For two centuries submarines have carried the name "Nautilus." Nearly every one represented new design and operational concepts. The first Nautilus was built in France in 1800. Constructed by the American inventor Robert Fulton, she was funded by First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte. Two of her three-man crew cranked a shaft that drove the propeller. A sail was used on the surface to ease the crew's workload. The test depth was 25 feet. Her weapon was an explosive charge that could be placed near anchored enemy ships.
The Nautilus's "sea tests" were in the Seine at Paris in June 1800. By the following summer, the French had authorized Fulton to attack anchored British ships near Brest. The British knew of this threat, however, and Fulton was unsuccessful. He then dismantled the Nautilus to prevent her from being copied by the French.
The next Nautilus was fictional. This was Captain Nemo's submarine in Jules Verne's 1870 classic, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Verne, the undisputed father of science fiction, wrote 65 books in this genre. More remarkable than his literary output was his uncanny ability to predict technological developments. Nemo's Nautilus had many capabilities that now are found in nuclear submarines 130 years later.
In the British, French, Italian, and U.S. navies several submarines had the Nautilus name. France's Nautilus was a Saphir-class submarine built in 1930. A minelayer, she could carry 32 mines in external vertical chutes, and there also were five 21-inch torpedo tubes. These 925-ton submarines were the French Navy's best boats during the 1930s. Early in World War II the Nautilus was captured by the Italians at Bizerte and eventually scuttled there in May 1943, when the Allies recaptured the Tunisian town.
Italy's first Nautilus (the Nautilo) was commissioned in 1913. The 303-ton boat had a submerged range of 80 miles at 4 knots (similar to U.S. Navy World War II fleet boats). Italy's next Nautilo was a coastal submarine of the 800-ton Argonauta class, built in 1930. Their last Nautilo was built in 1942, a unit of the Flutto class. These were the Italian Navy's best medium-- displacement (1,100 tons) boats of World War II. The Nautilo served until Italy's surrender in 1943, when she was captured by the Germans. Sunk in the Adriatic a year later, she eventually was salvaged by the Yugoslavian Navy and served as the Sava until 1971.
Built just before World War I, the British Royal Navy's Nautilus (N-1) was Vickers-built with a displacement of 1,441 tons. She was twice as large as any other Royal Navy submarine and was their first sub to be given a name instead of just a number. Not operationally successful, she was used mainly for training duties and was sold for scrap in 1919.
The first U.S. Navy vessel to become Nautilus was the 1918vintage 0-12. In 1930 the famous polar explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins got her transferred from the Navy to his custody for an under-ice expedition in the Arctic Ocean. Major modifications included removal of topside structures and installation of a skid to permit the boat to slide along under the ice. Wilkins planned a crossing from Spitzbergen to the Bering Straits in the 0-12, which was renamed Nautilus.
The Nautilus left the United States in June 1931. Delayed by engine problems, she arrived at Spitzbergen on 19 August. It was too late to try an Arctic Ocean crossing, so Wilkins decided to make limited probes under the ice. Before the first dive, however, it was discovered the stern planes were missing; they had fallen off in transit. Even so, a dive was attempted. Captain Danenhower tried several times to get under the ice, but it did not work; Wilkins had to abandon his expedition. The Nautilus sailed to Bergen, Norway, where she eventually was scuttled in 600 feet of water.
The first U.S. Navy Nautilus (SS-168) was commissioned in 1930. She and her two sisters, the Argonaut (SS166) and Narwhal (SS-167), comprised a new class of "cruiser submarines." Displacing about 2,900 tons, they carried two 6-inch deck guns plus additional external torpedo tubes for long-range, commerce-destroying missions. These giants were the largest U.S. subs built between 1927 and 1954. The Nautilus survived the war and was sold for scrap in 1945.
The U.S. Navy's last Nautilus (SSN-571), and the world's first nuclear submarine, was commissioned in September 1954. In 1958 she made the first transit of the Arctic Ocean by way of the North Pole-realizing Wilkins's dream. The Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980, and in 1985 she became a museum ship at Groton, Connecticut, where she remains today.
A Nautilus still dives. It is the French deep submersible Nautile. Launched in 1985, it can dive to 20,000 feet.
The U.S. Navy stopped using fish names for subs 27 years ago, abandoning the protocol in favor of cities, states, government officials, and politicians. As the submarine service enters its second century, perhaps it is time to name one of the new Virginia (SSN-774)-class submarines Nautilus. Do it for tradition's sake, and in recognition of a great historic ship name.