On February 11, 1720, carpenter Yefim Nikonov started fulfilling Emperor Peter’s I order to build the test model of what could be called the first ever submarine.
In 1718, Peter I received a letter signed by Yefim Nikonov, a serf peasant from a village near Moscow. Yefim wrote that he had designed a “secret battleship to go underwater and to sink enemy vessels”. Peter ignored this letter, but in 1719, Yefim wrote to him again, so Peter took an interest in the invention and called Yefim to the St Petersburg Admiralty.
When Nikonov arrived at the Admiralty, Peter personally looked through his project and saw its true value. He ordered Nikonov to build a sample of the invention, “not as big as needed for using in a sea battle, but big enough for demonstration of its capacity”. The Admiralty promoted Nikonov to the rank of “master of secret ships” and sent him to the shipyard, where on February 11, 1720 he, in secrecy, started to construct the submarine prototype.
The model was finished in 1721 and tested in Peter’s presence. Peter was pleased with the results of the test, and ordered the building of “a full-sized secret battleship”. The works started in August 1721. Descriptions and line drawings of that “ship” have been lost, but apparently, it was shaped like a barrel. According to the remaining documents, coopers participated in its construction, and the list of required materials contained such items as iron bands, apparently to be used as hoops.
Nikonov armed his brainchild with “fire tubes” – weapons akin to flame-throwers. The submarine was supposed to approach an enemy vessel, put the ends of the “tubes” out of the water, and blow up the ship with some combustible mixture. In addition, he designed an airlock for aquanauts to come out of the submarine and to destroy the bilge of the ship.
Nikonov invented the diving suit as well, and there is information about it in the archives. The suit consisted of two leather jackets with two pairs of leather trousers, a wooden barrel with glass windows and lead plummets. It was tested several times, but the results of the tests are unknown.
The trial of the submarine was conducted in autumn 1724. The “secret ship” submerged with Nikonov himself and four oarsmen aboard, hit the bottom and broke the bilge. Nikonov and the other crewmembers were saved by some miracle. Peter ordered everyone not to blame Nikonov for the breakdown and ordered the inventor to fix and to improve the vessel.
Nikonov repaired the submarine and continued its development, but on February 8, 1725, Peter I died and the Admiralty began to hasten Nikonov to finish the work. In spring 1725, the second test of the “secret ship” ended in a fiasco, as did the third one in 1727. After that, the Admiralty reduced Nikonov to work with common carpenters, charged him with abuse of public funds and sent him to the shipyard in Astrakhan on Volga River. The submarine was warehoused and forgotten, along with the diving suit.
Nikonov’s invention was ahead of its time and was doomed to fail, as the overall level of technology was not yet high enough for its proper maintenance and further development.