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Intelligent Whale


(Submarine: weight 4,000 pounds (estimated); l. 28'8"; b. 7'; dph. 9'; s. 4 k.; cpl. 6 to 13)


Intelligent Whale, an experimental iron-hulled submarine, was built at Newark, New Jersey, to the design of Scovel S. Merriam, who entered into an agreement on 2 November 1863 with Augustus Price and Cornelius S. Bushnell. In April 1864, the American Submarine Company was formed, taking over the interests of Bushnell and Price. Years of litigation, however, followed, while those who built the boat apparently encountered “great difficulty…in getting a crew to man her for her first test in Newark Bay.”

Intelligent Whale could be submerged by filling compartments with water, and then expelling the water by pumps and compressed air. It was estimated that the supply of compressed air inside could allow the boat to stay submerged for about 10 hours. Thirteen crewmen could be accommodated, but only six were needed to make her operational, motive power being furnished by a part of the crew cranking, attaining a speed of about four knots. General Thomas William Sweeny, a colorful decorated veteran of the Mexican War and Civil War (and who would participate in the Fenian Invasion of Canada later in the year), and two other men, tested the boat in April 1866. They submerged her in 16 feet of water, and Sweeney, clad in a diver’s suit, emerged through a hole in the bottom, placed a charge under a scow, and reentered the submarine. When Intelligent Whale was a safe distance away, Sweeny exploded the charge by a lanyard and a friction primer, blowing the scow to pieces. Ultimately, at the end of the period of litigation, however, a sheriff’s sale disposed of the boat. With the establishment of the title in court, the boat ultimately belonging to an “Abe” Halstead, the submarine was sold on 29 October 1869 to the Navy Department, for the following terms: $12,500 to be paid upon making and signing the agreement, $12,500 upon completion of the successful experiment, and $25,000 for all "secrets and inventions" connected with the craft.

A trial of Intelligent Whale occurred at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y., three years later. “After sinking the boat, it was found the opening on top was leaking through defective packing,” reported the Army and Navy Journal of 21 September 1872, “and after remaining under water a short time, the leak was so bad it was found expedient to raise her, but in doing so she caught under the derrick, and signals were sent to those on board [the derrick] to hoist the boat out, which they did. In the meantime, those on terra firma were excited by the fear that some serious mishap would occur to the persons in the torpedo-boat [one of whom was, apparently, Halstead himself], but after having been under the water sometime in the same spot, nor having traveled or accomplished anything, the boat was got out, and found nearly half full of water, her navigators unhurt, but we imagine, considerably frightened…”

Upon the conclusion of the unsuccessful test, the Navy refused further payments and abandoned the project. Some credit Intelligent Whale with inspiring John Holland to pursue submarine design.

Displayed for a time at the New York Navy Yard and then the Washington Navy Yard, Intelligent Whale as of this writing (October 2006) is on display at the National Guard Militia Museum of New Jersey in Sea Girt, New Jersey.

Rewritten, Robert J. Cressman, 10 October 2006.