In the fall of 1890, there came to the office of the Detroit Boat Works, of which firm I was then General Manager and Naval Architect, a Mr. George C. Baker and showed me the model of a submarine boat, on which he had obtained patents in the U.S. and foreign countries.
At the present time, when the exploits of the submarines have attracted the attention of the whole world, it might be of interest to the public to learn something of the first successful submarine actually built anywhere, especially as very little of what this boat accomplished has been recorded by later day writers.
Mr. Baker, the inventor, had accumulated a considerable fortune in the manufacture of barbed wire in Chicago. He was not versed in Naval Architecture but submarines were his hobby. The model which he brought to my office was made of tin and the propelling power consisted of clockwork. Before he left my office, we had come to an arrangement by which I agreed to work up a design and build a boat at the Detroit Boat Works by day work. Mr. Baker did not intend to spend on this experimental boat more money than absolutely necessary, but he wanted the boat large enough for practical demonstration.
The design, which I worked out, represented a vessel 40 feet in length, 9 feet beam, and 14 feet deep with true elliptical sections. The hull was built of wood, consisting of frames molded six inches deep, all around, closely bolted together from end to end. After the surface of this frame, the body had b~en smoothly planed, it was covered with heavy prepared canvas, made impervious to water by linseed oil and beeswax, and was then planked with 1-1 /2-inch oak and seams caulked and finished off smoothly. Deck beams and a deck were then constructed at half depths to withstand the external pressure on the flat sides of the elliptic sections.
Baker’s invention consisted of a system of propelling and submerging the boat with propellers placed amidship. acting upon points abreast of the vertical center of gravity and being designed to revolve around a horizontal line through these points as the axis. This design was carried out by a set of bevel gears in a metal housing, which could be revolved around a shaft, connecting the gears on each side and which shaft was turned by the propelling machinery, steam or electric, on the inside. When these propellers stood vertically, they would move the vessel in horizontal directions, either forward or backward. When the proper Users stood horizontally. the boat without changing its horizontal position could be submerged or brought to the surface. The boat was provided with a conning tower and it was calculated when this tower was just above the water, it would have sufficient reserve buoyancy to come to the surface when the propellers were not working. The propelling power was made sufficient to overcome this buoyancy and force the boat down vertically to any desired depth.
It was also possible, that while the vessel was being propelled in a horizontal direction, with the conning tower exposed, to incline the propellers and produce sufficient downwards pressure to submerge the boat and by properly regulating this inclination to maintain the submersion to any desired depths.
The figure on the next page, taken while the boat was light and heeled over at our shop, shows one of these propellers with its housing.
In those days. the internal combustion engine was still unperfected and from necessity, we had to choose a combination of steam and electricity for propelling agencies. I selected a Roberts Water Tube Boiler of 4-1/2 feet width and 5-1/2 feet depth to furnish the steam. The casing of this boiler was made of boilerplate, tightly caulked, while the fire doors and the dampers were made airtight when closed. The smokestack was connected with a vertical, telescoping section, which could be elevated above the top of the boat, having side outlets for the smoke escape and a cap that fitted tightly upon a coaming flange, when the smokestack was drawn in.
This boiler furnished steam at 200 pounds pressure to a seven-inch by the seven-inch high-pressure engine, and this engine was geared to the horizontal propeller shaft and also belted to a generator and motor of 50 hp designed for 220 volts and 900 rpm. The generator when acting as a motor turned the propeller shaft at 300 rpm.
The generator discharged into four sets of storage batteries of 58 cells in each set, and when the generator was used as a motor, two sets of 116 cells at 232 volts were used. Woodward storage cells selected had each 360-ampere capacity.
When traveling awash, the steam engine turned the two 24 inch propellers 400 rpm, giving the boat a speed of about 10 miles per hour; while submerged, with electrical propulsion, the speed obtained was about 8 miles per hour.
Near the conning tower, in easy reach of the pilot, was placed a controlling switch connected with galvanized sheet iron resistance coils for speed regulation.
