Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, named after the [apparently nuclear powered] submersible in Jules Verne’s classic novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was dedicated on this day in 1952. I don’t normally get excited about weapons of war but there was something strange and wonderful about that particular craft, perhaps because of the plethora of historical and cultural associations linked with it.
Nautilus is the old Greek word for a sailor, derived from an ancient tale of the mythic hero Jason, who went in search of the Golden Fleece in the ship the Argo.
The classic movie Jason and the Argonauts hit the screens when I was eight years old and has always been a personal favourite. My father was a Greek and I was lucky that he took me to see that particular movie when it first came out. I especially enjoyed the scenes animated by Ray Harryhausen, including the one where the Argonauts battle the skeletons. Great stuff!
Not long afterwards, I came across and read Jules Verne’s classic novel about the search for a sea monster and the adventures of the enigmatic Captain Nemo [yes Disney fans, that’s where the name comes from]. “Nemo” by the way, means “no one” in Latin or in this context, the man with no name… It transpires [in Verne’s sequel, The Mysterious Island] that he is actually the son of an Indian Prince, with a hated of injustice and Imperialism. Although many people remember Nautilus as the world’s first nuclear submarine, it was not the first real craft of that name, nor the last.
The inventor Robert Fulton came up with the design of a submarine, capable of sinking shipping using mines filled with gunpowder. An American living in France during the 1790’s, he tried with some success to get the French navy to commission a submarine to use against British shipping during the Napoleonic war . The vessel was finally launched in 1800, destroying a 40′ sloop in tests and diving to a depth of 25 feet. Eventually, neither the French nor the British [to whom he offered the designs once the French had turned it down] wanted to develop the concept further.
Nautilus has been a popular name for ships and submarines over the years. Nine British surface ships and submarines were so named between 1762 [a sixteen-gun sloop] and 1914 [a submarine]. The US first named a surface ship Nautilus in 1799 [a twelve-gun schooner] and two submarines, including the original Nautilus nuclear submarine [retired in 1980].
Arguably, the nuclear submarine Nautilus’s most famous moment came in August 1958, when she became the first vessel to pass under the Geographic North Pole, a feat attempted and failed by a privately funded 1931 expedition led by Sir George Hubert Wilkins using yet another submarine, renamed Nautilus for the attempt…
According to the e-ships database http://e-ships.net/ships.htm , there are currently twenty-four ships around the globe named Nautilus including a Russian cargo vessel, an oceanographic research vessel in Greece and a South African yacht. Currently, no commissioned submarines [nuclear or otherwise] hold the name however, there I am sure that one day there will be…