When we think of SF ships, the immediate image that comes to us is of spaceships. But there is another mysterious space that has also stirred the imagination of the creators of SF stories. It is not the one found above the skies, but under the oceans of Earth itself. The exploration of what Jacques Cousteau called the “Silent World” necessitates the best mankind can come up with feats of engineering. The underwater world is as dangerous, and as alien, as the space above.
Nautilus is an obvious name to give to a seafaring vessel as it’s taken from a sea creature. With the added bonus that the name is from the Ancient Greek word for “sailor” (ναυτίλος).
This sea creature is a mollusk cephalopod with a unique swimming system as it uses a form of water jet propulsion. So it’s natural this strange, almost alien-like, creature would inspire the naming of some unique ships that were invented by man, both in reality and the imagination.
This article is about the human-created ships named after the Nautilus, which, I think, hold an intriguing appeal and interest.
And another thing: in naval terminology, sea ships are always female. So, when you talk about a ship, it’s a she.
1) Nautilus (1800):
This ship was the very first functional submarines ever build. Created by the American inventor Robert Fulton in 1800, she was intended to be used as a war vessel. She had a double propulsion system, a sail when surfaced and a hand cranked screw propeller when submerged.
A full prototype was built and presented to the French Navy for tests, which was initially met with enthusiasm. Napoleon Bonaparte took a great interest, but when he got to personally inspect the ship, he found her to leak quite badly. The French Navy at the time took great concern in the safety of the sailors and the Nautilus was deemed unsafe and Napoleon killed the project.
It’s quite fun to imagine a what-if scenario if Napoleon had instead give his approval and the French had built a squadron of this primitive submarines. Imperial France suffered from a naval blockade by the British Navy, and the use of submarines could have helped the French to turn the tables on their sea adversaries or at least give the British a bit more sea trouble. Who knows!
2) Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea aka Vingt mille lieues sous les mers: Tour du monde sous-marin, 1870)
The fictional undersea vessel invented from the imagination of Jules Verne is by far the better-known craft called Nautilus. Even to this day, the ship fires the imagination of today’s readers. A craft imagined with such advanced ideas that even today is impossible to replicate her technical capabilities. Mostly because some of them are simply impossible to achieve due to the limitations imposed by real life physics. But it’s not Verne who should be to blame for that. For his time, his research he put into his submarine creation was very good, based on the most advanced knowledge and what people of the time believed could be achieved with current technology or in the immediate future.
One big irony about this famous and iconic fictional vessel is that so far there hasn’t been a truly definitive visualization of her. The descriptions are often vague and limited in scope, as the story is told from a one person’s point of view, a captive of Captain Nemo’s who is restricted from visiting all parts of the ship. So we never get a full complete description, which means everybody who has to create a visual representation of Verne’s Nautilus has to base it on scarce descriptions and their own imagination.
The better-known version of this Nautilus is the one seen in the 1954 Disney film adaptation.
But other creators have given their own interpretations.
It’s truly impossible to say which is the correct depiction of the Nautilus. So in the end, it’s all down to personal preferences and each person thinks is the coolest.
But one thing is true, this story, and the iconic ship within, has still captivated our imagination since 1870. All high-tech futuristic SF submarines owe Verne’s creation a debt of existence. Quite a feat!
Of note, Nautilus’s captain, Nemo, has a name that is in fact a pun, taken from the Latin word for nobody. Befitting to a man who turned his back to mankind and the nations of Earth.
3) USS Nautilus (SSN-571)
This was not the first submarine to be named Nautilus, but for me she’s the most important. The USA Navy USS Nautilus was the first operational nuclear submergible war vessel, and in many ways, the truly first submarine.
And she was named after Jules Verne’s creation.
What we usually call submarines are in fact submergible vessels capable of submerging underwater for limited time, but needs to be surfaced for most of its operational time.
But with the nuclear reactor on board, the USS Nautilus’ only limitation for staying submerged was the reserve of oxygen for the crew, as the nuclear power plant could provide enough energy to the ship to travel around the globe without refueling.
She was first put to sea in 1954 and decommissioned in 1980. During her long service time it provided lessons to all future nuclear submarines made afterwards. So, all nuclear ships in existence owe everything to this pioneering vessel.
But the thing that makes this one truly stand out in the history books is not her power plant, but the fact she was the first ship ever to reach the geographic North Pole. The North Pole itself is situated right about the middle of the Arctic Ocean, which is mostly covered by a huge and thick ice sheet, making it impossible for surface vessels to reach it.
In 1931, a previous civil expedition used a retired 1916 build WWI American submarine of the O-class, purchased from the US Navy, to attempt to reach the North Pole. It didn’t even get to 82 latitude, as extensive damages forced the captain to turn her away back to port. And her name? The USS O-12 (SS-73), which was renamed in 1931 as… Nautilus! No kidding.
On August 1st 1958, the USS Nautilus was the first submarine to surface on the geographic North Pole. This was not done for scientific purposes but as part of Operation Sunshine, a series of military objectives intended to test the deployment the SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) weapons system.
Despite the military nature of this voyage, it is still a great testament to human capability this was the first ever successful arrival by sea to the North Pole, so it’s still a hallmark feat of exploration. Thus, all Nautilus crewmembers that made this voyage may a Presidential Unit Citation ribbon.
Today, the USS Nautilus (SSN-571) is a of submarine history docked at the Naval Submarine Base New London in Groton, Connecticut, where she attracts some 250,000 visitors annually.
4) Nautilus-X (Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States Exploration)
This Nautilus named craft exists in the twilight area between fiction and reality.
The Nautilus-X, developed by Technology Applications Assessment Team of NASA, is a concept multi-mission manned space exploration vehicle destined for lengthy space travels, like interplanetary travel to Mars for example.
The novel idea behind it is, as the name suggests, not to be used for just one specific mission but to be used continuingly. Instead of the usual concepts of today for missions in search of a spacecraft, this is a spacecraft in search of missions. This makes her a unique space vehicle of all those who have been imagined thus far.
Most of the technology to make her already exists or will certainly be available in the foreseeable future. Besides the usual solar panels and advanced rocketry propulsion system, it incorporates a rotating habitable centrifuge to allow the crew to enjoy gravity for long voyages, to prevent the degenerative physical effects caused by microgravity on the human body. While this is not a new concept, as it can be seen even in fiction like the famous film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nautilus-X is the first design that does so with sound engineering. Another element of this centrifuge is the use of slush hydrogen tanks to mitigate the effects of dangerous cosmic rays, a deadly danger to human health in space.
The ship is modular, composed of separate adjustable elements, and the whole point is to make her economically sound for the standards of manned space flight. There is even a short and long version of her, depending of the necessity.
And, I believe, she looks really cool. I have always loved these realistic designs for space vehicles, especially when designed by proper space aeronautic companies.
I love the romance of ships and long voyage vessels, both the ones who have existed and the ones of the imagination. And one of the iconic names is Nautilus.
I hope you have enjoyed this article.
This is Asimovlives signing off. Have a better one.