Solved? Century-old mystery of why a legendary Civil War submarine sank
August 24, 2017 1:23 PM   Subscribe

Blasting Through the Hunley Mystery The crew hand-cranked the sub more than six kilometers toward its target—the Union blockader USS Housatonic—and surfaced like a leviathan for the charge. By 9:00 p.m., it was over: the Hunley had thrust its spar-mounted torpedo into the Housatonic’s hull and within seconds, 60 kilograms of black powder had caved in the ship. Just after the brief moment of glory, the Hunley, which had just become the world’s first successful combat submarine, mysteriously sank. posted by Michele in California (18 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Very interesting! It seems a bad-faith argument on the journalist's part to imply that the Huntley Project is disincentivized to solve the mystery thanks to merch sales, but the article did made me wonder whether the Huntley Project considers the idea that the crew accidentally killed themselves in the attack as too ignominious to accept.
posted by ejs at 2:06 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Who was it that said something about never underestimating a man's willingness to remain ignorant when his livelihood depended on it?

Although I think more focused on conservation and letting the physical sub tell its story is probably what is really going on. The conservation team isn't going to accept any theory unless it's confirmed by the physical evidence.
posted by COD at 2:31 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

the article did made me wonder whether the Huntley Project considers the idea that the crew accidentally killed themselves in the attack as too ignominious to accept.

There's the livelihood aspect, and then there's a reverence for the ingenuity of the Confederates. When you call the namesake of the submarine "a successful Southern planter," you're saying he's good at using slaves.

Still, a fascinating story, both from the forensics, and the general engineering of the original submarine.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:37 PM on August 24, 2017 [8 favorites]

Professor Lance sounds awesome! "let's do it and see what happens" is exactly how we roll around here. Sweet talking people into letting us blow stuff up is occasionally part of my job description, even. I will have to try cake next time.

Having said that I never understood why this was a big mystery. When you blow stuff up underwater (or any similar activity) the shock wave is massive. I always figured it was that in some way.
posted by fshgrl at 2:42 PM on August 24, 2017 [6 favorites]

This is how science works, a student reexamines and discounts most of the the existing theories to get to the essential: BLOW STUFF UP!
posted by sammyo at 2:52 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

Why would the Hunley Project insist on a non-disclosure agreement for access to their data?
posted by cheshyre at 3:01 PM on August 24, 2017

the article did made me wonder whether the Huntley Project considers the idea that the crew accidentally killed themselves in the attack as too ignominious to accept.

Well, we should be suspicious that a scientist ascribes to a mystery a solution that coincidentally happens to be centered around their area of interest. Not that Lance is wrong, but I didn't see in the article any real refutation of the suffocation or "lucky shot" theories. So, yeah, interesting experiment, and the theory seems fine, but definitive?
posted by touchstone033 at 3:05 PM on August 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

touchstone033 - according to the article, Prof. Lance's first paper on the Huntley mystery disproved the suffocation hypothesis on the basis of submarine volume and experimental evidence of oxygen consumption required for the level of exertion required to crank the submarine. I think there was also some discussion about the unlikelihood of suffocation based on the sub's location and the position of the remains within it. Her second published paper looked at the lucky shot hypothesis, and tested whether weapons of that era were able to create the type of hole that had been observed in the sub's metal. In the *third* paper she has published on this mystery she experimentally demonstrates that the shock waves generated by the explosion would have been sufficient to kill the sub's crew.

This is also how cross-discipline collaboration and breakthroughs happen in academia. Somebody hears about a problem that has other people stumped, realizes that their research might be able to address it, and runs with it. Who other than a specialist in underwater shock waves would be qualified to investigate this hypothesis? Of course, it'll be lovely (and even more conclusive) if the Huntley project manages to come up with physical evidence from the submarine itself that backs up that analysis, and it'll also be exciting if they unearth a clue that points to something else entirely.
posted by Metasyntactic at 3:27 PM on August 24, 2017 [10 favorites]

> There's the livelihood aspect, and then there's a reverence for the ingenuity of the Confederates.

The ingenuity to keep doing a bad idea - 13 people died before it even went into combat, including the entire crew dying in a mock test (possibly suffering the same fate of the last crew, if they did this with live ammunition).

