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Interpreting the Evidence

Submarine Building

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Analysis & Interpretation

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School
    College University

  • Topics:

    Global History and Geography
    World War I

  • Primary Source Types:


  • Regions:

    New York State
    United States

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Submarine Building, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y. , 1915 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Document Description
The "Intelligent Whale" or "Halstead’s Folly" – an early experiment in submarine building, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1915.
Historical Context
Life aboard a WWI submarine was anything but luxurious. German submarines often had 30 men as part of the crew.  Bunks, when available, were shared and if there weren’t enough available, hammocks would be used. 

Originally, British submarines were built primarily to serve in coastal areas, so many didn’t have bathrooms aboard at first. After these were installed, because toilets were pressure controlled, sailors had to be very careful when flushing, so that the flush didn’t backfire. Because of cramped quarters, cleanliness was not the norm in the submarines.  Little fresh water was available and close quarters combined body odors with all the other odors of the ship.  Many men experienced seasickness. 

Submarines would also have bilge water (the bilge is the lowest compartment where two sides meet) full of vomit, food particles, oil, and much more. If this water got into the batteries, chlorine gas could be created forcing the submarine to surface. 

Condensation inside the submarine could cause electrical issues, in addition to making sailors feel as though they lived in a damp cellar.  They would often have to cover their faces with rain clothes or rubber sheets to prevent being dripped on all night long. Because the interior was pressure operated, sailors had to be careful when surfacing.  They had to hold the captain’s legs when opening the hatch, so that he would not be torpedoed out of the boat with the escaping air. 
Essential Question
How does new technology impact war strategies?
Check for Understanding
Describe the scene in the photograph and evaluate the impact of this technology on war strategies.
Historical Challenges
Submarines played a large role during WWI. Find a firsthand account from someone on board the Lusitania to see what it would have been like to live through a u-boat attack.
Interdisciplinary Connections
Physics: Use the following link to create a submarine simulation: