Simon Lake non-Navy Submarines

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A brief history of Simon Lake

American inventor and engineer Simon Lake of New Jersey, later of Connecticut, was one of the great early pioneers in the development of submarines. He ranks right up there with John Holland, Narcis Monturiol, Thorsten Nordenfelt, Horace Hunley, and Gustave Zede in his influence on the development of the modern submarine. He was a brilliant engineer and visionary, who was inspired by the works of author Jules Verne. The fascination with Verne and his 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would drive his engineering philosophy for nearly the rest of his life.

Lake began his life long pursuit of submarine technology in 1894, when he built his first boat, the wooden hulled, slab-sided Argonaut Junior. He followed this up four years later with the much more advanced metal hulled Argonaut 1. During this time he entered into an intense rivalry with his contemporary John P. Holland to design, build, and sell submarines to a newly interested United States Navy.

Lake was highly influenced in his work by the Vernian ideals of submarine operations. He saw submarines chiefly in the exploration role, fulfilling a military function only as an aside. He saw his submarines as sailing on the surface to their operating area, diving to the bottom, then rolling along on wheels to a worksite. Suited divers would then emerge from a hatch in the bottom and perform the boat's mission. He was quite stubborn in this vision, and it drove much of his design work. Unfortunately, this vision was not shared by his primary customer, the United States Navy, who saw submarines primarily as a weapon, a mobile minefield upon which an attacking enemy force could be impaled on.

To aid in his quest to sell submarines to the USN, Lake also developed the idea of submerging a submarine on a level plane, with a zero angle (sometimes called "even keel diving"). Holland used stern mounted diving planes and the power of the propeller to angle the boat downward and push it under, with surfacing being the opposite operation. Lake felt that this was too dangerous. If the crew lost control of the angle the boat could quickly exceed its hull strength depth and be destroyed. He emphasized the use of multiple sets of planes mounted amidships to ease the boat downward while maintaining a zero angle.

Although a brilliant engineer, Lake possessed two qualities that tended earn him scorn and mistrust rather than the praise and lucrative USN contracts that he desired. He was quite stubborn in his beliefs about how submarines should be operated, and he refused to tolerate any challenge to those ideals. This stubbornness caused him to be quite outspoken when things did not go his way, earning him a reputation as a pariah. Secondly, despite his acknowledged talent as an engineer, Lake was a poor businessman and organizer. His shipyard was chronically underfunded and poorly managed, and thus his profit margin was quite low, and at times non-existent. Despite numerous attempts, Lake was unable to sell a submarine to the USN until 1912. He had been marginally more successful in the overseas market, but he struggled with the USN until this point. The acceptance of his submarine G-1 seemed to clear the log-jam for a bit, and over the next 10 years he sold a number of boats to the USN. However, the Navy never really liked his designs. They were mechanically and operationally complex, they had features that the Navy didn't like such as midships diving planes and watertight superstructures, and because of his poor management his boats were usually very late in delivery and lacking in construction quality. Finally tired of his business drama, the USN awarded Lake no more contracts after 1922 and his shipyard went out of business for good in 1924.

This page will highlight some of the submarine work that Simon Lake did that was not accepted by the United States Navy. These boats, although never commissioned as warships in the USN, still were quite important in advancing the state of the art of submarine design and construction in the United States. The submarines that Lake built that were commissioned by the Navy will have their own pages under the Submarine Classes heading.

Argonaut Junior

This is Simon Lake's first submarine, the wooden and canvas hulled Argonaut Jr. It was 14 feet long with a four foot beam. Built entirely by hand it had two layers of yellow pine boards that sandwiched a rubberized canvas sheath that made it watertight. It had no engine or means of propulsion. It would sink to the bottom and rest on its wheels. Operators inside would hand crank the wheels to move it along the bottom. It also had a diver lock-out chamber. More than anything else it was a proof of concept vessel that gained Lake enough recognition that he was able to secure funding for a much more ambitious follow-on vessel.

