The Strange Tale of the Rotterdam Boat

The first submersible to be built after Drebbel’s devices was the Rotterdam Boat, named after the Dutch city where a French inventor known to history only as De Son built it in 1653. At the time, the United Provinces – currently known as The Netherlands and parts of Belgium as it is known today – was embroiled in the First Anglo-Dutch War, duking it out with the British Navy.

The Rotterdam Boat was of an outlandish design. It looked a bit like a flattened wooden box, going pointy at both ends. For some reason the design became somewhat of a contemporary art thing. If you Google it, you’ll find painting reproductions and posters plastered on commercial art websites all over the net.

It was 72 feet, or some 22 meters long. De Son tried a radical new approach to propulsion, opting to install a kind of clockwork with springs and paddles, which would rotate a paddle wheel. That literally went nowhere because De Son had obviously not worked out the physics. The submarine was too heavy for the propulsion system to properly displace water. And so it lay dormant the first time De Son tried to sail it, upon which investors lost interest. But De Son did add yet another piece of the puzzle: a means of attack.

The base of the Rotterdam Boat was a long, solid metal beam that ran from outside the back end of the sub through the sub and exited at the other end. De Son theorized that he would use this solid beam to ram holes into the wooden hulls of the Royal Navy. Again, it never led anywhere, but De Son’s idea of a beam as a means for attack would surface on and off with later submersibles.


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

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