Simon Lake was born into a family of
prolific inventors at Pleasantville in southern New Jersey on 4
September 1866. His father, Christopher John Lake, was relatively
well-to-do from having invented some years before the roller window
shade, and in 1883, he established a foundry and machine shop near their
home town. Lake's grandfather and his brothers had played a key role in
developing the seaside resorts of Ocean City and Atlantic City, New
Jersey, and Simon Lake's uncle, Jesse Lake, conceived the basic idea of
the caterpillar tractor while building an access road across the marshes
that separated Atlantic City from the mainland.
Lake attended public high school in Toms River, New Jersey and then studied briefly at the Clinton Liberal Institute, a private, non-sectarian secondary school in Fort Plain, New York. After his return home, he became his father's partner in the foundry at age eighteen. Concurrently, he enrolled in the "mechanical course" at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute and quickly learned the rudiments of engineering and machinery design. Among Lake's earliest patents, were those for a "Can-Capping Machine" and an "Oyster Dredge Windlass," both intended for the oyster industry. His windlass was so much in demand that he moved to Baltimore to be closer to his customers, and there, in addition to building a thriving business, he met his future wife, Margaret Vogel. They were married in 1890.
Some years earlier, from reading Jules Verne's 1870 novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Lake had been captivated by the prospects of undersea travel and exploration. Thus, when the U.S. Navy announced a submarine design competition for 1893, he quickly resolved to put his burgeoning mechanical skills to work in this new field. The Navy's solicitation was actually its third attempt to acquire a viable submarine, following similar competitions in 1887 and 1888/89 that had been won by John Holland. On both of those earlier occasions, however, contractual and funding issues disappointed Holland of his hopes to build a prototype.
Lake's 1893 design, for which he applied for a patent in April of that year, reflected his early interest in developing submarines primarily for commercial purposes, and particularly for marine salvage. It was intended to submerge on an even keel using a combination of judicious ballasting and horizontal control planes and to operate largely on the ocean bottom using a set of powered wheels for propulsion. The prime mover was to have been a compound steam engine, whose boiler would be shut down for submergence, when compressed air substituted for steam to turn both the propeller and wheels. Lake's disclosure covered the key features of his design, including a diver's lock-in/lock-out chamber, a crude "viewing tube" for seeing above water, and automatic control mechanisms for maintaining depth and trim. Four years later, this resulted in U.S. Patent No. 531,213 for a "Submarine Vessel."
Beside Lake and Holland, six other submarine pioneers entered the 1893 competition. Although there is still significant controversy about the degree to which political influence determined the ultimate choice of Holland's design, he had, in fact, demonstrated a rudimentary gasoline-powered submarine, the Fenian Ram, twelve years earlier, whereas Lake's concept existed only on paper. In contrast to Lake's "level diving" approach, Holland designed his submarine to be just slightly buoyant when the ballast tanks were completely full and used the hydrodynamic forces generated by a set of stern planes to submerge the boat and keep it down. Thus, his submarine was intended to operate largely in the mid-water region using porpoise-like diving and surfacing maneuvers, while Lake's vehicle was essentially optimized to run on the bottom. Six years later, after an abortive attempt to honor the terms of the ensuing construction contract with his steam-powered Plunger, Holland finally produced a successful prototype, Holland VI, which became the U.S. Navy's first submarine, USS Holland (SS-1) in 1900. He - and later the Electric Boat Company, which he helped to found in 1899 - subsequently held a monopoly on the construction of U.S. submarines until 1908.
This was little more than a large, triangular wooden box that could be ballasted to sink to the bottom, where it could be made to crawl forward on a set of man-powered wheels. Stored compressed air was used both to "blow" the ballast tanks for returning to the surface and to pressurize the interior to keep water out when a trap-door was opened in the floor to give access to the bottom. Lake first demonstrated Argonaut Junior without mishap in a river near Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey in December 1894, and the enthusiasm he generated attracted enough investment capital for its constructor to found the "Lake Submarine Company" and begin designing and building a "real" submarine within a year.
By an interesting coincidence, Simon Lake's resulting Argonaut I was built in the same Baltimore graving dock - and at the same time - as Holland's unsuccessful Plunger. Argonaut I was 36 feet long by 9 feet in diameter and incorporated most of the distinctive features of Lake's 1893 design, including powered wheels for bottom crawling and a diver's air-lock. The boat was driven by a 30-horsepower gasoline engine, even while submerged, when it used a hose supported by a surface float to supply combustion air. Although this artifice limited the depth to which Argonaut I could operate under power, a supply of compressed air permitted even deeper excursions and bottoming for as long as 24 hours. Primarily intended for salvage and exploration, Argonaut I normally transited on the surface to sites of interest, where it would descend vertically, either by ballasting down or using hauldown anchors installed in the keel. Then, it would trundle along the bottom on its powered wheels with the surface float tagging along behind.
Lake completed Argonaut I in 1897 and after a series of local trials, he began using the boat to salvage sunken cargoes in the Chesapeake Bay. Then in 1898, he took the boat into the open ocean, first for a limited excursion off Cape Henry, Virginia, and then for a longer cruise in which he sailed from Norfolk to Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Lake traveled largely on the surface but submerged regularly to investigate promising wrecks along the way, and when a serious storm blew up, he rode it out safely on the bottom. This feat appears to have been the first substantial ocean-going voyage by a submersible craft, and it earned Lake a telegram of congratulations from none other than Jules Verne himself.
