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Wilhelm Bauer - the first submarine builder

posted by Karsten Paczkowski

Wilhelm Sebastian Valentin Bauer was born on December 23rd, 1822 in Dillingen/Donau, where his father was serving as Corporal in the 5. Bavarian Regiment.

Because of being interested in mechanical devices and theories, Wil- helm learnt the business of a turner after school. He finished his ap- prenticeship in 1839 with good marks and became a rover, travelling through several cities, some of them being Kulmbach and, more impor- tant, the cities with large harbours as Lubeck, Hamburg and Bremen. Soon he became interested in naval things, especially in ship building and ship drives, but was unable to find a job in his own profession. So finally he decided in May 1840 to become a soldier.
In his free-time he improved and completed his mathematical, physical and chemical knowledge, and when in 1848 the first war between Germany and Denmark started, it was also the Bavarian country who sent one soldier to the corps against Denmark. Bauer, who was eager to see the seas, was a volunteer and was sent to a bridge to the island Alsen, where the Danish defended a bridge.
For the first time in his life he began to think about how it could be managed to place some explosives on the bridge, despite the permanent surveillance by the Danish. He started to study the behaviour of seals to get the first impressions and ideas for the construction of a sub- mersible ship.
On July 10th, 1849 Denmark and Germany made peace, and the Bavarian country called back his soldiers, so that Bauer came back home, but still with the idea of the submersible ship in mind. The country of Schleswig-Holstein, meanwhile, was still fighting for its freedon against Denmark, so Bauer decided finally to leave the Bavarian army and joined up the army of Schleswig-Holstein, and on January 29th, 1850 he started his career there.

He worked on his construction plans for a "Submarineapparat", the first submersible ship which he called "Brandtaucher", and which should be used against the Danish ships blocking the vital ports in the Kieler Förde. The war ministerium at Kiel agreed in paying 30 gold marks for the construction of a fully functional prototype that Bauer built himself with the assistance of another mechanic in a scale of 1:12. The approx. 70 cm long, 18 cm wide and 29 cm high hull of copper had the teardrop shape of that of a seal. The head of the seal was a small conning tower with two bulleyes to the front and a single one to the stern, outside, in front of the bow, was placed a model of a mine, installed at the end of a chain. Using rubber gloves installed water- resistant in the bow, it should be possible to place the mine on a hull of a ship, then to dive deeper which made the mine stick to the enemy ship. The mine should be ignited by a long electric wire. Inside the model there were to cylindric water tanks with moveable pi- stons to trim the boat so that it could sink, raise or stay in a cer- tain depth. Further more, a large moveable block of lead was installed in the submarine with which the submersible ship could be steered to dive or to raise, comparable to today's diving planes which have, ba- sically, the same effects. A gigantic clockwork made the ship advance through the sea, as it was connected to a three bladed propeller, and on the stern a rudder was installed to direct the ship on the given course.
The prototype was successful and proved its functionality, but the real submersible ship never was built, because Schleswig-Holstein could not afford the costs. Donations of both the army and the popula- tion of Schleswig-Holstein finally made the construction possible, but still it was too few money so that it was necessary to keep the costs for the construction down.
(Note: If anyone should be interested on how these cuts on costs lead to modifications on the final design, I can provide further informa- tion, but I'll leave that out here.)
On February 1st, 1851 the first tests in diving took place, but the cuts on costs had catastrophical effects on the whole design. The boat took far too much ballast water on board and the stern became too heavy, and nothing could be done against it. The iron block for trim- ming the ship could not replace the missing water tanks, that had been saved due to costs, so that the ship finally sank onto the ground. The hull was leaking due to the enormous water pressure, but Bauer was cool and smart enough to tell his two comrades to keep calm and to stay in the ship, in which the ice-cold water was rising constantly, for six and a half hour, just until the pressure was equalled and the outer door could be opened from inside. The air that had been compres- sed in the boat rose to the surface, and with it, the three men, the first submariners that survived and escaped from a sunk submarine.

In 1887 the "Brandtaucher" was discovered during the construction of a harbour for torpedo boats, salvaged, and was one of the attractions in the "Museum für Meereskunde" in Berlin, which was opened in 1906. Af- ter World War II the "Brandtaucher" was salvaged from the ruins of the museum, repaired and refitted and can be visited today in the "Armeemuseum" in Dresden, FRG.


I'd like this posting to be considered as one part of a whole story that deals with the early days of submersible ships, about the ideas of the construction, about the technical details, and what was consi- derably a good idea, and what was not.
I hope this posting encouraged you to post something you may know about the early days as well, so that we all can get our profit from the compiled knowledge of everyone. I think this could be a nice chance for us all to compare the constructions of different countries and the ideas for the "first submersible ships".

source:Technikmuseum Bremerhaven, "Wilhelm Bauer" 2nd Version, 1994

written by: Karsten Paczkowski