In the years that followed the American Civil War, numerous inventors attempted to “modernize” what has now come to be known as the submarine. One such man was a red-bearded designer named Simon Lake. Born in 1867, he would live to see the tremendous success or underwater craft as both potent weapons of war and leisure vehicles before he died at the age of 78.
In reflection, Lake wrote: “I spent many happy hours . . . . cruising along the bottom of Chesapeake Bay with the watergate open, so that I might see what was going on at the bottom. Sometimes I speared fish through the open door, and often raked up oysters for our evening dinner, or set out trot-lines when the fishing promised to be good. If there were no fish to be seen, there were no fish to be caught, and the ARGONAUT moved on. At night the lights in the living compartment attracted fish by the schools when we were submerged.”
Lake had first become fascinated with the concept of underwater exploration at the age of 11, when he chanced to read Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. He read and reread the text, which spoke of Captain Nemo and his amazing submersible, the NAUTILUS. In fact, he soon understood the details of the NAUTILUS so well that he began to visualize improvements on its design.
In 1881, when Lake was 1~ years old, his family moved to the Toms River area of New Jersey. As the weeks rolled by, young Simon found himself spending more and more time drawing rough sketches of an underwater vessel. And, since he had from the beginning, cherished the concept of a diving compartment in which divers could leave and reenter the craft, he was determined to design such a system. To this end, he spent long hours in the local library, studying the idea of air locks in diving caissons. He became convinced that a similar principle could work in a submarine.
Choosing to become a full-time inventor, Lake quit school just prior to his seventeenth birthday. Two years later, he was credited with the design and patent of a unique steering gear for use in high-wheeled bicycles. Although he constructed a variety of other ingenious devices, including an improved winding gear for oyster fishermen and a capping machine for a local cannery, he opted to devote most of his attention to designing and building a diving boat.
In June 1892, Lake heard that the u.s. Navy was trying to locate the best qualified inventor to construct a prototype underwater craft. Gathering up his extensive drawings, he traveled to Washington, D.C. There, he was escorted into the outer office of the Secretary of the Navy to await his turn. He was relieved to discover that only two others had come to submit plans: George Baker of Chicago, and John P. Holland, who had aiready constructed a working model known as the FENIAN RAM.
Lake had come equipped with an impressive argument as to the superiority of his vessel, which was based around the sound concept of ballasting with water. Basically, the principle called for a submarine to be built with huge tanks, housed just outside or its inner hull. In order for the submarine to submerge, water would be admitted into these tanks, and when the craft reached a desired depth, machinery within would close orr its “holes,” thus equalizing the pressure. The water could be expelled by air pressure when the operator wanted to return to the surface.
After explaining his ideas in detail, Lake was informed that the Naval Department would be in touch. Sometime later, the hopeful inventor was disheartened to learn that Holland had been granted the contract. Undaunted, he decided to build his submersible without support from the U.S. government.
To secure funding for the project, he traveled to New York City, where he hoped to get the attention and support or investors. The journey turned out to be a depressing failure, however, as his ideas were savagely criticized.
Deciding to place his dream for a full-scale model on hold, he drew up a second set of plans for a much smaller craft, the ARGONAUT JUNIOR. It had the advantage of being much lower cost, yet it would still possess all of the features that had become so important to Lake.
His aunt and uncle agreed to back this project, and with the help of his cousin, Bart Champion, he went to work. The craft was completed by the end of 1894, less than one year from the time that construction was initiated.
The JUNIOR was wedge-shaped, approximately 14 feet in length and measured Sandwiched between the inner and outer shells, constructed of yellow pine, was a flat-sided, waterproof hull made of canvas and pitch. The conning tower was nothing more than a wooden box with glass portholes installed fore and aft. The submarine also housed a pair of 6-inch high glass portholes at the bow, with two others situated halfway down the hull on the port and starboard sides.
One of the strangest features of Lake’s creation was its wheels. Two were mounted on a front axle, with a smaller wheel supporting the stern. These were used to move the craft to and from the water’s edge, as well as to drive the vessel along the sea bottom once she was submerged.
Lake also installed his one-of-a-kind airlock system. It was set up as a second compartment, and it was pressurized by air from a compression tank taken from a defunct soda fountain. A plumber’s hand pump was used to compress the air to as much as 100 pounds per square inch.
The JUNIOR’s main power source was a manually controlled propeller crank, pushed by the operator’s feet, with the front wheels connected to a bicycle chain.
With the assistance of cousin Bart, the ARGONAUT JUNIOR was pushed to the Shrewsbury River, where she was formally launched. They climbed aboard and cranked along the surface until they reached an old fishing hole approximately 16 feet deep. Lake closed and secured the hatch cover against its protective rubber gasket, and then instructed Bart to open the valve that would allow water to enter the ballast chamber. As his cousin dutifully obeyed, the JUNIOR sank smoothly out of sight. Once below, however, the pair discovered water gushing in through a tiny bolt hole, which Lake had forgotten to plug. Quickly, the inventor grabbed a small chunk of wood lying on the bottom or the boat and jammed it into the leak, solving the problem.
The maiden voyage of the ARGONAUT JUNIOR turned out to be a complete success. There was just enough ballast to allow the craft to hover gently on the murky bottom. And whenever the pedals were cranked, the sub crawled delicately along the seaweed floor.
During the following weeks, the pair explored the undersea world. Occasionally, they would pick up oysters or spear fishes through the open hatchway of the vessel’s air-lock system. After only a brief period or success with the tiny submersible, Lake once again began to dream or constructing a fUll-scale model.
