Stefan Drzewiecki, Submarine Tsar

The world’s first submarine fleet was pedal-powered and short-lived. But its design was a game changer for modern warfare.

Published April 22, 2015

Postage stamps are lessons in history, politics, science, or geography packed onto a small piece of gummed paper. They’re also beautiful works of art. In Stamped we’re going coastal, with postal.

A few meters beneath the water’s surface, Stefan Drzewiecki pedals his submarine. 

His muscle power turns a shaft connected to a propeller and drives the four-and-a-half-meter-long vessel toward its target: the hull of a barge, looming above like a thunderhead. Once in position, Drzewiecki slips his arms into long rubber sleeves that extend through the hull, picks an explosive mine from the submarine’s exterior, and reaches out toward the barge. He affixes the mine to the hull with a suction cup, then pedals like hell. The remotely triggered explosion echoes about the Russian port of Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea. 

In 1877, when the 33-year-old Drzewiecki successfully tested his prototype, the idea of submarines wasn’t new. The adventurous and inventive had floated the idea since ancient Greece. The American-built, acorn-shaped, hand-cranked Turtle went to battle in the Revolutionary War. Designed to screw an explosive charge into a British warship, the submersible successfully reached its target, but couldn’t drill through the ship’s hull. The hand-cranked, eight-man Hunley successfully blew up a ship in 1864 during the American Civil War, and Jules Verne’s 1870 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, featured the electric-powered Nautilus. But despite a few prototypes—and the tantalizing possibilities of using them to win battles or explore the ocean’s depths—submarines largely remained a novelty. No one had mastered a way to make them truly useful.

Russia’s war with Turkey ended shortly after Drzewiecki’s demonstration in Odessa. But his underwater vessel interested the Russian military enough that they requested an improved model—the Type II—which Drzewiecki exhibited in 1879 on Lake Gatchina to an audience that included the future Tsar Alexander III. So impressed was His Imperial Highness that he ordered a fleet of 50, and the slightly revised Type III—shown in this Polish stamp issued in 1973—became the first mass-produced submarine in the world. It was pedal-powered and sat four, with space for two mines. 

Drzewiecki’s fleet patrolled the Black Sea until it was decommissioned in 1886. Many of his submarines were turned into buoys. Though the possibilities for underwater vessels seemed endless, without reliable power and the ability to launch torpedoes safely, these early submarines were poor war machines. But Drzewiecki continued to design ingenious solutions to the challenges of underwater travel and warfare. He proposed a new torpedo launch system in 1896 that was adopted into French submarines and even affixed electric motors to two Type IIIs in the 1880s, making him the first to realize Verne’s prescient vision of an electric vessel. Drzewiecki’s carefully honed designs, from his early Odessa demonstration to his Black Sea-patrol fleet, helped take submarines into the mainstream and cemented his reputation as one of the great inventors of his day.