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An American, Simon Lake, made public his ideas for the utilization of a , submarine for Arctic exploration in the New York Journal in Early 1898.

Lake immediately followed this announcement with the preparation of designs for a submarine capable of navigation, exploration and scientific study in ice-covered waters. Certain features of Lake’ a basic design were apparently prompted by the need to overcome many of the problems which had been encountered by the famous Norwegian explorer, Frid tj of Nansen. These had been brought to Lake’s attention by Alfred Riedel, one of Nansen’s closest associates. Simon Lake’s subsequent design for an under-ice submarine which he presented before the faculty of John Hopkins University in 1889, possessed the following major characteristics:

  1. A large storage battery which would enable the submarine to travel submerged some 150 miles between charges.
  2. The capability to break through thin ice or to bore through thick ice in order to obtain access to air for running the engines in order to recharge the batteries.
  3. A telescopic conning tower capable of cutting its way through up to 14 feet of ice enroute to the surface in order to permit crew access to the surface while the submarine remained submerged beneath the ice.
  4. The ability to use small mines to blow holes through the ice of sufficient size for the submarine to surface within them.
  5. The use of guide wheels or “runners” on top of the hull, which would enable the submarine to slide or wheel along the underside of the ice pack.

Lake applied for and received u.s. Patent 638 342 for these designs. In 1902, he constructed the “Protector” which be especially fitted out for under-ice operations (i.e., with an inverted toboggan built over its conning tower). During the winter of 1903, Protector successfully navigated under an 8-inch thick ice field in Narragansett Bay and became, on January 20, 1904, the first submarine in history to surface through ice.

Simon Lake then generated interest in the Russian Admiralty for the idea of under-ice navigation. Be suggested to them that it would be easier and safer to send “large submarines across the Arctic and off the north coast of Russia and Siberia” than by conventional routes to the Pacific. In 1905-06, Lake submitted his plans for a submarine especially suited for under-ice navigation to the Admiralty. The Russian Navy subsequently not only purchased the “Protector”, but also six more Lake-designed submarines of the later class. Several of these, such as the “ICefal” and “Kalman” were successfully operated in ice-covered water~ off Vladivostok and the Gulf of Finland in the years illliDediately preceding World War I.

It was not until 1928, when Sir Hubert Wilkins returned from his successful flight across the Arctic, however, that serious attention was given to the “Arctic Submarine”. Inspired by discussions held with Stefansson during a 1913-1916 Arctic expedition, and apparently following a program outlined by the Royal Metorological Society in 1919, Wilkins was convinced it was the time to attempt to reach the North Pole and to explore the depths of the polar sea by submarine.

In 1930 be announced his plan to methodically and leisurely use a submarine for polar exploration and he began extensive preparations for what was to subsequently become the world’s first submarine expedition to the Arctic Ocean. This voyage was no’t only for exploration, but also for scientific and commercial purposes. Amazingly, it remains to date the only Arctic subaarine expedition conducted with commercial intent.

Two of the main objectives of Wilkins’ expedition are of particular interest in this regard:

  • To demonstrate dramatically the fact that submersibles may be used for opening up and development of the Hudson Bay district and other northern areas;
  • To demonstrate that submersibles aay be used to transport at cheaper rates North American products — through the Hudson Bay route or across the Arctic — to Europe, and eo benefit primary producers and industrialists.

Simon Lake was particularly interested in seeing such a voyage made, as he believed that the trip would jolt the public into realizing that the submarine’s place in the scientific and commercial field would be as important as in the military field. He foresaw that it would “open up to civilization a vast Arctic territory which only needs proper transportation facilities to make it one of the most productive of the Earth’s surface.” He predicted that “if it were successful, in a few years thereafter, regular cargo-carrying submarines of large size would be taking the shorter Arctic: route during five or six months of the year.”

Thanks to the courtesy of the U.S. Navy Department and the u.s. Shipping Board, the submarine 0-12 was placed at his disposal and the constructor of the vessel, Simon Lake, undertook to rebuild it and make it suitable for traveling underneath the Arctic: pack ice. His plans included a number of controversial aodifications for the 0-12: a “sled runner” that permitted the submarine to glide along the underside of the ice, an “ic:e drill” to cut through 13 feet, of ice, and an airtight chamber with a bottom hatch through which scientific instruments and collectors could be raised and lowered. Joining Wilkins in his venture to cross the Arctic Ocean from Atlantic to Pacific via the North Pole were Sloan Danenhower as prospective commanding officer, a former U.S. submarine officer, and Professor Harald Sverdrup as chief of the scientific staff.

Upon completion of the rebuilding, in the spring of 1931, the 0-12 was christened the “Nautilus”. “Nautilus” was 175 feet long, displaced 550 tons submerged, and was estimated to have the capacity to cruise 125 nautical miles, completely submerged for up to three days. Wilkins basic plan called for cruising submerged for 16 out of every 24 hours, and then breaking or boring through ice to recharge batteries, and for navigation and scientific observations.

Wilkins’ expedition scientific plan, as prepared by Sverdrup, placed its main emphasis on meteorological and physical oceanography observations, as they were convinced the greatest impact of the polar regions on the peoples of the world was its effect on climate. Their scientific equipment included a diving chamber with hydrographic winch in the foremost compartment of the submarine. It was from there that deep sea oceanographic observations were to be taken • Sverdrup, in particular, felt that determination of the bottom topography of the polar basin -through the use of their new sonic depth sounder – would be indispensable to the study of world ocean currents. He also felt that the data would be essential for understanding changes and the solution of many problems of (world) economic importance.

Although Wilkins’ expedition was well planned, it did not meet its goals. It did, however, prove that an extensive scientific program could be carried out under the conditions on board a submarine. Certainly Sverdrup made a considerable amount of observations concerning the physical oceanography of the region north of Spitzbergen. Unfortunately, the submarine was old and inadequate. A series of severe material failures in combination with probable sabotage and damage which occurred in a dive under ice, added to a quite late start for the ice pack (i.e., 18 August) meant that Wilkins bad to turn back after only three weeks.

Nonetheless, public interest in Arctic submarines was aroused; and at least for a while future support was promised. Wilkins, in fact, submitted to contractors in 1934 plans for a brand new submarine, especially built for operating in polar regions. He hoped–but in vain–that such a submarine could be built during the following year. In conclusion, it can be said that the concepts, techniques, and data which were developed and collected as a result of this pioneer expedition did much to ensure that submarines would one day be capable of operating and collecting valuable scientific data through the polar basin.

Excerpted from The Arctic Submarine: Its Evolution and  Scientific and Commercial Potential, by Captain Alfred s. McLaren, USN (Ret.)

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