The Undersea Museum
of the U.S. Navy

Keyport, WA

September 22nd, 2002

I have always been a military buff.  I'm an old army brat.  I was raised on stories of Regiments and artillery and such.  So while staying in Tok, Alaska, Laura heard a radio broadcast describing the Undersea Museum of the US Navy. The broadcast never gave a location and we were never able to find it, until Laura got on the internet and looked it up.  It turned out to be in Keyport, WA., some 1200 miles to the south. So, months later when we finally returned to the lower 48 states, we ended up in northern Washington. Keyport is located on the west side of Puget sound, about opposite to Seattle. In 1914, as war broke out in Europe, the US Navy commissioned the Pacific Coast Torpedo Station who's job it would be to test and evaluate torpedoes prior to them being pressed into service. Today the mission is unchanged.  At the base outside of Keyport, WA., the testing and evaluating goes on. The Naval Undersea Museum displays many of the artifacts of that endeavor in a hands-on atmosphere that thrills the kids and fascinates the adults, as well as bring tears of sadness or joy to old men who served in the US submarine fleets of the last few wars. Admission is free, and no parking fee.  That in itself is a wonderful benefit. After passing through the lobby, we entered a corridor who's walls displayed a timeline of the history to undersea adventure with particular emphasis on military applications.  One side focused on the physical aspect while the other centered around the people who made contributions.   One of the first placards reported the diving exploits of Gilgamesh  in 650 BC. He was a hero in ancient Sumer (now part of southern Iraq) and the central character in the Epic of Gilgamesh.  In one story, Gilgamesh dives into the water abyss with stones tied to his feet to retrieve a plant that would provide eternal life.  After finding the plant he released the stones and rises to the surface.  Pearl divers still use this technique of tying stones to their feet to descend to the bottom of the ocean.  Like Gilgamesh, their divers explore the sea without suits or breathing apparatus.  Gilgamesh lost the plant and did not become immortal. Other placards explained how animal products were used to help humans dive.  Divers in the Mediterranean breathed underwater with animal skins or bladders filled with air.  In the Persian Gulf, divers used goggles made from tortoise shell.  Leather was used in many undersea applications because it was available, cheap and water-resistant.  Diving suits, helmets, hoses, straps and seals were all made of leather until well into the 19th century.  Rubber and rubber/cloth laminates eventually replaced leather in undersea devices. I found it interesting that wood has been used in underwater devices for centuries.  Plentiful and cheap, wood was easily worked and could be made watertight.  Early diving bells were simply wooden casks, heavily weighted and turned upside-down to trap a pocket of air.  Divers swam into the cask and up to the air pocket to catch a breath before swimming back out.  Salvage diving in the 1700s was done in a completely sealed wooden diving suit.  The first submarines were wooden until the early 1800s, when iron became plentiful and easy to produce.  Today synthetic and metal materials are stronger, cheaper and more versatile than wood. and the use of wood as an undersea material has declined. It took a good half an hour to get through the time-line. I learned such trivia as the first submarine was built by Cornelius Van Drebbel in 1620. Van Drebbel designed a boat to deliver a water petard - a bell-shaped bomb at the end of a long pole or spar.  Although Van Drebbel's invention was the first operationally "successful" submarine. Attempts to use it as a weapon were unsuccessful. And the first torpedo was invented by an Englishman named Robert Whitehead.  This self-propelled torpedo was 11 feet long, weighed about 300 lbs and could travel at 6 knots for nearly 700 yards  Within 10 years, every major country except the US adopted the Whitehead design.  It and subsequent variations remained the standard in torpedoes right up until the 1980s.  The US developed its own, Howell torpedo which was based on different principles. We passed out of the tunnel into a large open room with an assortment of interactive machines along the walls. This was where the kids got into the show.  There were things to pull and things to push and twist. Each one had a lesson to learn. There were demonstrations on salinity, pressure, buoyancy, and the one I found most interesting, sound. Since visible light is rapidly absorbed underwater, sound must be used instead to "see" objects.  In 1914, while working for the Submarine Signal Company (now part of Raytheon) Reginald Fessenden demonstrated a device that transmitted sound waves and used the echo to detect an underwater object. Word War I used underwater sound research in locating submerged U-boats, but it was another 15 years before the Naval Research Laboratory was able to produce an operationally useful sonar (SOund NAvigation Ranging) device.  Today sonar devices are used in virtually every underwater application as a substitute for vision.  The next room was the main area for the artifacts. The first item I found was an original sea mine. The first American sea mine was used in 1777 during the American Revolutionary War by David Bushnell, an American patriot.  Its purpose was to force British ships to give up their blockade of American ports.  Bushnell set watertight wooden kegs filled with gunpowder afloat in the Delaware River near Philadelphia.  When they came in contact with British ships a spring loaded lever would trip a flintlock firing mechanism detonating the kegs. Spread throughout the museum were little placards which gave "DID YOU KNOW" statements.