower & opening the upper orifices of breathing & seek safety by swimming &c. With this Machine he might glide along the surface of the water like a fish raising the top of his head piece above might breathe the superior air saving the Stock in his vessel for occasions of sinking. And also by the same avenue (or by other suitable Tubes) replenish his vessel with fresh air when requisite. I supposed it practicable for machines of this sort to be carried & occasionally ushered out of a ship of war through some kind of Port hole adapted to the purpose perhaps in its stern under the surface of the water. And as persons might by practice become expert in their use & inured to that fortitude & endurance of Danger usual in Military attchievments it would be very difficult to defend a vessel (even apprised) against the efforts of a number of them which might be directed either in the Day or night as found most practicable. As to the exploding machine it (not depending upon novel principles) need not be here described. And in regard to the most practicable manner of attack this might be regulated by circumstances & experience. If out of a vessel of War there is one Idea which occurred to me. Suppose one or more of these ushered forth for the purpose of striking a driving screw or some firm attachment to the bottom of the opposing vessel. They might proceed drawing forth a cord doubled out of their own vessel to be properly attended as it run off a reel till it might extend to the opposing vessel: And having fixed the screw or firm attachment leaving a suitable loop hole or ring through which the Cord must pass they might in returning be assisted by drawing one end of the same cord & letting the other run out at their own vessel. This cord would also serve to fetch them expeditiously up in case they should fail of striking the opposing vessel &c: or in case by any danger or miscarriage they might be disposed to detach themselves from the machine & escape back. Such arrangements might multiply the chances. And if any one succeeded in fixing an attachment to the opponent Vessel; then by means of the doubled cord runing through the loop of the attachment the exploding machine (thrown out) could be drawn into contact with the bottom of the opponent vessel, calculated to take fire (or go off) only by its pressure against the loop or particular construction of the attached apparatus. But in case it should be thought more practicable in some instances as where ships lie at anchor, in ports, &c. to convey the exploding Machine along with the Torpedo still for the greater facility & safety in the near approach to the hostile vessel it might be found convenient to make use of the same process with a cord which might leave the dangerous exploding apparatus at a convenient distance; And (after fixing the attachment) it could be drawn up into contact by the receeding of the Torpedo to a safe distance; & either exploded instantly or otherwise appointed.

This description (if intelligible) may give some Idea of the plan & the principles contemplated. I had prepared an apparatus (or Torpedo) conformable to this idea & proceeded to make such experiment as was practicable in a Pond formed for the purpose upon a small stream (no larger being in convenient vicinity). And in this first attempt I found my lungs offended (as I supposed) with certain noxious exhalations from the internal surfaces of the machinery, particularly by the effluvia of Linseed oil or paint applied in some parts for rendering the tubes impervious &c. On this account (as I supposed) I could not conveniently remain long enough under the water to obtain an experiment compleatly satisfactory & successful. I determined to remove these obstacles by a renewed preparation of the internal surfaces &c: and in this Conjuncture the sudden irruption of the British Army deranged & interupted the whole project.

Thus, Sir, have I been induced to communicate the idea of this experiment: tho perhaps in a too clumsy or indistinct description. If the President shall be at leisure to peruse it, or if Mr. Fultons propositions are subject of some attention & public Consideration: and any ideas herein suggested might be deemed of moment I shall cheerfully embrace the opportunity of farther explanation.

And remain Sir, with the most profound Respect &c.

Joseph G. Chambers.

DLC: Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

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