Brutus de Villeroi*
Brutus de Villeroi's submarine experiments began well before the start of the American Civil War. Born about September 1797, the first evidence we have of him comes from France in the summer of 1832, where the inventor demonstrated a small submarine vessel in the harbor of Nantes (see map, below). Report of this event made it into the pages of "L'Echo de la Fabrique" by the end of that year, and into the English-language "Mechanics Magazine and Journal of the Mechanics’ Institute" in May of the following year. Another report appeared in the October 1835 United Service Gazette Army and Navy Chronicle, citing experiments in Saint Quen, France. In 1836 de Villeroi demonstrated a submarine in Paris to two visiting officers of the Dutch Navy, who recorded what they had seen in a sketch of the "duikboot" ("diving boat") preserved in the Dutch National Library. It is unknown whether these various reports involve the same vessel or a series of boats.
De Villeroi's name next appears in 1842 as a professor of mathematics and drawing at the College of Saint-Donatien in Nantes, according to French author Guy Birard, where, he claims, Villeroi taught the young Jules Verne. But Verne did not attend Saint-Donatien, enrolling instead at Saint-Stanislas (1836-40), Petit Seminaire (1840-44), and the Lycee Royale (1844-46). Unfortunately, the unpublished archives of these three schools were ordered destroyed by the Catholic diocese in 1980 as part of routine "house cleaning," and their published records make no mention of Villeroi. For the 1840s, the "Etrennes Nantaises," the civil and business almanac of Nantes, is also silent as to Villeroi. So we cannot prove (or disprove) that teacher and student actually met; the most that can be said is that Jules Verne attended school in Nantes, where Villeroi had earlier demonstrated his submarine. (1) He may well have known of or witnessed one or more demonstrations of the "fish boat," but we simply do not know for certain.
We lose sight of de Villeroi until he emigrates to the United States in1856. The manifest of the Panama lists him as an Engineer, traveling with his wife Eulalie, and several relatives. The Federal census captures him again in 1860--in two different places. 1325 Pine Street in Philadelphia is his private residence, where he tells the census taker that his occupation is that of "natural genius." Brutus and Eulalie are also listed along with other members of the team of submariners at Edwin Chandler's Spread Eagle Tavern in Marcus Hook. Note that Eulalie and Minnie Morris are listed as "Assistant Engineers" along with the men.
The first evidence we have so far found of Villeroi's submarine experiments in the U.S. comes from an article printed in the Philadelphia Evening Journal. While a copy of the original edition has not been found, the piece was reprinted in the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel a month later, referencing a demonstration that took place on 25 August 1859. This report contains the best description thus far of the prototype vessel we refer to as "Alligator Junior." The Philadelphia Ledger also reported on this event, and its story appeared later in The Tribune in Hornellsville, NY--identical in some paragraphs to the report in the Daily Sentinel, but with some few significant differences. This Ledger / Tribune article also mentions two earlier Villeroi boats.
Villeroi kept up his experiments along the Delaware, where they were again written up in an October 1859 Dover, DE newspaper. The story sounds as if it has reported on Villeroi's experiments in the past, and that its readers are already familiar (and delighted) with his activities. Notice that the ability of multiple divers to exit and reenter his submarine is mentioned, as is some "wonderful new invention in science" that allowed the boat to stay submerged for over an hour--is it already equipped with the air scrubber? The reporter who filed the August article suspected as much. It is also interesting to note the use of bow planes and what sounds like a pedestal of iron upon which the boat rested on the bottom while the divers worked. This would not only have made the boat stable, but might have been intended to also allow the space needed for the divers to exit and enter through the chin hatch.
