BY BRIAN HICKS
Of The Post and Courier Staff
Archaeologists have discovered that the H.L. Hunley was steered by a lever resembling a joystick that most likely controlled a series of rods and cables used to turn the Confederate submarine's rudder.
The lever is one of the most surprising discoveries in the excavation of the 138-year-old submarine, which was recovered from the Atlantic in August 2000 after it was lost on Feb. 17, 1864.
Most contemporary drawings and reminiscences of the submarine hinted that the Hunley was steered with a wheel that turned cables running along the sub's crew compartment roof. But those accounts bear little resemble to reality.
The steering rod, mounted forward of the front conning tower, is hinged at the bottom of the interior floor to connections that lead to a pipe that runs underneath the crew bench mounted on the portside wall. It moved side to side, from port to starboard.
"This could be the world's first joystick for navigating a vessel," Hunley Commission Chairman Sen. Glenn McConnell said Friday. "It appears to be part of an involved system of rods and cables used to connect the submarine rudder while neatly placing it in the limited quarters out of the crew's way."
From his station beneath the forward conning tower, sub commander Lt. George E. Dixon would have been able to control most of the sub's functions - he operated the dive planes that controlled the depth at which the Hunley sailed; the pump to the forward ballast tank and the steering. It makes sense that he controlled most operations: Dixon's post was the only one with a window.
Maria Jacobsen, the chief archaeologist on the project, said that the steering mechanism seemed consistent with much of the rest of the _sub's design. She said it is "both simple and elegant, representing a design for efficiency and space."
Also found this week in the sub was a metal file, some canteen stoppers and a length of chain.
The chain was probably carried as a spare to connect the hand cranks with the gear that turned the propeller.
Friends of the Hunley Chairman Warren Lasch said that if the chain connecting those gears broke, the crew of the sub would be stuck.
"The submarine not only was advanced in its engineering, but these men planned in advance for any contingency that they could theorize would occur," Lasch said.
But even as the Hunley gives up another mystery, it clings to others. Scientists have now excavated the sediment that was in the sub's forward conning tower and have found no evidence of the glass or iron shards from the grapefruit-size hole in it.
Now the archaeologists will focus their search on the sediment in the bottom of the submarine. The location of the glass and iron from the damaged tower could give some hint to what happened to the Hunley. One theory is that the submarine sank after the eyepiece on the conning tower was shot out by sailors on the Housatonic shortly before the Hunley detonated a 90-pound charge in the Union ship's flank.
"It is a scientific fact now that the glass and iron pieces of the shattered eyepiece are not in the sediment in the front conning tower. It is still too early to say that this eyepiece contributed to the sinking," McConnell said. "Time and further excavation should ultimately settle this question."
Contact Brian Hicks at (843) 937-5561 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Used with permission of The Post and
Courier and Charleston.Net