I can't help but consider this a desperate suicide mission of a losing cause against the naval blockade, and didn't really break the blockade.
posted by mrzarquon at 3:43 PM on August 24, 2017 [4 favorites]

Oh man the Hunley! I was just talking about this in a different thread!
posted by ckape at 5:52 PM on August 24, 2017

I just saw the life-size reproduction of this in Charleston on Tuesday! I can saw with some authority now that anyone that put themselves inside this vessel was extremwly crazy.
posted by newdaddy at 7:26 PM on August 24, 2017 [3 favorites]

Something something Reynolds number something Navier Stokes non dimensionalization something pressure waves something non compressible flows... no... nooo....

posted by RolandOfEld at 10:40 PM on August 24, 2017 [1 favorite]

The GIF in the article seems interesting to me. It's not clear if the board they have in the water is supposed to represent the Housatonic. If it is, to me, it would seem that their model is rather close. My understanding of the mechanism of the spar torpedo was that once it was embedded in the side of the target, the crew would back away with the fuse triggered by a pull-line from a distance (though the discovery of a reel of copper wire on the Hunley opens up the possibility of an electrical detonation method). Even at scale, I would have thought that the Hunley would have been farther away, and also likely not parallel to the side of the Houstatonic. From what I recall of the story of finding the location the sub sank, one of the reasons it took so long to find was that it was not clear just how far away the sub was from the known last position of the Houstatonic it was when it went down.

Or that board may just be to protect the supports of the foot bridge, and they've already accounted for the distance the model is and the reflection off of the board by scaling the blast down appropriately. That still leaves the question of the angle though, but then again, this may be simply a press demonstration, and not an attempt to collect usable data.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:41 AM on August 25, 2017

Richard Moon, the medical director... "... There’s no way they would be working away at the crank in a 10 percent oxygen environment with high levels of CO2 and say, ‘Oh well, things are fine; we’ll just keep on going.’”

Military history has too many examples of desperate fighters, in desperate times, volunteering for suicide missions, then doing their duty until they've given all they could.
posted by Homer42 at 1:24 AM on August 25, 2017

I'm kind of surprised this idea hadn't been seriously considered before. It kind of seems like a "well, duh, yeah" theory.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:04 AM on August 25, 2017

The shock wave thing doesn't just occur here; I remember reading quite a few articles pointing out deaths from blast trauma is actually a very frequent thing that happens after bombings, both from state (terrorists militaries) and non-state actors (also terrorists).
posted by anem0ne at 11:04 AM on August 25, 2017

> I'm kind of surprised this idea hadn't been seriously considered before. It kind of seems like a "well, duh, yeah" theory.

I'm still wondering about the details of the "mock trial" and if that included a live charge. if so, did they just hoist the Hunley back up out of the water, open it up, find everyone dead, and go "welp, get those bodies out of here, lets go do the exact same thing again".
posted by mrzarquon at 12:33 PM on August 25, 2017

Press Release from the researchers working directly on the sub:
The Hunley Project said they felt the need to issue a statement today to make sure the unsubstantiated theory claimed by the Duke University student does not continue to spread, in view of the comprehensive research conducted by the Hunley team on the submarine for more than 15 years. The idea of a concussive wave from the torpedo explosion killing the crew, as outlined in the Duke University release, has been previously considered and is one of many scenarios the Hunley Project team has been investigating.

“The Duke study is interesting, they just unfortunately didn’t have all the facts. If it were as easy as simple blast injuries, we would have been done a while ago. Though a shock wave can cause life-threatening injuries, this is something we discounted quite a while back based on the evidence,” said Jamie Downs, former Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Alabama.

The press release also links to a report by the US Navy on the testing they've done on behalf of the Hunley Research team.

However, the press release closes with "The Hunley Project remains committed to sharing the most accurate information about the submarine that is available and welcomes discussion and ideas from the public and other academic institutions about the Hunley and her history," a statement that seems hard to reconcile with Dr. Lance's account of them refusing to share calculations with her and asking her to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
posted by radwolf76 at 9:13 AM on August 31, 2017

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