U.S. Launches First Nuclear Submarine

US #BK279 – America’s first preside booklet honoring a century of US Navy submarines.  Click image to order. 

On January 21, 1954, the USS Nautilus, the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine, was launched.

Accounts of boats submerging in the water date back to the 1560s, though the first verifiable vessel was designed and built in 1620.

US #2838e honors the role of submarines in World War II.  Click image to order. 

Patents for submarines and submersible boats were submitted in the 1700s, and in 1800, Robert Fulton designed a human-powered submarine, also called the Nautilus. Improvements and advances in technology followed and by the 1900s, most submarines were diesel-powered. Submarines were used widely in both World Wars, but their dependence on diesel fuel limited the amount of time they could be under water.

In July 1951, Congress approved the creation of a nuclear-powered submarine for the US Navy. Hyman G. Rickover, known as “Father of the Nuclear Navy”, oversaw the Nautilus’ planning and construction.

US #3373-77 includes a Los Angeles Class sub named for Hyman G. Rickover.  Click image to order. 

On June 14, 1952. President Harry S. Truman visited the Connecticut boatyard to lay the keel, signaling the start of construction. Building the Nautilus took about a year and a half. Once it was completed, the Navy held a special launch ceremony on January 21, 1954. First Lady Mamie Eisenhower broke the customary bottle of champagne on the ship’s bow. She was the first president’s wife to ever christen a US Navy submarine.

Item #M7943 pictures other US submarines.  Click image to order. 

The Nautilus was commissioned into the Navy that September and the following January entered service with its commander stating, “Underway on nuclear power.” As the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the Nautilus quickly broke all existing underwater speed and distance records.

Cambodia #1379-83 includes a stamp honoring the Nautilus.  Click image to order. 

In April 1958, the Nautilus began “Operation Sunshine,” aimed at becoming the first submerged ship to travel under the North Pole. On the first attempt, the sub was unable to find enough space between the bottom of the ice and the ocean floor. But the second try was successful.

US #1128 honors the 50th anniversary of Admiral Robert Peary’s voyage to the North Pole and the journey of the USS Nautilus under the polar ice.  Click image to order. 

On August 3, 1958, the Nautilus reached the pole. The crew encountered more difficulties – navigation became difficult once the submarine approached the 85-degree longitude mark (the North Pole is at 90 degrees). Magnetic compasses and other instruments became inaccurate. But with the use of specially designed equipment, they were able to complete the mission. To reward the success of the journey, the entire crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation – the first one presented during peacetime.

US #1128 – Plate Block First Day Cover.  Click image to order. 

The Nautilus was decommissioned in 1980 and designated a National Historic Landmark two years later. Today it lives on a submarine museum in Groton, Connecticut.

Click here to see a video of the Nautilus’ launch and here for photos and more about the sub.

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  1. It seems an adjustments is needed. “… but their dependence on diesel fuel limited the amount of time they could be under water.” doesn’t seem correct as the subs operated on battery power when underwater. Fuel on the surface was for charging batteries and headway. Fuel may have been the limiting factor for a deployment.

  2. Additional comment: Seems an actual photo of the sub should have been included even though it isn’t on a stamp. Also the hull classification and meaning along with number. It was the first SSN 571.

  3. Thanks Mystic. The museum in Groton is near where this sub as well as modern subs are built at Electric Boat. It is imperative that our nation continues to have a Navy that is well equipped and able to accomplish it’s mission. If we need a reminder of how important this is look at the three Ukrainian vessels that the Russian Navy seized illegally. And the Chinese are trying to claim an area that should remain international. Just two examples of many.

  4. An interesting fact – all the crew must designate if they want to or do not want to receive bad news while under the polar ice cap as communication back from the ship is a non-happening.

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