De Villeroi's story during the Civil War is best told through the letters he wrote relating to Alligator. At some time following his forced dissociation from that project, Brutus and Eulalie moved into a house at 921 Shippen Street in Philadelphia, where the census found him in 1870. He may have been teaching at the Institute for Colored Youth (now Cheyney University), where another inhabitant of 921 Shippen Street, Fannie Jackson, had just become the first female principal of that school the year before. This possibility is reinforced by de Villeroi's evident abolitionist activity during the war. While this is still being researched, what has turned up is an intriguing reference to a subscription drive he organized in 1863, entitled, "Subscription for the erection of a monument to the memory of the brave and unfortunate John Brown: who perished on the scaffold, for the emancipation of the colored race, on the sixteenth of December, 1859." His co-author is listed as Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Brutus passed away on 3 July 1874, as per his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer of that date.
*Brutus added the honorific "de" upon arriving in America. His birth certificate and all references to him in France use "Villeroi."
(1) Dr. Larrie D. Ferreiro, naval architect and historian
of Brutus Villeroi's Birth Certificate
Aujourd’hui, dix huit messidor, l’an second de la République Française unie et indivisible a été présenté devant moi, Pierre Léonard officier public français soussigné, un enfant mâle, par le citoyen français Charles Louis Villeroi, imprimeur, demeurant en cette commune, section de la Belle Fontaine lequel m’a déclaré que le dit enfant s’appelle Brutus Villeroi, né aujourd’hui à neuf heures du matin au domicile du déclarant, qu’il est son fils ainsi et celui de la citoyenne Anne Guillot, son épouse demeurant même domicile ce qui a été enregistré en présence du citoyen Norbert L., imprimeur, et de la citoyenne Adélaïde D. veuve de Joseph Deschamps, marchand, demeurant en cette commune tous les deux, section du Chardonnet témoins majeurs à ce requis lesquels ainsi que le déclarant ont signé avec moi.
18 Messidor de l’An II (6 juillet 1794)
on the 18th of Messidor, second year of the French Republic, united and
undividable, a male child was presented before me, undersigned public officer
Pierre Leonard, by French citizen Charles Louis Villeroi, printer, who lives in
this community, in the “Belle Fontaine” section, and who declared that the
so-called child’s name was Brutus Villeroi, born today at nine in the morning
at the house of the declaring person, that he was his son and the son of citizen
Anne Guillot, his wife who lives in the same house. All of which was recorded in
presence of citizen Norbert L., printer, and citizen Adélaïde D. widow
of Joseph Deschamps, merchant, both living in the same community, in the
“Chardonnet” section, legal witnesses to this request, who, as well as the
declaring person, have signed with me.
18 Messidor of Year II (6 July 1794)
Robin, our primary schoolteacher, would read pages of our History at the end of
the year in the lazy days that separate the Certificate of studies from the
he had a small house in Noirmoutier, he read us the forgotten history of this
fabulous man, Brutus Villeroi, the submarine pioneer.
page of our History is also a chapter of the history of the world.
August 10, 1832, on the island of Noirmoutier, in the place called La Claire,
occurred a notable event, reported by the academic societies of Vendee and Anjou
which overwhelmed their subscribers.
professor Brutus Villeroi was on the island as a substitute [teacher] for the
brothers of the Christian school. To attend his experiment he had invited marine
engineers, journalists from local and regional newspapers and strong colleagues
from his school.
military hats, frock coats, the beards of the scholars, and the white skirts of
ladies fluttered in a sandy glade at the edge of a forest of mimosas.
Villeroi arrives, transformed into a fisherman, hauling a strange device pushed
by two sailors on a handcart. He
greets the learned company and declares:
gentlemen, I have the honor to present you my fish-ship which was completely
conceived and constructed by me. This
boat is unsinkable and has the ability to sail under water."
gentlemen and ladies look at one-another, stunned.
They examined this oblong box which resembled a wooden dolphin, opened by
a lid to allow the pilot to enter and which had at both extremities lateral fins
comparable to those of a shark.
the front, a thick inner wall of transparent glass was inlaid in the shell to
allow the navigator to guide his device under the sea.
speaker continued his explanation:
would point out to you that this is in no way comparable to da Vinci’s diving
bell or to the diving suit drawn by the same inventor.
