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Aluminaut was built in 1964 and was the world's first aluminum submarine. The 80-ton, 15.5 meter manned deep-ocean research submersible was built by Reynolds Metals Company, which was seeking to advertise the utility of aluminum. An experimental vessel, the Aluminaut was based in Miami, Florida, and was operated from 1964 to 1970 by Reynolds Marine Services, doing contract work for the U.S. Navy and other organizations, including marine biologist Jacques Cousteau.
Aluminaut is best known for helping recover a lost unarmed U.S. atomic bomb in 1966 and recovering its smaller fellow Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV), Alvin (DSV-2) in 1969, after Alvin had been lost and sank in the Atlantic Ocean the previous year. After retirement, Aluminaut was donated to the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, where it is on permanent display.
The concept of an aluminum submarine was developed at Reynolds during World War II in 1942 by Executive VP Julian "Louis" Reynolds, a son of the founder. At 34, Louis Reynolds was in charge of the foil division, which accounted for 65% of the company's sales before the war. Reynolds Metals played an active role in the U.S. war effort, however it was 20 years before the aluminum submarine was built.
In 1964, Reynolds had the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut build the world's first aluminum submarine. The submersible was operated by subsidiary Reynolds Marine Services based in Miami, Florida. Compared to many deep sea vessels, Aluminaut was large. It weighed 80 tons and could accommodate a crew of 3 and 3-4 scientists. It had four view ports, active and passive sonar, manipulators, side scan sonar, and could hold 6,000 pounds (2,700 kg) of payload.
Reynolds had the Aluminaut designed and built as an experiment. For flexibility, it was outfitted for many types of oceanographic and salvage missions. Time Magazine reported in September 1964 on the unique specifications, reporting that the vessel's 51-foot (16 m) hull consists of eleven forged cylinders. Since aluminum's strength-to-weight ratio exceeds that of steel, the Aluminaut's 6.5 inches (170 mm) thick shell will withstand pressures of 7,500 lbf/in² (52 MPa) at the sub's 17,000 ft (5,200 m) maximum diving range.
The Aluminaut was designed at Woods Hole Marine Station in Massachusetts and first tested in 1956. A full-scale wooden mock-up was built to engineer the interior spaces. The project was classified as top secret at that time. At that time it did not have a conning tower entry and it immediately flooded and sank. The tower entry was designed and added and in the first test turned the submarine upside down. It was thought at that time that the design was impractical and was almost scrapped (Dr. David Guy Harden, personal observation).
A one-sixteenth scale model of the final design was built in 1960 and run through stability and pressure tests.
Before long the Aluminaut became useful during an incident which could have had major implications. On 17 January 1966, a 1.45-megaton-of-TNT [Teller–Ulam design] thermonuclear bomb was lost in the Mediterranean Sea during a United States Air Force 1966 Palomares B-52 crash over Palomares, Spain.
Eight crew members were killed in the mid-air crash of a B-52 bomber and a KC-135 refueling plane. The crash dropped three thermonuclear bombs on the land, and one in the sea. Although the others were quickly located, the bomb which had fallen into the ocean could not be located promptly.
The U.S. Navy responded to the coast off Spain with an 18-ship, 2,200-man recovery task force under Admiral William S. "Wild Bill" Guest. In addition to military ships, the civilian-crewed Aluminaut and its fellow Deep Sea Submersible (DSV), Alvin (DSV-2), were both used to respond to this urgent situation as part of the task force, with other specialized equipment on-hand as well. Once on scene, Aluminaut and Alvin were put to work to searching the ocean depths to locate and recover the submerged bomb. For eighty days the search went on, straining the U.S. relationship with Spain, and giving Soviet propagandists what Time magazine described as "a rich fallout of anti-American gibes".
The bomb was found by Alvin resting nearly 910 meters (3000 ft) deep, and was raised intact on 7 April 1966. Admiral Guest allowed it to be photographed by the news media, allowing the world at large its first peek at a thermonuclear bomb as it sat secured on the fantail of the 2,100-long-ton (2,100 t) submarine rescue ship USS Petrel.
Although both were put into service in 1964, the smaller Alvin was to have a much longer life, and 35 years later, was still doing important work. Yet Aluminaut proved vital to Alvin in 1969.
In October 1968, the Alvin was being transported aboard the NOAA tender ship Lulu. The Lulu was a vessel created from a pair of decommissioned US Navy pontoon boats with a support structure. While Alvin was being lowered over the side of Lulu, two steel cables snapped with three crew members aboard and the hatch open. Situated between the pontoons with no deck underneath, the Alvin hit the water and rapidly started to sink. The three crew members managed to escape, but the sub sank in 1500 meters (5000 ft) of water.
In September 1969 the Aluminaut was used to secure lines and a net to the Alvin, which was located, intact, almost a mile beneath the surface. Alvin was then hauled to the surface by USS Mizar. Lunches left aboard Alvin were found to be soggy but edible. This incident led to a more comprehensive understanding that near-freezing temperatures and the lack of decaying oxygen at depth aided preservation. The Alvin required a major overhaul after the incident.
Aluminaut did other work for the U.S. Navy, recovering a 2,100-pound (950 kg) current array torpedo at the Navy's acoustic testing facility in the Bahamas. She helped make movies for Jacques Cousteau and Ivan Tors Studios. Depths up to 6,000 feet (1,800 m) were reached while surveying for the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office.
The Aluminaut was retired in 1970. Subsequently, she was donated by Reynolds Metals Company to the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia. There the world's first aluminum submarine is on permanent static display.