George Garrett and the Nordenfelt submarines

Most submarine development action in the 1870-1900 period took place on the European continent. But though the British admiralty wasn’t interested in submarines, that didn’t mean that no one on the isles was dabbling in it.

George Garrett of Manchester was, like Narcis Monturiol, an interesting character. Although Garrett studied to become a clergyman in the English church, he always remained interested in engineering and science. He designed the Resurgam submersible. We’ll get to the tech specs in a second, but what’s interesting about the Resurgam was that Garrett was trying to design a response to some of the defensive measures navies were taking to protect their surface fleets after the sinking of the Housatonic – measures against submersibles.

The first and second Resurgam submersibles he designed and built were spherical in shape, but the front tip was very pointy, leading wider into the bow. The idea was that the submersibles would be used to tear through steel nets that navies were employing to cordon off harbors or as protection around surface ships against submersible attack.

The first Resurgam was a prototype model, the second was the real deal: 14 meters or 45 feet long, 3 meters or 10 feet in diameter, a displacement of 30 tons and a crew of 3, and a hydroplanes on the side, at the center of the submersible. The addition of hydroplanes in essence was a good idea as inventors started to realize that stability under water was obviously essential, but as later submarine designers would find out to their sometimes fatal detriment: hydroplanes located at the center of a submersible would still not provide enough horizontal stability.

Propulsion was mechanical although not very practical, using a traditional steam boiler fired by coal. Resurgam would sail on the surface attaining heat and then submerge for a maximum of four hours, using the residual heat to boil water and create steam. A nasty side effect, of course, was that submerged life aboard the Resurgam was almost unbearable. Before Garrett could sell the British government on the Resurgam, it sank during an accident. It took until 2017 to be found. But Garrett’s exploits did attract the attention of Swedish military entrepreneur Thorsten Nordenfelt, famed for owning the patent to what was called the Nordenfelt multi-barrel machinegun.

George Garrett

Famed for his machinegun but interested in developing submarines, Nordenfelt teamed up with Garrett and together they designed a submersible named the Nordenfelt-I in 1884. It was a prototype submarine that incorporated Garrett’s residual heat steam engine, a glass dome on top of a tube, like a kind of predecessor of the periscope, a steam engine chimney, a machine gun on deck – also a novelty and one that would stick for decades to come – and external torpedo tubes to fire the new Whitehead torpedos. A novelty was that the Nordenfelt would use vertical propellers to submerge. So these propellers would literally push the submersible down.

The submersible had positive buoyancy, which means that its default position was to rise to the surface. Instead of ballast tanks, the Nordenfelt would use the vertical propellers and the screw on the back to push the submersible under water on an even keel.

A shrewd businessman, Nordenfelt was able to sell the submersible to the Greek government, which by that time was arming up quickly to stand up to their arch-nemesis and former occupier, the Ottoman Empire to the east. The Turks learned of the Greek purchase of his submarine, prompting them to ask Nordenfelt not for not one, but two submersibles of the next iteration, the Nordenfelt-II and -III.

The Nordenfelt-I had been a relatively small affair, only 19,5 meters or 64 feet long and with a displacement of 55 to 60 tons. It really was an upgraded version of Garrett’s Resurgam. The Nordenfelt II was larger, with a 5 man crew, 30 meters or 100 feet long and 176 tons displacement. The submersibles were shipped to a Turkish wharf in parts, assembled and named the Abdul Hamid and Abdul Mecid.

As the Turks were welding their Nordenfelts together, the Greeks had taken possession of their Nordenfelt-I and started conducting trials. They did not go well. Unbeknownst to the Turks, the Greeks were discovering that they’d bought a cat in the bag.

The Nordenfelts looked good on paper but like the Resurgam, they suffered from major balance flaws when submerged. Like the Greeks, The Turks soon discovered this when they started their sea trials with the Abdul Hamid before being commissioned.

Basically the thing to do with the Nordenfelts was for everyone inside to stay put when submerged. This was of course impossible – crewmembers had tasks to perform. On the first trial, one crewmember walked to the fore and immediately the submersible tipped over, resulting in everyone falling forward, followed by anything that wasn’t stowed or bolted somehow.

Submarine chronicler Farnham Bishop described the first trias of the Abdul Hamid vividly.

“The hot water in the boilers and the cold water in the ballast-tanks ran downhill, increasing the slant still further. English engineers, Turkish sailors, monkey-wrenches, hot ashes, Whitehead torpedoes, and other movables came tumbling after, till the submarine was nearly standing on her head, with everything inside packed into the bow like toys in the toe of a Christmas stocking. The little vertical propellors pushed and pulled and the crew clawed their way aft, till suddenly up came her head, down went her tail, and everything went gurgling and clattering down to the other end. Nordenfelt II was a perpetual see-saw, and no mortal power could keep her on an even keel.”

Farnham Bishop

During another trial the Abdul Hamid fired its first Whitehead torpedo, which was of course done under great pressure from the torpedo tube. The recoil caused the Abdul Hamid to flip back and sink stern-first in a 45 degree angle. To counter this, the crew gave full throttle ahead and the Nordenfelt finally roared forward, to come crashing through the surface and smash in a great wash of white water with the navy leadership looking on. The brass liked what they saw but the Turkish testing crew had had enough. The Turkish navy commissioned the Abdul Hamid but were unable to find a crew to sail her. Her sister ship, the Abdul Mecid, was never fully assembled and the Abdul Hamid was left to rust away in port. In Greece, the Nordenfelt-I was unceremoniously scrapped in 1901.

But before they were to learn of the Greek and Turkish misfortunes, the Russians were impressed by Nordenfelt’s sale of submersibles. The Swede then sold them the Nordenfelt-IV. Where the Nordenfelt-I, II and III were cigar-shaped, so pointy fore and aft, the IV looked more like submarines as we know them today and certainly like how Russian submarines would look for decades, with a knife bow and stern that also housed Nordenfelt’s signature vertical propellers.

The Nordenfelt-IV still had steam engine propulsion, so it was still incredibly hot inside when submerged, but it was also one of the biggest submersibles to date, measuring 38 meters or 125 feet in length, a displacement of 245 tonnes, a maximum surface speed of 16 knots and a crew of 9. It was built in England and was then to be towed to Russia via the Baltic, but she sank while under tow in bad weather off the Danish Jutland coast in 1888.

Thorsten Nordenfelt lost interest in submersibles and George Garrett emigrated to the United States.


Your host, Kaj Leers. 1975, Amsterdam dweller, submarine aficionado.

Join the discussion

Further reading

Sergei Korolev, Rocket Man

As early as 1955, the Soviets launched the world’s first Sea Launched Ballistic Missile, besting the USA and so introducing the world’s...

Narcis Monturiol, submarine genuis

Every new development depends on geniuses. One of those was Narcis Monturiol.The American Civil War had ended and the US government was demobilizing...