It is not linked up to the earth, and it can sail to a depth of thirty or
forty meters under water. I will
have the honor to do make this machine move in front of you . . .”
assistants pushed the cart to the beach, released the hawsers and the ropes that
connected it to the hitch, and the fish-ship settled onto the damp sand.
The pilot entered carefully, nimbly wedged himself on the seat, waved his
arms as a farewell, closed the lid and, vigorously pushed by the two sailors,
the fish-ship went under the waves of the Atlantic.
spectators watched, stunned. "There
must be some sorcery,” said a priest. “Or some deception.”-
some unknown propulsion motor in the interior,” said a scholar.
will drown himself," said a lady.
for twenty minutes they watched the sea carefully.
journalist from the Vendéen Album who was observing the horizon
with a pair of navy binoculars abruptly uttered a triumphant cry:
can see him, he has landed on the continent.
He is waving at us."
rushed on the binoculars. "It
is true, it is him . . ."
on the coast of Fromentine, the first conqueror of the crossing of the Gois
underwater waved his arms in a sign of victory.
A flotilla of fishing boats sailed to escort the fish-ship.
A quarter of an hour later he was emerging at the place called La Claire,
in front of an enthusiastic and delirious crowd.
Brutus Villeroi received the reception that Blériot had to have known on
the Dover cliffs.
life of Brutus Villeroi was marked by mysterious dives and spectacular
surfacing, as one would have been able to judge at the dawn of Twenty Thousand
Leagues under the seas. His
biographers will lose his trace for a first time for ten years, then for a
a second time for twenty years.
recall for a moment his first reappearance.
1842, a decade after his amazing demonstration at Noirmoutier, we rediscover
Brutus Villeroi as a professor of drawing and mathematics at the College of
Saint-Donatien, where the student Jules Verne had just registered.
The local history saluted this above-the-norm professor as a great
innovator. He enjoyed an
undisputable prestige among his students.
us dream a little. No testimony, no
manuscript allows us to shed light on the friendship between the professor and
the student. Nothing, other than an
article by a Mr. Gignoud. Outside of
this article, we are left only with logic. How
could the student Jules Verne, whom his friends described as keeping himself
busy by covering his notebooks with plans and models of
flying machines, have ignored his drawing professor? Could he, who
according to his fellow students, used to sketch the outline of a “steam
elephant bus” on the black-board—not have shared his visionary dreams with
Brutus Villeroi? Unthinkable.
look at them, the teacher and the student, within the walls of the old school
when they return in October, under the age-old sycamores as the fall wind strips
their crowns of leaves, and let’s imagine their dialog in the school yard
covered with browning leaves and the first burs of the big chestnuts.
With what eagerness did Jules Verne, the child, hear of the unbelievable
adventure of the dive under the ocean! With
what exquisite delight he collected the secrets from the explorer of the
Noirmoutrine abyss! Extraordinary,
would you say? Indeed.
Who saw them? Who heard them?
And that would have been pure aberration if thirty years after the school
yard and the playground the Nautilus did not arise.
this may be just pure luck— however, the repetitions of the circumstances
create firm certainties—the submarine in action which offered the greatest
analogy and presented the greatest number of similarities with the fantastic
Nautilus is precisely the submarine of the engineer Brutus Villeroi, who took
refuge in the United States and who was funded by the American Navy.
engineer kept his name, but rechristened his vehicle.
It is no more the fish, it is now the cigar-boat (built in New York in 1864).* To this day, no French submarine was ever christened with the name of Brutus Villeroi.
has the date and location off slightly: should be Philadelphia in 1862
Echo de la Fabrique
In Noirmoutier, we first witnessed the submarine, invented by Mr. Villeroi of Nantes. Mr. Villeroi gave to its machine through shape and propulsion the gift that nature gave to fish. The length is 3.20 meters with its largest diameter being 1.10 meters. Three men can operate it and stay comfortably in it for about an hour. The seas were rough; Mr. Villeroi entered the machine and pushed it to the horizon.
steam submarine first went at along the surface for about half an hour and then
dove in 15 to 18 feet of water, where it collected rocks and sea shells from the
seafloor. Then during that dive it went in different directions in order to
elude some of the crafts that had surrounded it at the beginning of the trial.
