William Bourne (mathematician)

William Bourne (mathematician)

William Bourne (c. 1535–1582) was an English mathematician, innkeeper and former Royal Navy gunner who invented the first navigable submarine and wrote important navigational manuals. He is often called William Bourne of Gravesend.

In 1574, he produced a popular version of the Martín Cortés de Albacar's Arte de Navegar, entitled A Regiment for the Sea. Bourne was critical of some aspects of the original and produced a manual of more practical use to the seaman. He described how to make observations of the sun and stars, using a cross-staff, and how to plot coastal features from the ship by taking bearings using triangulation.[1]


Submarine design

Submarine by William Bourne, in Inventions or devices, 1578.

His design, detailed in his book Inventions and Devises published in 1578, was one of the first recorded plan for an underwater navigation vehicle. He designed an enclosed craft capable of submerging by decreasing the overall volume (rather than flooding chambers as in modern submarines), and being rowed underwater. Bourne described a ship with a wooden frame covered in waterproofed leather, but the description was a general principle rather than a detailed plan. However, Bourne's concept of an underwater rowing boat was put into action by the Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel in 1620, and Nathaniel Symons demonstrated a 'sinking boat' in 1729 using the expanding and contracting volume of the boat to submerge.

The submarine was the subject of a modern-day recreation on season 3 of "The Re-Inventors" TV show, episode "Bourne Submarine". The recreation had limited functionality before it sank when water pressure ruptured some membranes on a test descent.[2]

Partial list of publications

  • An Almanac and Prognostication for Three Years, 1571
  • William Bourns booke of artillery, 1572 (draft manuscript)
  • Treasure for Travellers, 1572/3
  • Art of Shooting in Great Ordnance, 1572/3
  • A Regiment for the Sea, 1574 (11 English editions from 1574 to 1631, at least 3 Dutch editions starting in 1594)
  • A Booke called the Treasure for Traueilers, 1578 (republished in 1641 as A Mate for Mariners)
  • Inventions or Devices. Very Necessary for all Generalles and Captaines, as wel by Sea as by Land, 1578
  • The Arte of Shooting in Great Ordinance, 1578, 1587, 1643
  • "On Optical Glasses," transcribed manuscript published in Halliwell's Rara Mathematica.


  1. ^ G. L'E. Turner, ‘Bourne, William (c.1535–1582)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. The first edition of this text is available as an article on Wikisource:  "Bourne, William". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. 
  2. ^ History Television (Canada), episode "Bourne Submarine", show "The Re-Inventors", season 3

External links