Do you realize that's unsafe?

Perhaps we need a reality show “Bold Visionary or Reckless Moron?” Or perhaps not, since we have history.

I was prompted to this sage and witty armchair philosophizing by the thought that on October 15 1863 the first submarine to sink a ship, the Confederate vessel H.L. Hunley, did… what? What do you suppose the first submarine, a hand-cranked experimental iron sort-of-floating tomb, did?

If you say “it sank” congratulations. You get a B. If you say “it sank, killing its inventor” you get an A-. And if you say “it sank again, killing its inventor H.L. Hunley” you get an A+.

After scuppering one prototype to avoid its capture by Union forces, the inventors produced a second that sank in Mobile Bay in February 1863. So they built the Hunley, which actually sank a coal barge before some dimwit stepped on the dive lever with the hatches open on August 29, 1863, drowning five of eight on board not including himself. Then on October 15 Hunley took her down in the intended manner to demonstrate a simulated attack and… and… do you see anything? No, I don’t. Shouldn’t she be back up by now? Is that a ripple? A swimmer? Nope. Um… maybe we better send down some divers.

Sure enough, the Confederates salvaged Hunley, and in place of the original plan to dive under an enemy ship towing a “mine” on a rope, they stuck a ram with a bomb on the end on her. And by golly, on February 17, 1864, Hunley rammed, exploded and deep-sixed the steam-powered 12-gun sloop Housatonic. And sank with all hands again.

It’s not quite clear why. It may have been a malfunctioning charge on the ram, she may have been run down by a Union vessel, the crew may have asphyxiated. There are so many possibilities. And that’s really my point.

On the one hand, to get into the Hunley even to test it was manifestly an act of insanity. On the other, if it weren’t for that brand of insanity we wouldn’t have submarines, blimps, airplanes and a lot of other things we don’t have because for every genius vindicated during his life or shortly after he perished in his invention, there are 50 guys who remain cranks, some with a Darwin Award asterisk beside their crankery.

So, Bold Visionary or Reckless Moron? Or could it just be that a lot of these guys were both? It sure looks that way from my armchair.