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USS Nautilus

Posted in America, Historical articles, History, Ships, Technology, Weapons on Friday, 29 April 2016

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This edited article about the USS Nautilus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 584 published on 24 March 1973.

USS Nautilus, picture, image, illustration

USS Nautilus

In 1870 Jules Verne wrote about a mighty submarine that could cruise thousands of leagues under the sea. He called it the Nautilus.

On January 21st, 1954, at a Connecticut shipyard the dream of Jules Verne came true. As Mrs Eisenhower smashed a bottle of champagne against the dark green hull of the Nautilus, the world’s first atom-powered submarine slid into the water.

Nautilus is 300 feet long, displaces 3,000 tons and cost £10 ½ million to build. Her atomic power can carry her round the world without refuelling.

And her speed is in excess of 20 knots.

When the cheers of the launching ceremony died away Nautilus went to work. Soon she was breaking records and in 1957 came a voyage of exploration as exciting as any that man has known.

The brief of her captain, Commander William Anderson, was to explore beneath the ice packs of the North Pole. The rasp of the diving alarm sounded and for the first time Nautilus edged under the ice.

Somewhere in the ship a juke-box was playing. Off-duty members of the crew relaxed in their almost luxurious quarters.

In the mess another group were eating dinner. Meanwhile in the control room, Commander Anderson wondered what they would find below the ice.

It wasn’t long before the answers to questions that had been puzzling scientists for many years began to arrive. By means of a sonar machine scientists on board were able to form a very good picture of what the ice overhead was like.

A sonar machine is a device that picks up sound and so enables the navigator to detect the presence of any objects outside his ship. This he does by listening for the echo made by an object in the path of a beam of sound.

First they found that it was a huge, ever-moving mass of varying thickness. It was made up of floes ranging from a few feet to ten or twelve feet but not often more.

The North Pole ice-pack is interspersed here and there with small lakes, little more than cracks in the surface.

After cruising for some time beneath the surface Commander Anderson decided to attempt to bring Nautilus to the surface in one of these cracks.

It was, as he put it, rather like “threading a needle.”

By means of the sonarscope Nautilus was manoeuvred to a point directly beneath the hole. Then, inch by inch, the submarine eased her way upwards.

Commander Anderson concentrated on looking through the periscope, waiting for it to break surface. Suddenly he saw ice through the periscope.

But there was nothing he could do now to stop the ascent of the submarine. He hoped that it was only a thin layer of ice and that the raised periscope would smash through it.

Suddenly the ship’s ascent stopped.

Commander Anderson gave the order which would fill the buoyancy control tanks and take the submarine down again.

In the meantime the periscope had blacked out in what, Commander Anderson decided, had been a collision with a small block of ice floating in the lake.

The damaged periscope was the number two periscope. To his dismay Commander Anderson discovered that the number one periscope had also been damaged.

It was decided to attempt to straighten the number one periscope which had been bent by the ice.

Slowly the Nautilus surfaced through a gap in the ice. A mechanic then went on to the deck and used a hydraulic jack to straighten the periscope tube.

A heavy sea was running and Nautilus wallowed in the freezing Arctic waters, but despite this the mechanic clung perilously to the conning tower and succeeded in repairing the tube.

The next day Nautilus dived again and headed north beneath the ice. It was not long before the compasses began to behave erratically, but the master gyro with which the submarine was fitted was still functioning well.

Commander Anderson gave instructions for Nautilus to continue on a northerly course. Two hours later, the gyro went haywire.

The cause was soon discovered – a blown fuse. In normal latitudes when a gyro compass is turned off and then turned on again it will take four hours to settle again.

But in the high latitude in which Nautilus now plunged there was no knowing how long it would take to register accurately again – if it would at all.

Very carefully, like a man in a dark and unknown cavern, Nautilus continued to nose her way north, plotting her position by the magnetic compass.

A navigational error could have serious consequences indeed.

It might take Nautilus to a coastline that was locked by ice. Commander Anderson considered the possibilities.

If the worst came to the worst, and the submarine became hopelessly lost beneath the ice, he felt confident she could reach the surface.

For if no lake could be found, Nautilus could be titled at an angle to the surface, and her torpedoes could be fired to break the ice above her.

Even so, 180 miles from the North Pole Commander Anderson felt it would be exposing his ship and crew to unnecessary risk to proceed further, and he gave the order for the ship to be turned about.

A day and a half later Nautilus cleared the ice-pack and rose to the surface for the first time for 74 hours.

During that time she had covered 1,383 miles beneath the ice.

Also Nautilus had travelled farther than any other ship had ever done before.

The following year the Nautilus again voyaged to the Arctic and on August 3rd, 1958, became the first ship to sail across the North Pole – but under the ice.

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