In 2010, an Oklahoma couple built a fully functional replica of the Argonaut Jr. and successfully tested it in a local lake. They did an amazing job for amateurs and their boat looks incredible. For their full story go to their website here.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org

Argonaut 1

Having secured investor funding, Lake built a follow-on vessel that He named Argonaut 1. Metal hulled and powered by a 30 hp gasoline engine, it was a tremendous advance over the Argonaut Jr. It also proved to be amazingly seaworthy, racking up over 2,000 miles of surface and submerged running, including an open-ocean transit from Cape May to Sandy Hook, NJ. It had wheels for rolling along the bottom and again a diver lockout chamber. From a military standpoint Lake marketed it as being able to stealthily enter a minefield, send a diver out, and cut mine cables. The same diver would also be able to gather intelligence on other underwater defenses and conduct salvage work. It had no other offensive capability. Pitched to the Navy, Lake failed to impress them with the boat's capabilities and the Navy did not buy it. Refusing to give up on the idea of rolling along the bottom, Simon Lake continued to build submarines with wheels up through 1909, when he built the G-1 (Submarine No. 19½) for the Navy. The Navy however, was never impressed with the capability and refused to buy any more submarines with wheels. The concept in the USN died with G-1, only to be ironically revived by the nuclear-powered special operations submarine NR-1 in 1969.

This photo shows Argonaut 1 in drydock at the Columbian Iron Works facility at Locust Point, near Fort McHenry, in Baltimore, Maryland in approximately 1898. The large forward wheels and viewports at the bow are very apparent. Just below the forward viewports is the open diver's hatch.

It is interesting to note that there is another submarine in the dock with the Argonaut. Behind her is the Holland submarine Plunger of 1895, also known as the Holland V. It was an experimental submarine built by Holland under a Navy contract. Steam boiler powered, it was a complete failure and it was never accepted by the Navy or commissioned into service. Never completely finished it lingered at the Holland facility at New Suffolk, NY until it was scrapped in 1917.

Photo NH 57030 courtesy of NHHC.

Protector

National Archives photo
National Archives photo
Lake's Protector of 1901. A significant advance over Argonaut 1, Protector had more powerful engines and motor, and three torpedo tubes. It also had Lake's standard wheels and diving chamber. Protector was the first Lake boat that incorporated his zero-angle diving method (also called "even keel diving") using amidships diving planes. He tried to sell it to the Navy, but it was rejected because the Navy had already committed funds to buy the Holland/Electric Boat designed A-class. Unable to arouse interest in this boat in the U.S. and desperately needing the cash influx, Lake sold the boat to Russia, who renamed it Osetr. Five additional copies were built in Russia.

This photo was most likely taken shortly after her completion in late 1902. The location is near his company yard in Bridgeport, CT. Note guards at side of vessel to protect the diving planes from damage.

See more Protector photos

Simon Lake XV/Lake/Defender

Photo in the private collection of Ric Hedman. MAY NOT be reproduced without permission.
Photo in the private collection of Ric Hedman. MAY NOT be reproduced without permission.
After selling Protector to the Russians, Simon Lake headed to Europe for several years, designing and building submarines for Austria and Russia. Lake returned to the states in 1906, goaded into building a submarine for demonstration to the Navy by the 1906 Naval Appropriations Bill that allocated $500,000 in funds for submarines. The result was this submarine, initially called Simon Lake XV, then simply Lake. Entered into the competition against the Electric Boat design Octopus (Submarine No. 9), the Lake lost the competition. Refusing to give up Lake rebuilt the boat into a salvage vessel and renamed it Defender. It is a strange tale and the whole story can be read at the article at this link.

This photo shows the Lake moored during the 1906 competition with the Octopus. Her broad, flat deck is quite apparent. Note the unusual oblong torpedo loading hatch and the guard rails protecting the amidships diving planes. She had a helm atop the conning tower and a type of a periscope that Simon Lake called an "omniscope".

This is a very rare photo that is exclusive to PigBoats.COM. Originally it was a postcard that was acquired by Ric Hedman. It had black postal marks on it that partially obscured the image. After being scanned electronically it was painstakingly restored by PigBoats associate Matthew Tripp. The result is an unique look into American submarine history.

See more Defender photos

Explorer

Although the Lake Torpedo Boat Company had closed its doors for good in 1924, Simon Lake continued to tinker with underwater technology projects for the remainder of his life. This boat is called Explorer and was a privately funded project by Lake built in 1932. It was strictly for exploration and salvage and was not a military craft. Going back to his roots Lake equipped it with wheels and a diver lockout chamber. It also had a mechanical arm to gather samples. It was very small and limited in its performance, and had its power and air supplied by a hose and cable connection to a mother ship on the surface. It was really a semi-mobile diving chamber as opposed to a full submarine. Noted naturalist and oceanographer Dr. William Beebe made a dive in her in 1933. Not much else is known about how this boat was used, and it eventually fell into obscurity after Lake's death in 1945. It was eventually rescued and restored, and is currently on display in Milford, CT. For more information on the Explorer, please see this link.

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