To accomplish this, the inventor formed the Lake Submarine Company and offered stock to people who were willing to invest modestly in the venture. Fortunately, he managed to sell shares to a local yard owner, who agreed to put Lake’s plans into three-dimensional reality in exchange for installment payments throughout the duration of the building process.
The ARGONAUT was finally launched in August, 1897. She was shaped like an iron blimp, 36 feet, 9 inches long, and was topped off by a conning tower with four circular portholes. For seabottom movement, pedals controlled a pair of large cast-iron wheels, with a third, smaller pivoted disk, near the stern, to turn the ARGONAUT. Furthermore, the inventor had installed a gasoline engine for surface mobility to complement manual power submerged. Two hollow tubes were designed to stick out of the water whenever the craft hovered just below the surface, allowing for both engine exhaust and clean-air intake. When asked how his contraption would deal with any sudden underwater drop-offs, Lake explained that the vessel possessed enough negative buoyancy to float slowly downward to a deeper plateau.
Along with a pair of volunteers, Lake took the craft out into the waters of Baltimore Harbor to conduct a dive. After approximately two hours submerged, however, the trio developed terrible headaches forcing a surfacing. When the hatch was thrust open, one of Lake’s companions passed out with the sudden surge of fresh air, while the other two men became violently nauseated. When the next day’s run produced the same mysterious ill-effects, Lake investigated the engine compartment and discovered that it had been leaking deadly carbon-monoxide fumes into the enclosed cabin. The problem was resolved by the construction of an intermediate tank to trap the escaping fumes.
Despite the apparent success of Lake’s machine, the Navy Department was not impressed. Lake wrote: “I do not know and I never will know why some men seem to be so obstinately antagonistic to anything which is new.”
Through the craft’s portholes, Lake managed to take some excellent photographs of numerous underwater creatures, which were later published in McClure’s Magazine.
Lake was still unable to sell submarines. Failing to interest the U.S. Navy or scientific organizations, he struck upon a brilliant idea: he invited 28 socially prominent Bridgeport, Connecticut citizens to accompany him in a celebration at the bottom of the Pequonnock River.
A large crowd of onlookers gathered at the river banks, cheering, as the ARGONAUT sank from sight. When the merry voyagers failed to return at the appointed time, however, a rescue tug was dispatched to the spot where the top of the submarine’s 50-foot long air pipe protruded above the surrace. Repeated raps on the pipe railed to get a response, and the rescuers were convinced that all on board had perished. While word was sent to New York City ror a derrick to dredge up the “iron oofrin,” silent crowds gathered along the shoreline to mourn the loss of the town’s mayor, the owners of the railroad and telephone companies, numerous bankers, and other local dignitaries. Suddenly, nearly two hours past schedule, the ARGONAUT rose rrom its watery grave, with its occupants alive and singing “Down Went McGinty to the Bottom or the Sea.”
Though the crowd of ex-mourners welcomed the safe return of their community leaders, they were not overly impressed with Simon Lake’s reason for the delay; it seems that they had raked up enough oysters and clams to have a rather large, timeconsuming, shellfish dinner.
Despite the crowd’s angry reaction, the inventor had convinced the participants of the worthiness or his experiments. Hence it was Bridgeport money that was used to construct the next Lake submarine.
There were no wheels on Lake’s newest creation; its design was more in line with what might be considered a conventional underwater craft, by today’s standards. Dubbed the PROTECTOR and launched in 1902, she was 65 feet long and weighed 130 tons. Furthermore, she operated with gasoline engines on the surface and battery power underwater. Other additions included a small gun mounted on the craft’s foredeck and a practical periscope, which Lake called an omniscope. Yet the u.s. Navy was still unimpressed.
Lake’s submarine design eventually found an interested party in Russia, which was then at war with Japan. After a good deal of negotiating, Lake agreed to part with the PROTECTOR, promising to build an additional rive submarines in the future. A day after the contract was signed, the first #125,000 down payment went into the inventor’s personal bank account.
Along with a small contingency of technicians, Lake made his way to the port city of Kronstadt, Russia, where he remained for the next seven years. During that time, he assisted in the construction of his five underwater vessels for the czar’s navy, and trained the Russians in their operations. Though none of his vessels would see action in the Russo-Japanese War, Lake did manage to accumulate a handsome profit. Next, he relocated to Austria, where he designed that nation’s first two submarines. Later, he signed a contract with the Kruppa Company of Berlin, Germany, for another of his well-designed craft.
Eventually, the aging inventor returned home, where he instructed workmen at his Lake Torpedo Boat Company to begin work on a vessel that he would name the SIMON LAKE X. Believing it to be the best design ever, he wished to offer the ultimate in submarines to the U.S. government, certain that they could no longer overlook his accomplishments. Yet, when the navy refused to even watch a test run of his newest vessel, Lake traveled back to Europe and sold it to a country anxious to own it. With its latest purchase, Russia owned no less than 11 Lake submarines.
Not until the business of buying underwater boats was taken out of the navy’s hands and given to Congress did Simon Lake sell a submarine to his homeland. Lake’s SEAL, commissioned into the u.s. Navy on October 28, 1912, had a surface displacement of more than 400 tons, a length of 161 feet, and a beam of 13 feet. She was the largest submarine ever constructed up until that time. She housed a crew of 2~ men. Jules Verne’s number-one follower had finally gained a few followers of his own.
Louis s. Schafer[Reprinted by permission from Sea Frontiers 1988 by the International Oceanographic Foundation, 3979 Rickenbaoker Causeway, Virginia Key, Miami, FL 33149.]