Colt and the Submarine Battery

Samuel Colt is best known for having produced a revolver that was able to fire multiple times without being reloaded. His work in firearms made him a pioneer in the fields of advertising, product placement and mass marketing. Samuel Colt was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814 and began an early career in the firearm business. By the age of 15, Colt had found a passion for explosives and began work on a pistol.  In 1836, Colt would open his first factory in Paterson, New Jersey.  These early years were not very lucrative with multiple issues plaguing his designs and company. In 1843, Samuel was forced to close his plant and sell most of his company’s assets at auction. But Colt did not stay away from manufacturing for long, and being a true Connecticut native, he turned his attention to the water.

The mid-nineteenth century in undersea warfare was built on the work that came from such people as David Bushnell and Robert Fulton. Their work in mine and submarine development was something that people like Colt saw to surpass. Colt began creating and selling underwater electrical detonators and waterproof cables. He would eventually team up with Samuel Morse and petition the government for funding. Morse used one of Colt’s mines to transmit a telegraph message from Manhattan to Governors Island. After this endeavor, Colt would move towards underwater explosives, an idea that had been of interest to him from the time he was a boy. He believed that these mines would be of great economic value to the country as a coastal defense. In an account he gave to Congress, Colt said, “The idea of Submarine explosions for the purposes of harbor defect was conceived by me as early as the year 1829 while stud[y] in the laboratory of a bleeching and colouring establishment at Ware Vilage, Massachusetts, and I made sundry experiments on a small scale at that time and repeated them in various ways for several successive years theareafter” [1]. Even while working on his revolver, the idea of underwater mine warfare intrigued Colt. While in New Jersey, he sketched an idea for tracking the movements of a man-of-war by a means of visual cross-bearings of shore observers. He would eventually refine this idea to a single-observer system. Colt’s idea included that “Within shore observation post would be installed a ten-foot convex mirror, positioned above and behind the galvanic operator in order to reflect the image of an adjacent minefield onto the mirrored control grid before him. Embedded in this control panel, as suggested in Colt’s later overhead perspective of the observation post and nearby river minefield, were envisaged numerous individual metallic terminals from several score anchored mines, each terminal being located upon the control grid’s equivalent of its mine’s watery position.” [2] The hoe would be that the observer would be able to trigger selective groups of mines as a target moved across the area.

In 1842, Colt’s submarine battery or electric mine was successfully used to sink the gunboat Boxer and the brig Volta. However, in a first for an underwater mine operated by an electric current on April 13, 1844, he blew up a schooner on the Potomac River in a demonstration held for President John Taylor and his cabinet. Colt pushed for the demonstrations, feeling encouraged by the news that an armored floating battery was under construction for the defense of New York Harbor. For years Colt dealt with a government wry on his ideas and found achieving funding difficult. He believed that the demonstration in Washington would be exactly what he needed. On March 19, Colt was given anchors, boats, timber, and mooring lines from the Washington Navy Yard to aid in his demonstration preparation. On April 1, 1844, he reported that, “I have fortified the river leading to the Navy Yard & the ship is to be got under way with all her sails set & blown up while at her greatest speed.” [3] The plan for the day was that Lieutenant Junius Boyle of the Navy Yard was to maneuver the target vessel to the vicinity of the minefield. At 4:30pm, Colt would signify that he was ready with a pistol shot, at which point Boyle would respond by lowering the vessels topsail three times. Once the national ensign was removed, Boyle and his small crew would leave the target vessel in a small boat and get clear of the target area. When in position, the crew would fire a rocket signaling their safe distance. An account from the Daily National Intelligencer covering the event wrote that, “A little boat advanced and removed certain buoys which had been floating near the spot where the battery lay; and soon after a low and peculiar sound was heard, when a most beautiful jet, of mingled water, fire and smoke, rose to a considerable height near the opposite shore, and as the water fell back in white translucent masses, the smoke, colored by the sub’s rays with all the dyes of the prism, slowly melted into the air, while the grains of we powder, ignited and smoking, fell in soft showers upon the bright surface of the river…..The Ship held on her course, and in a few minutes another mountain of water, larger and blacker than the first, rose on her larboarded bow, and so close to her that she rocked under the undulation. ‘Oh, he has missed her!’ But it was very near’ The words were scarcely uttered when a third explosion took place-the bows and bowsprit of the ship, instantly shattered to atoms, were thrown into the air.” [4]

Figure 1 he Last Experiment of Mr. Colt’s Submarine Battery. 1844 painting by Antoine Placide Gibert. For a long time, this was assumed to be in New York harbor. However, the building to the left of the doomed ship is clearly Coningham’s brewery, and the Washington Navy Yard can be seen to the Styx‘s right. (Google Books)

During the demonstration, Colt’s position for setting off the explosions was never found. While not being detected was a key part of the demonstration, for professional evaluation of the system, the fact that his precise location has never been told has led the Submarine Battery demonstrations to be somewhat of a mystery. Colt’s papers leave no evidence indicating a second observer, a reflecting mirror, or a control grid to help pinpoint accuracy of the explosions. Despite the success of the demonstration, military officers were skeptical of the battery and had little confidence of its use in war.

In the end, Colt would suffer a similar fate as Robert Fulton did with the British government. In the early 1800’s, the British government had not rewarded Fulton for advancements he had made in underwater mining while working with them. Secretary of the Navy, John Y. Mason did not attend the demonstration, nor did he try to understand how Colt’s battery worked so well. Without professional military evaluations and without all the key components to the system, Mason decided to end the Navy department’s role with the submarine battery. The secret of the Submarine Battery would lead to an eventual ongoing debate in Washington that played a major role in holding back submarine mine development in the United States for over a generation. Colt would end up pulling his application for a patent thus keeping the secrets of his Submarine battery with him forever. The inventor would not be reimbursed for the funds he used to build the battery and the situation would leave him almost bankrupt. Colt would eventually see success with his revolver and government arms contract. During the Civil War in the following years, a variety of underwater systems comprised of mines, obstructions, and semi-submersible torpedo crafts convinced military engineers that it was an absolute necessity to use undersea warfare in coastal defense, which was the very idea that Colt had had been pushing for so long. While Colt’s Submarine Battery may not have ended up as a part of the Navy’s system, the idea of hidden undersea defenses was the key motivation to submarine development. These early developments were the stepping stones to the powerful, silent service we have today.


[1] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 8.


[2] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 15.

[3] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 40.

[4] Lundeberg, Philip K. Samuel Colt’s Submarine Battery: The Secret and the Enigma. Pg 43-45.

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