Mr. Villeroi then resurfaced at some distance and navigated on the surface in
different directions, and then after that navigating, which lasted five quarter
of an hour, he opened his panel, and showed him self to the public who welcomed
him with cheers. From that trial, it seems that he demonstrated that one can,
with that machine, wander at will in vast areas either at the bottom or in mid
waters with the same speed as would do any regular vessels.
can then go, with a measure of depth, calculated from its density/pressure, in
the middle of a harbor or a fleet, unknown of its enemy, burn its ships, by
settling under its hulls; exposing them to all kinds of wreckage, by cutting its
ties; one can also, with these means, extract salvage objects from the bottom,
collect coral, pearl oysters and divers shells. The inventor assures that he can
go at will down from 5 to 600 feet of depth; but then, considering the absence
of light, one would be reduce to collect the productions of these unknown
regions, by randomly manually picking them.
he was in depth of 15 to 20 feet, he clearly distinguished the time on the dial
of watch from one end to the other of the craft. Since this machine was made of
steel, he could not attempt all the magnetic experiments he wanted, another
copper machine would provide him that opportunity.
we were sailing at the surface,” he said, “we clearly heard the sound of the
waves, and we were illuminated by an oscillating light identical to their
undulations; they would even sometimes present us with a surprising effect,
similar to a kind of scintillation. When going down to 15 to 20 feet of depth,
the visibility gradually went down, and we only had half day light, momentarily
interrupted by the probable passage of fish or some marine vegetation.”
Magazine and Journal of the Mechanics’ Institute
Sub-marine Boat.—In the course of last autumn, M. Villeroi, of Nantes, made a successful experiment at sea, off the island of Noirmoutier, with a locomotive sub-marine boat of an entire novel construction. It is ten feet six inches in length, and three feet seven inches in diameter in its greatest width. The machinery by which it is impelled is said to be a mechanical application of the forms and means with which nature has endowed fish, and, in this instance, it is brought into play by the aid of steam. When the flux of the sea had attained its height, the inventor stepped into his boat, navigated for half an hour on the surface of the water, and then disappeared at a spot where the depth was between fifteen and eighteen feet, bringing up with him, on his re-appearance, a quantity of flints and a few shells. During his submersion he steered his boat in various directions, in order to deceive those who thought they were following in his track, and rose at some distance from any of them. He then shifted his course repeatedly whilst navigating the surface; and at the termination of an hour and a quarter’s practice, he threw off the cover which had protected and concealed him, and showed himself to the spectators amidst hearty cheers. It is obvious, from the success which attended this essay, that with the aid of M. Villeroi’s ingenious machine, an individual may traverse a considerable distance under water, with the same velocity as a common boat, and after calculating the depth to which he should plunge according to the density of the water, post himself under a ship’s side for a hostile or other purpose, cut their cables asunder without being liable to detection, or descend for the recovery of wrecked stores, &c. The inventor was accompanied by two assistants, neither of whom suffered any inconvenience during their hour’s submersion. The boat is constructed of iron.
United Service Gazette Army and
Navy Chronicle (1835-1842)
VESSEL-FISH – Experiments are being made at St. Quen with a novel species of submarine vessel, invented by Mr. Villeroi, which is of the shape of a fish, and worked by three men inside, without any communication with the external air. Admiral Sir Sidney Smith, who has now resided so long at Paris as to become, we presume, a naturalized Frenchman, has been appointed by Louis Phillippe one of a committee to examine this curious mechanism. Something similar was proposed some years since to effect the escape of Napoleon from St. Helena.
This three man sub was built by DeVilleroi in France and demonstrated to the Dutch in 1837. Looking for all the world like a species of waterborne insect, it was 10' 6" long by 27" high by 25" wide and displaced about six tons when submerged. It had eight deadlights on top to provide interior light, a top hatch with a retractable conning tower for surface navigation, three sets of duck foot paddles and a large rudder -- all operated from inside the tiny sub.