The sleeves, around the shaft, connecting on the outside to the bevel gear housings, were provided on the inside with a sprocket wheel, which by means of chain belting and a hand wheel, was operated by the pilot. The steering of the boat was by a balanced rudder, located underneath the after-end and protected from grounding by a projecting keel and shoe. The arrangement of the machinery was so designed that a pilot and one electrical engineer. acting as a fireman could operate her. The interior of the hull contained 1500 cubic feet of air, sufficient for several hours of submersion but no provisions were made for purifying this air or to carry additional supply as the boat was principally built to demonstrate the operating features and not to represent a perfected vessel.
The total displacement of the boat was 75 tons, of which the hull weighed 20 tons, the ballast 30 tons, the storage battery 10 tons, engine boiler and gears 8 tons, motor 3 tons, leaving 4 tons for reserve buoyancy. With this buoyancy, the normal draft of the boat left about two feet of the hull proper above water.
Entrance to the vessel was through a cast iron manhole, which formed the top of the conning tower. This manhole could be swung to one side for entrance and swung back and lowered by gears to fit absolutely watertight.
An electrically connected pump was provided to fill the bottom ball tanks with sufficient water to leave nothing but the conning tower exposed, at which floatation the vessel was ready for submersion as above described.
The above brief description will suffice to prove that the Baker submarine was not merely a toy.
During the months of June and July 1892, this boat was tested out in the Detroit River and Lake Erie. Commodore Folger of the Bureau of Ordnance of the U.S. Navy witnessed these trials and reported as follows:
“I consider the principles of the Balcer boat feasible. It is already made clear that an efficient boat can be submerged and kept under control with but a foot of the conning tower above the surface. A Sims torpedo could be sent out from such a vessel to a distance of a mile and, directed at night by means of range lanterns, would be more effective than by day. The submerged vessel, equipped with such a torpedo could remain at a point where she would be completely invisible to an enemy’s ship. The boat will be further armed with the submarine gun and projectile, tests of which have already been made with satisfactory results recently at Newport.”
We were preparing for additional trials when an accident put the boat out of commission for some time. Goddard, the electrical engineer, was charging the batteries from a land station in the River Rouge, where the boat had its moorings, during the night and during a severe rainstorm, which prompted Goddard to close the conning tower hood. He went aboard to read the hydrometer and, while lighting a match, the hydrogen gases generated during the charge exploded and demolished practically all of the battery cells aboard. While repairs were being made, Mr. Baker went to Washington trying to interest the Democratic Administration of Grover Cleveland in building a submarine for the U.S. Navy. As is usual in this country, our government was too shortsighted and unprogressive to take any action except promising to appoint some naval officers to make additional tests with the boat. The submarine was then towed to Chicago and put in good working condition to make such tests in Lake Michigan, where the boat would not drag bottom as it did in the Detroit River.
Mr. Baker again went to Washington, waiting for the naval officers to receive their orders, but during the winter of 1892, he fell sick and died putting an end to his hopes and aspirations.
The boat was an unprofitable legacy left to Baker’s wife, and on advice, she sold all of the machinery and on May 30, 1892, had the empty hull towed out into Lake Michigan, filled with sand and sunk.
Had Mr. Baker lived, I have no doubt that his design of vessel would have been given a fair trial, as it was, others took his place, and in particular, J.P. Holland of New York who succeeded in 1896 to have a boat of his design constructed by the Columbian Iron Works at Baltimore.
At that time a specter of war had arisen by our dispute with Great Britain over the Venezuelan Boundary question and her threatened breach of the Monroe Doctrine, and in consequence, our administration discovered the helplessness of our Navy and took a step towards preparedness.
There is a long step from the boat I built in 1891 and the DEUTSCHLAND, but George C. Baker should be given due credit for having at his own expense, invented and constructed the first power-driven submarine, which demonstrated practically the possibility of undersea navigation. I dedicate this article to his memory.[Editor’s Note: It should be noted that John P. Holland was operating a power-driven submarine in New York Harbor in the 1880s. 1he submarine HOLLAND, bought by the U.S. Navy in 1900 as its. first, was built by Lewis Nixon to Holland’s design at the Crescent Shipyard in New Jersey.]