Sketchpad Notes: The Genesis of The Design and Construction of the Nautilus

By Demetri Capetanopoulos

The Design and Construction of the Nautilus opens with the question, “Is there anyone, of any age, who has read Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and not sketched their vision of the Nautilus in their imagination or down on paper?” Like many boys of a certain age, I discovered Jules Verne and was captivated, not just by the tales of scientific adventure, but by the example of the power of imagination to shape what might be possible with the creative application of technology.

When I made my first sketch of the Nautilus, exploration of the “final frontiers” of space and the deep ocean held me spellbound. Inner and outer space was giving way with habitats on the ocean floor and footsteps on the moon. The submersible Alvin was discovering evidence for tectonic plates while the space shuttle was being pitched as our ride to future orbiting stations. Fiction was become fact so quickly that lines became hard to draw and my imagination could revel in the blurry space in between. I grew up believing that Star Trek and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea were our collective destiny and definitely my desired future.

A tangible vision like that is a powerful thing. I had already completed the Civil Air Patrol (USAF Auxiliary) Cadet Program and had my pilot’s license when my eyesight slipped beyond the minimum required of astronaut candidates. So I backed away from Air Force Academy plans and turned toward the other frontier, picking up a Navy ROTC scholarship. In time, I became qualified as a nuclear submarine engineer officer and deep submersible pilot. Despite a career grounded in very technical realms, I never lost that excitement for future possibilities that credible science fiction imagined. Nor did I forget that wonderful sense of freedom inherent in Verne’s conception of the submarine. When I read Miller and Walter’s fresh translation of Verne’s novel with the newfound perspective of a professional submariner, I realized I had discovered an entirely different book and it triggered a completely new appreciation of the Nautilus.

Years later I stumbled across Michael Crisafulli’s exhaustive online catalog of designs for the Nautilus and became suddenly aware of the extent to which Verne’s submarine vision continued to captivate readers, inspiring endless interpretations. But in all those imaginative conceptions, something was missing—the application of actual submarine engineering knowledge. I noted that with time, the Nautilus had become viewed as increasingly fanciful, to the point of being dismissed outright as impossible. That is unfortunate because Verne was meticulous about incorporating cutting-edge technology of his time and making reasonable extrapolations. Though his literary legacy endures, our distance from that era of industrial and technological frenzy has dulled our ability to fully appreciate the marvelous vision that is the Nautilus.

The Design and Construction of the Nautilus attempts to place Verne’s imaginative creation in context with his times to enable the most complete and accurate reconstruction of the Nautilus possible. To this, a healthy dose of modern submarine design insight has been added to ensure the Nautilus remains relevant and accessible as it sails into its next 150 years. The design presented is accurate in the sense that it conforms completely to the description provided by Verne. I have relied on the fully restored and authoritative English translation provided by Walter Miller and Frederick Walter, but for critical details have gone back to the original French version to personally analyze the author’s word choice and intent. The relevant passages from the novel are included in my book completely and organized together so that readers can assess for themselves that the design is faithful to the Verne’s description.

This design also conforms to the requirements for basic submarine design, which is the most constrained form of naval architecture. This demands going well beyond arranging compartments (rooms) on a floor plan to fit an external hull shape, which is characteristic of many design efforts. Instead, it requires simultaneous consideration of volume and weight while accounting for the structure and operational systems that enable the submarine to actually function. To my knowledge this is the first time someone with submarine engineering experience has applied such a disciplined technical approach to undertake a comprehensive design of the Nautilus and not merely engage in critique. Though I’ve leveraged a modern understanding of submarine construction, the design remains true to the technology of the period, invoking cutting-edge developments with only modest degrees of advancement. To accomplish this, I attempted to find published accounts of the inventions and scientific discoveries that would have informed Verne in order to provide the link between actual technical innovation in 1867 and the expression of what might be possible in the novel.

Surprisingly, there are only a few instances where the necessities of submarine design and the limitations of period technology come into conflict with rigorous adherence to the novel, and these have been discussed in the book. The reader is left to choose which approach they prefer. What has not been indulged is any artistic liberties that go beyond what is strictly spelled out in the text. These have taken many forms over the years, with the Harper Goff design for Walt Disney’s Nautilus undoubtedly among the best known. In this regard I have suppressed urges to re-imagine the Nautilus and instead directed my creative energies to resolving challenges posed by making Verne’s submarine real.

I did not set out to write a book. My original intent was merely to take another stab at drawing a set of plans for Captain Nemo’s Nautilus in which I might leverage my career in submarines to improve my previous effort undertaken as a teenager. I had envisioned a naval-architect-style set of profiles and deck plans laid out on expansive 11”x17” sheets, to be accompanied by something less than a dozen pages of terse, technical engineering supporting notes. As the project matured, it became apparent that it was not just blueprints to be explained, but three stories to be told, and doing so would enrichen the reader experience. One of these stories was the understanding of what influenced Verne and could be credibly said to have shaped his vision of the Nautilus. The second story was about helping modern readers understand the historical and technical context in which the book was written, so that they might better appreciate its nuances but also its audacity. These two were woven around a third story, which was the fiction of suggesting how the events described in the novel could be reconciled within the reality of history and engineering knowledge. Much later I realized there was a fourth story that could be added about the pre-history of submarine development, that is to say, the little-told but fascinating events that occurred before the first official commissioning of a navy submarine in 1900.

As these components took the form of a book, I was very conscious that between the community of professional submariners and Jules Verne aficionados, I could not possibly find a more demanding audience. Maintaining my professional credibility and earning the respect of an intelligent fan base demanded unflagging devotion to detail and quality. I was fortunate to find authoritative minds within both communities to provide me with pre-publication edits, and I can only hope that the resulting work is worthy of your consideration. Like you, I too feel that the Nautilus is more than just a 19th-century mechanical marvel. To those who have sailed storied pages with her, she has always represented the ultimate technological triumph over nature, symbolizing mankind’s mastery of our domain, the human desire to explore the unknown, and most of all, freedom.