Geek Trivia: Glimpsing the sub(marine)text

After what real-life vessel did Jules Verne name his famous fictional Nautilus?

On Aug. 3, 1958, the submarine U.S.S. Nautilus completed the primary objective of Operation Sunshine, becoming the first submarine to reach the geographic North Pole. But what allowed the Nautilus to complete this historic feat was its other -- perhaps more famous -- contribution to naval lore: It was the first nuclear-powered submarine ever built.

Famous though it is, this particular U.S.S. Nautilus (SSN-571) was not the most notorious vessel known by that name -- and certainly not the first.

Indeed, SSN-571 was the sixth American military vessel named Nautilus and the fourth submarine, though 571 was the first to head its own class of sub. So, while SSN-571 does share a name with the famous fictional Nautilus from Jules Verne's classic novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, it might be a bit of a stretch to say that the former's namesake was exclusively in honor of the latter.

"But wait," you say, "SSN-571 was named after the Verne vessel, as both were nuclear-powered. The Navy ship made Verne's prediction a reality."

Well, I'm going to chalk this misconception up to Disney, because it was Uncle Walt's otherwise excellent 1954 film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that perhaps most famously suggested that the Verne-conceived Nautilus tapped some mysterious fundamental power source, which we now call nuclear power. Alas, if only Verne's text matched the convenience of this assumption.

Verne clearly wrote that his Nautilus' power came from sodium/mercury batteries, the salts for which Captain Nemo distilled from seawater using conventional coal-heated furnaces. Verne's Nautilus was revolutionarily electric, rather than steam-powered, but nuclear -- even in its vaguest hints -- never really entered the equation.

The Disney Leagues film debuted the same year as SSN-571's commission, so press-inspired connections between the two were likely inevitable. However, the conventional wisdom about which vessel took its namesake from which is actually a little backward.

The nuclear Nautilus is just the latest in a long, proud tradition of true-life vessels of that name, one of which actually inspired Verne to name his fictional submarine in its honor.


Get the answer.

By Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...