On December 23, 1822, Bavarian inventor and engineer Sebastian Wilhelm Valenin Bauer was born. Bauer, the son of a Bavarian sergeant-major, contributed significantly to furthering the design of hand-powered submarines. Originally, Bauer had been apprenticed to a turner, but left that trade to join the Bavarian artillery at sixteen. It was during his time in the artillery that Bauer is said to have gained his knowledge of mathematics. It was also when Bauer was given the chance to study the movement of seals—it was these seals that inspired Bauer’s first submarine design, Brandtaucher. In fact, Brandtaucher had a distinct seal-like look to it.
The test of Brandtaucher was eventful. According to an obituary in Volume 20 of “Engineering: An Illustrated Weekly Journal,” the first nine submarine trips went smoothly, but during the tenth, the poor quality of the materials and lack of funding revealed itself as it “sprang a leak” and “sank to the bottom of the Baltic.” Reports of the resulting events vary, according to the same Engineer obituary, Bauer and two sailors spent “six hours… in the almost hermetically sealed compartment of the ship, which was filled with compressed air, and into which the water could not enter. Fortunately, a happy idea struck Bauer in this emergency. He thought that if he were able to suddenly open an exit to the greatest quantity of compressed air, it would rush out with great force... At the proper moment Bauer opened the hatch and the three were forced upwards like, as Bauer expressed it, so many corks of champagne bottles, arriving safely at the surface of the water.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica goes on to say, “Bauer and his two assistants escaped from a depth of 60 feet” and emerged “after 7 ½ hours below, in the midst of their own funeral services.” The second depiction seems less likely to have occurred as described, but the story lends an air of excitement to Bauer’s experimentations. This excitement seems to have existed at the time as well because this stunt caught the attention of both King Louis of Bavaria and Prince Albert of England, who were said to have patronized him so he was able to recreate Brandtaucher.
In 1855, Bauer built a “52-foot iron submarine” that carried a crew of 11, “4 of whom worked a treadmill that drove a screw propeller.” This craft, sponsored by Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, made between 120 and 134 successful dives. However, Bauer reportedly “did not comply with the demands of Russian officials” and “had almost to fly from Russia under the protection of the Bavarian ambassador.”
Later, Wilhelm Bauer “effected the raising of the steamer Ludwig, sunk in the Lake of Constance” along with raising other wrecked ships from the ocean floor. Perhaps Bauer would have continued this had he not developed gout which “paralyzed [him] and deprived [him] of speech.” Bauer died at the age of 53 in Munich, Germany on June 20, 1875.