DID JULES VERNE'S -Nautilus- REALLY PREDICT THE ESSENCE OF TODAY'S DEEP-DIVING NUCLEAR SUBMARINES?

Article excerpt

Discerning analysis of many of the submarine features described in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea prove to be astute guesses rather than crafty predictions of the manner in which globe-girdling submersibles would eventually evolve by jim bloom

Every well-read adolescent is familiar with the science fiction classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (20TL) by sci-fi pioneer Jules Verne. He is widely heralded as the father of science fiction, although some authorities say that he is more of a romantic adventure novelist with a technological slant. Literary significance aside, the submarine concept he developed in the late 1860s, one of his most enduring legacies, is acknowledged as a boldly visionary wonder.

There have been reams of paper expended on the scholarly implications of Verne's submarine epic, including the identity, motives and fate of Captain Nemo, but little on the accuracy of his forecast of the underwater technology itself. This is regrettable, because, as some recent, more correct and complete English translations have shown, Verne was quite familiar with pre-1870 experiments with diving equipment and vessels - the state of the art and was able to extrapolate from this data. Further, he kept himself informed about later developments in underwater navigation and in 1898 and 1904 commented on the implications of the most-recent technological progress and how his Nautilus fared in comparison.

Up until the advent of nuclear-powered submarines and underwater oxygen replacement and purification systems, there was nothing approaching Verne's Nautilus in terms of performance. Granted, Verne was extrapolating from the state of the art and perhaps shooting from the hip inasmuch as some of his estimated data were overly optimistic and remain beyond the realm of any feasible technology; the laws of physics simply don't support them. Nonetheless, later submariners and submarine technicians have readily acknowledged the debt to Verne as the prophet who rammed home the potential of undersea vessels upon the world's consciousness. Significantly, his novel inspired submarine pioneers such as Simon Lake and John P. Holland.

For submarine sailors, designers, and enthusiasts, 20TL raises intriguing issues: Just how farsighted was Verne in exploiting technologies just emerging in 1870 to create Captain Nemo's Nautilus1? How accurately did he predict the actual evolution of the modern submarine? And how many of the undersea innovations he predicted 136-years ago have actually been realized?

This article will first take a good look at the Nautilus itself as reconstructed by modern more-accurate translations of 20TL, and renderings by artists, illustrators, and ship modelers, concurrently examining the 19th-century submarine experiments that were the likely influences on Verne's fictional Nautilus. Finally, it will briefly compare the Nautilus' design and operational characteristics with some later sub designs, particularly its most-similar modern counterpart, the US Navy's Sea Wolf (and f ollow-on Virginia-class) nuclear attack submarine.

The largest portion of the information is found in the 20L in the chapters titled "The Nautilus" (included in "The Man of the Seas" in incomplete translations), "All by Electricity," and "Some Figures." Additional information is scattered throughout the novel.

According to Verne's tale, Captain Nemo and his men built Nautilus on a desert island (presumably in the South Pacific, but elsewhere his "operating base" is described as near the Canary Islands) and maintained absolute secrecy from inquisitive suppliers and techno-spies by ordering the various components and materials from unrelated, widely dispersed sources and arranging their delivery to a variety of covert addresses. The design was entirely Nemo's, based on the engineering knowledge he had gained from extensive study in London, Paris, and New York during an earlier part of his life. …