Simon Lake was proud of his baby. At a length of twenty-two feet, with a beam of six feet and weighing in at over two tons, it was one of the biggest babies that any of the curious guests had ever born witness to in their day. But Simon Lake, an inventor and tinkerer, was also introducing to the world, the first of a new type of baby in the realm of underwater exploration. Though coined
a baby submarine by reporters, he had wanted to name his fabricated steel creation, Crab but his financial backers prevailed and the craft was named Explorer.
Simon Lake, born in 1866 in Pleasantville, New Jersey and by most accounts, was enamored by the undersea environs after reading, at age twelve, Jules Verne’s classic adventure Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.(1)Working in his father’s foundry and machine shop, Lake submitted plans to the U.S. Navy in 1892 regarding his plans for an experimental submarine. In 1894 he launched the Argonaut, Jr. and after successful tests and with some financial backing, he founded the Lake Submarine Company of New Jersey and set out to build a second submarine, Argonaut. Launched in 1898, the tests were satisfactory and even resulted in a telegram from Jules Verne.(2) Though his designs were successful, the much heralded laurels of U.S. Navy and government submarine contracts would be garnered by John Holland and his Holland Torpedo Boat Company. Lake’s Protector submarine, another advancement on prior projects, was sold to Russia in 1904 and he assisted foreign nations in their building of submarines prior to the outbreak of World War I. With the U.S. Navy’s need for additional submarines, Lake would return to the U.S. and assist the U.S. Navy by expanding its fleet with twenty-six submarines built by the Lake Torpedo Boat Company. The post-war downsizing of naval fleets did little to keep the company afloat and Lake was forced to close his doors in the mid-nineteen twenties. With military contracts nil, Lake turned his efforts and expertise to salvage efforts and commercial enterprises in the undersea realm.
Simon Lake, inventor, played a major part
in the development of the submarine.
The creation of Explorer was done to provide a small submarine for commercial purposes. Though not a self-contained submarine, as she was tethered to the surface to a mother ship, the submarine, utilized lengths of cables to supply power, light, and telephone service. In addition, she was equipped with two air hoses – one supplying fresh air from the surface and one pulling carbon dioxide - and a towing cable of five hundred feet in length that permitted the submarine to descend to depths of up to three hundred feet, and operate at a speed of three knots in any direction maneuvering on the sea floor on her thirty-inch iron wheels while being propelled by an aft propeller. The submarine, Lake explained, was designed to provide access to the mid-ocean zone, or from fifteen to sixty fathoms in depth, to expand mankind’s vision and exploration. Lake saw commercial applications to include salvage and sub-sea work. Lake also, as it was the era of major unemployment, saw great opportunities in sub-sea agricultural applications. Able to utilize additional interchangeable parts the submarine could also be equipped with a rake for collecting clams, a bow scoop for collecting oysters and hopefully their pearl contents, and a shear-like contraption designed to assist in the clipping of sponges from the seabed to support the sponge industry.
On December 20th, 1932, before his guests of municipal officials, various engineers,
and officers of the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy watching from the decks of the municipal steamer Macom in the cold waters of the Long Island Sound, the Explorer was ready to be demonstrated. As Lake narrated the operation, the Explorer was lowered into the water from the deck of her mother ship, the Normona. As the baby submarine sat low in the water, her upper hatch exposed to the surface waters, Lake, alongside Dr. William Beebe, former U.S. Navy diver Frank Crilley, and John Gumbard, began to explain how the ingenious contraption would work. Testing a submarine requires it to go below and more importantly, back to the surface so Lake stepped off of the submarine and aboard the Macom to join his guests as the three intrepid explorers sealed the upper hatch and began their descent below the surface of the Long Island Sound. As the submarine took on ballast and began its dive to the bottom located thirty-five feet below, Lake recounted an interaction he had with a farmer.
Simon Lake's Explorer
Lake inquired of the farmer what crop gave him the greatest profit. “Beans,” the
farmer replied. “I make sixty dollars for every acre I plant.” Lake had another idea.
“Would you believe that I know where you can get a return of $3,000 to $4,000 an acre?” The farmer, Lake recalled, wanted to know how. “By farming the floor of the ocean, where riches in clams, sponges, and pearl oysters are free for the taking – to say nothing of sunken treasure!” The farmer, Lake continued, was skeptical. “But how are you going to go down and get them?” Lake proudly replied, “In a baby submarine.”
Despite the amusing anecdote, skepticism filtered through the hushed conversations
of the guests watching from the decks of the Macom. One guest referred to the baby submarine as appearing like a “milk-can on a matchbox.” While Lake may have overheard the doubts concerning his invention, few could argue the testimonials of Dr. William Beebe and the others upon their return to the surface. Beebe, a renowned naturalist who had begun exploring the depths in surface supplied diving helmets in 1925 and who would eventually reach a half-a-mile down alongside engineer Otis Barton aboard the Bathysphere off of Nonsuch Island, Bermuda in 1934, commented upon his return to the surface that “This thing is not only going to be able to let us look at things but to let us touch them and feel them. It adds to a naturalist’s field of work all over the world.”(3) With twenty portholes on the conning towers and hull for observation purposes, those aboard could easily visualize the environment in which the submarine was operating. An entire
new world, a world relegated at the time to free-divers, gogglers (early skin-divers), and helmeted divers, could be viewed by scientists and salvagers alike.
