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24 September 1888: the fabulous odyssey of the Gymnote

This week, we tell you the story of the first operational electrically-powered missile-launching submarine, launched on this date. A major world first for which France can claim credit – jointly with Spain which launched a comparable vessel at the same time.



Behind the Gymnote was a man, Admiral Théophile Aube, leader of the “Young School”. This iconic current of French naval thinking at the end of the 19th century was based on a break with the conventional idea of the time, which was to build bigger and bigger battleships, preference being given to smaller and more numerous vessels equipped with torpedoes.

To design this revolutionary electrically-powered submarine, he turned to two talented engineers, Henri Dupuy de Lôme, also the creator of the world’s first steam liner, the Napoléon, launched in 1850, and Gustave Zédé. The two friends got to work and, to achieve their goals, surrounded themselves with other major personalities, led by Arthur Krebs. Although the name probably means little to you, this pioneer of aviation had been famous in the France of the time since 1884, when an electric motor invented by him was fitted in the airship La France with which he made the world’s first closed circuit flight with a motor-powered aircraft. He was the man who designed the whole electrical and mechanical part of the aircraft, equipped it with an electric gyroscope and, based in Paris, directed its construction in Toulon where his representative, Gaston Romazzotti, was an engineer married to a niece of Gustave Zédé. Other talented individuals associated with the project, Louis-Hippolyte Violette and René Daveluy, designed the very first operational periscope at this time.

All of these were avowedly modern technical experts, this modernity being echoed in the very name of the submarine, which designates an electric eel. 



Although it was officially launched on the 24th of September 1888, the Gymnote had to wait until the 17th of November to make its first sortie with Gustave Zédé and Gaston Romazzoti on board. 17 meters long and operated by a five-man crew, it was driven via a propeller by a 52 HP electric motor which enabled it to reach 8 knots, or almost 15 km/h, at the surface, and half that speed underwater. Among the officers who took part in these tests was Louis Jaurès, younger brother of the famous political leader and orator Jean Jaurès.

Two years later, in 1890, the Gymnote successfully broke a blockade for the first time by diving under the keel of a battleship without being seen.

Unfortunately, its career was to be short-lived. After suffering various incidents, on the 19th of June 1907 it was left with its panels wide open in a dry dock in Toulon whose gates were opened by accident. The damage caused by the sea water requiring repair work which would have cost more than it was worth, it was finally scrapped in 1911.


- 20 September (1951): animals, a monkey and a mouse, return alive for the first time from a journey in space
- 21 September (1574): Bernard Palissy, the father of ceramics, is received in the Louvre by Catherine de Médicis 
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- 22 September (1928): first automatic telephone exchange in France
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