Two hatches allowed a man to put his arms through the side through a leather seal to work outside the sub, although it is not shown how he was able to see what he was doing. There was a small ballast system amidships that appears to use a lever and piston and a 50 lb anchor to allow the sub to hover a fixed distance off the bottom to work. This is the sub with which DeVilleroi experimented in Nantes, France that may have been viewed by Jules Verne who was a schoolboy living in the area at the time. Notice that this sub had a retractable conning tower, just as the one in "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea", the Nautilus.
These sketches were made in 1836 by two Dutch officers, Anton Lipkens and Olke Uhlenbeck, who went to France to study submarine construction. According to historian, Larrie D. Ferreiro, "The Netherlands had been under French rule until the end of the Napoleonic wars and many of its officers had been trained under the French engineering system, so there was already a close network of contacts between the two countries. They saw DeVilleroi's little three man submarine in Paris and even took a ride in it under the ice. They sketched its exterior and interior, making careful note of how the feathering paddles were set through the hull utilizing a watertight ball joint."
His success with this tiny sub may be the reason that DeVilleroi used paddles on Alligator - even though he had used a propeller on the Alligator Junior.
Brutus DeVilleroi and his wife Eulalie departed France on 5 July 1856 aboard the American ship Panama (James Hanson, master) through Bordeaux, traveling first class, arriving in New York in August, where they signed the ship's manifest.
At Newcastle (Del.) August 25th,some interesting experiments were made with a submarine salvage boat, invented by Mr. Villervi [sic]. The boat is made of boiler iron, and is perfectly round, and shaped like a fish. It is thirty-five feet long, forty-four inches in diameter, and propelled by a screw three feet in diameter. It ahs two rows of bull’s eyes on top for the purpose of giving light to the interior. On each side, near the bow or head, are placed pieces of iron about eighteen inches square, which are moved like the fins of a fish, and are intended to direct the boat up or down when under the water. The only place of ingress or egress in this singular boat, is through a trap on the top, and when her crew of twelve men enter, it is covered with a heavy iron cap and fastened on the inside, thus shutting out all communication from the outside, and preventing the admission of air. To sink the vessel, after everything has been prepared for a submarine voyage, water is pumped by a machine into large gutta-percha bags, within the boat, until a sufficient quantity has been obtained to sink her, and as soon as this takes place, the screw is set in motion, by means of straps worked by six men, and at the same time the inventor sits near the head, to give it direction by the fins before mentioned.
After the boat reaches the spot where it is intended to operate upon the bottom of the river, a trap-door is opened to the bottom of the boat, and the workmen get out, taking with them the means of obtaining a full supply of fresh air from the boat, which is kept stationary by means of a piece of iron in the shape of a cone, which is let down from the bottom. The mode of generating air to supply the boat is not made public, but it is believed to be by some chemical preparation. Eight men descended in the boat, which was submerged with the exception of a few feet at the bow, there not being sufficient weight forward to sink her. After remaining under water and hour and three-quarters, the experiment was abandoned in consequence of the supplying pump getting out of order and the occupants of the boat returned to terra-firma, looking as fresh as any of the spectators. The boat is intended for searching wrecks, &c., at the bottom of the ocean or rivers. --Philadelphia Evening Journal
following account of the trial of a newly invented submarine boat is from the
Philadelphia Ledger of a recent date:
afternoon, an intelligent experiment took place at New Castle, Del., with a
submarine salvage boat, invented by Mr. Villeroi, who descends to the bottom of
the river without any arrangement for receiving a supply of fresh air from
above, the boat being intended to supply itself with the quantity of air needed
while under water, enabling it to remain submerged for any length of time
required. As singular as this may seem, the experiment yesterday allowed that it
was perfectly practicable, for eight men went down in the boat and remained
there an hour and three quarters without any communication from above. The mode
of generating air to supply the boat is yet a secret, but it is believed to be
by some chemical arrangement. The boat is made of boiler iron, and is perfectly
round and shaped somewhat like a fish. It is 35 feet long, 44 inches in
diameter, and propelled by a screw 3 feet in diameter. It has two rows of
bull’s eyes on the top for the purpose of giving light to the interior. On
each side, near the bow or head, are placed pieces of iron 18 inches square,
which are moved like the fins of a fish, and are intended to direct the boat up
or down when under the water. The only place of ingress or egress in this
singular boat is through a trap on the top, and when her crew of 13 men enter,
it is covered with a heavy iron cap and fastened on the inside, thus shutting
out all communication from the outside, and preventing the admission of air. To
sink the vessel, after everything has been prepared for a submarine voyage,
water is pumped by a machine into large gutta-percha bags, within the boat,
until a sufficient quantity has been obtained to sink her, and as soon as this
takes place, the screw is set in motion, by means of straps worked by six men,
and at the same time the inventor sits near the head, to give it direction by
the fins before mentioned. After the boat reaches the spot where it is intended
to operate upon the bottom of the river, a trap-door is opened to the bottom of
the boat, and the workmen get out, taking with them the means of obtaining a
full supply of fresh air from the boat, which is kept stationary by means of a
piece of iron in the shape of a cone, which is let down from the bottom.
the experiment yesterday the boat was all submerged with the exception of a few
feet at the bow, there not being sufficient weight forward to sink her. All that
part in which the persons were entirely submerged, and of course the individuals
were cut off from a supply of air from above the water. At this point the
experiment was abandoned in consequence of the supplying pump getting out of
order. The occupants of the boat after being released from their confinement,
looked as cool as those who had been sitting on shore under the shade watching
inventor of this boat made an experiment in France in 1832 with a boat on the
same principle, 10 feet long, and, according to the report of the committee who
witnessed the operation, he was enabled to navigate his boat under water as well
as on the surface. At a later period, the same experiment was made with a boat
18 [19?] long, and with the same results. The advantages of being able to move
about under the water in this way are certainly very great, not only to enable
the occupants of the boat to find wrecks and treasures at the bottom, but to
operate against the vessels of an enemy entering our rivers. The invention
having not yet been patented, many of the details in the working of the boat are
kept a secret.
U.S. Census Records for Brutus
Lower Chichester Township,
Marcus Hook, Delaware Co., PA, 9 June 1860
Ward, District 13, Philadelphia, PA
the outbreak of the rebellion, in 1861, M. de Villeroi invented and perfected a
novel torpedo boat, a model of which was exhibited on the Rancocas Creek, and
for the ingenuity and originality of the invention the Secretary of the Navy,
Mr. Gideon J. Wells, rewarded him by appointment in the navy. The perfection of
Errikson's monitor rendered the torpedo for the time unavailable, and M. de
Villeroi was not handsomely treated by the authorities in
“He was an accomplished gentleman, and had the courtly manners of one who had mixed in the highest circles. For several years he has been in failing health, augmented by the proverbial ingratitude of the Republic.”
the registration of deaths in the City of Philadelphia, p. 194, July 1874 (SHP
XR 2895, 29) - A. Brutus DeVilleroi (81) married d. 6/29/1874, Ward 7, 318 South
15th Street, date of burial 7/2/1874 at Lafayette Cemetery. Internment Records,
1838-1890 #12087, book 462, page in Lot 709, age 81, LOT-range W, letter P,
number 37, grave 4. According to PHS
records, all those buried at Lafayette Cemetery (Wharton & Federal, between
9th and 10th Sts, Philadelphia were removed to Evergreen Memorial Park (now
called Rosedale Memorial Park), Bensalem Township, Bucks County – some time
after the last burial at Lafayette
in 1942. Philadelphia City Death Registrations, page 194. July 1874. (SHP XR
2895, 29) A. Brutus DeValleroi (81) married, engineer, born in
 Source: Dan Cashin.
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