A second test was held following Beebe’s comments. The submarine, outfitted with a lower hatch, enabling a diver to leave the vessel while submerged, to explore the environs and in theory collect
specimens, complete salvage work, or locate and recover lost treasure. To prove its capabilities, Crilley, one of the world’s most famous U.S. Navy surface supplied divers renowned for his exceptional and daring work on several submarines including the F-4, in which he was bestowed with the Medal of Honor, and the S-51, donned his a traditional surface-supplied diving rig,
slipped out of the hatch, and explored the bottom of the water.(4)
Simon Lake's Argonaut
As guests applauded the successful tests, B.S. Moss, the president of the newly formed Explorer Submarine Corporation explained to the audience the utility of the craft, stating that it was “for the purpose of developing a peace-time market and constructing commercial type Lake submarines.”
Though the tests had proven successful, the market was not ready or willing to commit to such technological advances. Lake, never one to sit on his laurels, followed his dreams and conducted operations utilizing the Explorer to search for sunken treasure. All of his efforts were not solely for financial gain. When twenty-one year old heir to the Dodge Motor Company drowned and his body was lost in Georgian Bay, Lake was requested to utilize the Explorer to search for the body. Before the submarine could arrive by rail to the scene, Daniel Dodge’s body was recovered by a local fisherman.
With limited financial backing, Lake placed the Explorer in dry-dock in Connecticut.
With the United States now plunged into war, Lake attempted to advocate for a fleet of small submersibles as a truly innovative addition to the war effort. Naval officials steered clear of his proposals and in 1945, Simon Lake passed away. Initial plans to make “Explorer” a monument
to Lake and his ingenious inventions and assistance in the development of submarine technology sank and the Explorer submarine was largely forgotten for its interesting history. In 1964 the submarine was moved from its temporary quarters in Milford, Connecticut to the Bridgeport Museum of Art, Science and Industry. In 1974, the Explorer was transferred to the U.S. Navy Submarine Base at Groton where it was refurbished and displayed. In the late 1990’s, the Explorer returned to Simon Lake’s home town and remains on public display in Milford where it reminds all who gaze upon the “baby submarine” of its interesting history and its historic dive on December 20, 1931, into the depths of the Long Island Sound in our waters.
1 According to a 1932 article, “Fortunately for Mr. Lake, his ancestors changed their family name when the moved from Wales to England several centuries ago. Then the name was Leake, which would never for a submarine inventor.”
2 The cable from Jules Verne to Simon Lake…”While my book ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ is entirely a work of imagination, my conviction is that all I said in it will come to pass. A thousand mile voyage in the Baltimore submarine boat (The Argonaut) is evidence of this. This conspicuous success of submarine navigation in the United States will push on under-water navigation all over the world. If such a successful test had come a few months earlier it might have
played a great part in the war just closed. The next great war may be largely a contest between
submarine boats. I think that electricity rather than compressed air will be the motive power in such vessels for the sea is full of this element. It is waiting to be harnessed as steam
has been. It will then not be necessary to go to the land for fuel any more than for provisions.
The sea will supply food for man and power without limit. Submarine navigation is now ahead of aerial navigation and will advance much faster from now on. Before the United States gains her full development she is likely to have mighty navies not only on the bosom of the Atlantic and Pacific, but in the upper air and beneath the water’s surface.”
3 Dr. Beebe and Otis Barton descended to 3,028 feet aboard the Bathysphere on August 15, 1934.
Their spherical contrivance was tethered to the surface by a cable seven-eighths of an inch thick. Barton, in 1949 aboard the Benthoscope, descended to forty-five hundred feet, on a solo dive, breaking the previously shared world record.
4 Gunners Mate and later Ensign Frank W. Crilley rescued a fellow diver during a two-plus hour
diving operation at over 250 feet and was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless heroism. He was integrally involved in the salvage of the S-51, the S-4, and the U.S.S. Squalus submarines. The U.S.S. Crilley, a United States Navy salvage ship, was named to honor the U.S. Navy Cross and Medal of Honor diver.
About the Author
Adam M. Grohman is a researcher, author, and chief diver of the Underwater Historical Research Society based on Long Island, New York. Grohman, in addition to his monthly columns in Long Island Boating World, is the author of a host of research publications including Hackney’s – The
History of the World Famo
us Seafood Restaurant, American Anarchist – the Strange Case of Gessler Rosseau and the Disappearance of the Naronic, Presidential Plunge – Theodore Roosevelt, the Plunger Submarine, and the United States Navy, Claimed by the Sea – Long Island Shipwrecks, Runner Aground – The Story of the William T. Bell, Non Liquet – The Bayville Submarine Mystery, and two novellas. For more information about this article, the various research projects of the UHRS, to schedule an upcoming lecture, to request a listing of sources utilized in this article, and to order any of his books, please email him at email@example.com