Because its open-ocean voyage showed that Argonaut I needed to be more seaworthy, Lake had the vessel rebuilt the following year in Brooklyn, New York, largely by lengthening the boat to 56 feet and adding a flooding, schooner-like superstructure for better surface performance. The resulting submersible was dubbed New Argonaut, or Argonaut II, and home-ported in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Lake established the new headquarters of what had become essentially a marine salvage company. After staging several well-publicized bottom excursions for local civic dignitaries, he got down to recovering sunken cargoes in earnest. Over the next several years, he retrieved the contents of over 30 lost vessels in Long Island Sound, using patented improvements to the Argonaut II and a "submarine wrecking car" that could be used to bring salvageable commodities, such as coal, to the surface for resale at a handsome profit. Lake soon became a wealthy man and a prominent, public-spirited citizen of Bridgeport.
SUBMARINES TO RUSSIA
In response to Lake's challenge, John Holland and the Electric Boat Company came up with an improved submarine of their own - the Fulton - in 1903, and after tortuous negotiations and continuing delays, the Navy agreed to a definitive in-water competition between the two boats in May 1904 in Narragansett Bay. However, before these trials could take place, growing financial problems forced Lake to sell Protector to the Russian navy, which had agreed to purchase five boats of his design just prior to the Russo-Japanese war. Consequently, after some likely connivance with Electric Boat, who quickly arranged a token demonstration, the Navy again awarded EB its next submarine contract. Ironically, Fulton was then also sold to the Russians, who reportedly found Protector the better submarine.
Following the enthusiastic Russian acceptance of Protector - renamed Osetr - the five additional boats were partially built at Newport News Shipbuilding under contract with Lake, assembled in Russia, and then transported across Siberia by rail to Vladivostok. In conjunction with this new business, Lake and his family moved temporarily to St. Petersburg, where he was lavishly entertained by ill-fated Czar Nicholas II and soon succeeded in winning a contract for five new submarines of the larger Kaiman class, built in Russia under his own supervision between 1906 and 1908. Although he returned frequently to the United States during this period to manage his enterprises in Bridgeport, Lake spent most of the next several years in Europe, marketing his submarines and his services as a consulting engineer to foreign governments. He succeeded only in selling two boats to Austria-Hungary, but he also received additional royalties for follow-on construction. At the same time, however, Lake suffered a bitter disappointment when Germany's Krupp organization challenged the international validity of his patents and backed out of a planned collaboration.
PREVAILS - LAKE'S U.S. NAVY SUBMARINES
By this time, however, a significant controversy had grown over Electric Boat's role as the Navy's single submarine builder, amid charges of cronyism, Navy Department collusion, and financial irregularities.1 In 1908, a congressional investigation was initiated - with intense lobbying on both sides - and when Simon Lake threatened legal action over the Navy's procurement procedures, the Secretary of the Navy relented and agreed to the purchase of a submarine from the Lake Torpedo Boat Company. However, the new boat would have to be designed and built at the constructor's expense and would only be adopted by the Navy if it proved satisfactory in subsequent trials. Lake accepted the gamble.
Likely because of continuing political pressure, the Navy ordered two more submarines from Lake in fiscal years 1909 and 1910. USS Tuna (later G-2, SS-27) and USS Turbot (later G-3, SS-31) were nearly identical to Seal, but to save costs, they lacked both wheels and airlocks. Tuna, launched in 1912, was the last boat built for Lake at Newport News Shipbuilding. Turbot was the first submarine laid down in Lake's own new yard in Bridgeport and had two diesel engines, vice the unorthodox propulsion of the earlier boats. However, in November 1913, before she could be completed, Lake was forced to put his shipyard into bankruptcy, and Turbot had to be turned over to the New York Navy Yard for completion. Even so, she was not fully operational until 1916, and like her two sisters, saw only five years or so of active service.
Within a year of Lake's bankruptcy, World War I would break out in Europe, and in anticipation, the Navy had already initiated a program of naval expansion that included the construction of significantly more submarines. Accordingly, Congress authorized seven L-class coastal submarines for 1913, and three of them - L-5 through L-7 - had been assigned to Lake before his financial troubles materialized. Lake weathered the bankruptcy well enough to reorganize and resume operations by early 1914, when he started construction of L-5 at Bridgeport and subcontracted the other two boats to Craig Shipbuilding in Long Beach, California. All were completed and commissioned successfully by early 1918. In fiscal year 1914, the Portsmouth (New Hampshire) Naval Shipyard was assigned construction of L-8 to Lake's own L-class design, and she emerged in 1917 as the first submarine built by the Navy itself.
Successively, in 1915, 1916, and 1917, with U.S. entry into the war growing steadily more likely and mobilization accelerating, Lake was given construction of four of seven small N-class harbor defense boats (N-4 through N-7); six of 16 O-class coastal boats (O-11 through O-16); and seven of 27 larger R-class coastal submarines (R-21 through R-27). These were commissioned variously between mid-1918 and late 1919 and then served until the mid-1920s. It is interesting that although all of Lake's designs prior to his R-class variant continued to feature amidships diving planes, