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During World War II, most American submarines were powered by diesel-electric systems. This was a departure from earlier submarine power systems, which were direct drive types, little changed from the earliest boats. DIRECT DRIVE: In this direct-drive power system, the diesel engine is directly connected to the propeller shaft. Between the engine and the propeller shaft, there is a large, combination electric motor/generator. A clutch connects the engine to the motor/generator. A second clutch connects the motor/generator to the propeller shaft. When the engine is connected to the motor/generator, the m/g functions as a direct current generator. Its output is directed through the switchboard, with the switches on charge, and into the batteries, keeping them charged. Since there are likely to be times when it will be necessary to charge the batteries when the boat is tied up, or not moving, a second clutch connects the m/g to the propeller shaft. Throwing the switches to the battery position takes power from the batteries and directs it into the m/g, which now functions as a motor, driving the propeller shaft. Direct drive systems are somewhat limited, since the narrow hull of a submarine generally precludes more than two shafts. As a consequence, direct-drive subs were limited to one or two engines. This was fine with the relatively short-range designs of World War I and the inter-war period. German submarines retained this system throughout the war, at least in part because smaller submarines could be built in greater numbers, and the relatively narrow Atlantic didn't require extremely long range. One virtually universal design feature of direct-drive boats was that they had no reversing gear. When it was necessary to go astern, the electric motors were used. DIESEL-ELECTRIC DRIVE: When the United States started to build the long-range fleet submarines, it was decided that more power was needed. Since the boats were considerably larger—a Gato Class boat was about the same length as a World War I destroyer—four engines were used instead of the previous two. As there were still only two shafts, this presented an obvious problem with transmitting power from the second pair of engines.
the diesels were directly coupled to a large direct current generator. which had two pistons in each cylinder." "GM-Cleveland"— because they were built at General Motors' Cleveland Engine Plant—or just "GM"). in which a solid piston moves up and down inside a double-ended cylinder.O. There were a few comments that M. The Gato Class boats had four electric motors.A. illustrated by their tendency to read H. the motors drew their power from the batteries. One of these engines. In the latter case. or a combination of the two. used an opposed piston design. engines were a double-acting design.A. Ultimately they were removed from all American boats and replaced with more reliable engines. The two reliable designs were a 40° V-16 diesel built by Winton Motors Company (later bought out by General Motors. diesel. and others drove the shaft directly off the motor. Double acting designs were common for reciprocating steam engines. This power could then be used for charging the batteries. Since there were four engines and generators. An example of the Fairbanks-Morse engines may be seen in the motion picture Down Periscope.O. by the way. The illustration shows a boat with a high speed motor. (There actually was a Stingray. charging the batteries. as they were also well suited for locomotive .The solution was to use full-time electric drive for the propeller shafts. as a word and not as initials. had provided deliberately faulty design specifications and drawings. obviously.S. perhaps. the Hooven-Owens-Rentschler (H. The Fairbanks-Morse engines. Adapting a system originally developed for trains. though—particularly when failure may mean the deaths of an entire submarine crew—so the engines were scrapped. This design effectively doubles the number of cylinders while keeping the engine relatively compact. and commonly referred to as the "GM-Winton.). Wartime is rarely a good time to experiment. and two crankshafts.N. and a nine or ten cylinder (18 or 20 piston) opposed-piston design built by Fairbanks-Morse.) Most people are familiar with the one piston per cylinder design of the majority of engines. Pampanito stood in for the fictional U. Some boats used this system.N. Stingray. of course. a Salmon Class boat launched in 1938.O. Both of these engines continued in production even after they were no longer needed for submarines.R. When submerged. ENGINES: Fleet submarines were powered by one of three engine types at the beginning of the war. their dished tops forming the combustion chamber.S. coupled to the shaft with a reduction gear. two per shaft. the motors were designed to run slower. however. the Germans had only slightly better luck with the same engine design. Something of how the crews felt about them is.S. which was a license built version of a German M. The upper and lower pistons come together at the midpoint in the vertical cylinder. The H.R.R. or powering the motors. it was possible to use the full power output for the motors. but when it came to diesels it was one of those ideas that sounded a lot better than it worked.S. In fact. proved to be completely unreliable. where the Balao Class boat U.
use. they produce hydrogen gas. under the officers' staterooms. the "engine-room" telegraphs are located here. or about 208 tons between the two batteries. The cells are all connected to a vent system designed to safely draw off the hydrogen and discharge it through the main exhaust. Westinghouse controls were used with their own motors and generators. These cells weigh about 1650 pounds. where the battery is contained in a well-ventilated space. ELECTRIC MOTORS: Gato Class fleet submarines were powered by four direct-current electric motors. and 24 inches wide. who came already skilled in maintaining these big diesels. isolating them from the air supply in the rest of the boat. a battery is the entire collection of cells wired together in the battery compartment). Each of these contained 126 cells. of course. By moving the big switches on the main panel. Two motors were attached to each shaft. the main control unit consists of a number of levers. Westinghouse. The railroads also provided a source of employment for many former submarine enginemen. . an automobile starter motor runs on 12 volts at a maximum draw of around 45 amps. The CutlerHammer controls were generally linked with Allis-Chalmers motors and generators. when submerged—and the electrically-driven screws are controlled from this station. and is particularly important if salt water gets into the battery compartment. one forward. power is directed where needed. Motors and generators were provided by General Electric. and another aft. since it can combine with the electrolyte to produce chlorine gas. The presence of a GE switchboard usually meant the boat would also have GE motors and generators. and Elliot. When batteries are charged. or with the Elliott motors and generators. Since the engines run at a constant speed when the boat is surfaced—and not at all. along with Cutler-Hammer.) MAIN CONTROLS: Located at the aft end of the maneuvering room. but can present a problem in the sealed hull of a submarine. and switches. GE and Westinghouse also built the main control units (switchboards). pulling 2600 amps at 415 volts. This is hardly noticeable in a car. Allis-Chalmers. This is a safety feature. 15 inches deep. (By way of comparison. Some indication of the amount of power consumed by these motors was the necessity to include water cooling systems to keep the operating temperatures within safe limits. under the largest crew berthing area. A means is also provided to seal off the battery compartments. with each cell being about 54 inches high. The high speed type motors (used with a reduction gear) were rated at 1370 horsepower and ran at 1300 rpm. BATTERIES: Gato Class submarines had two main batteries (in a submarine. indicator dials.
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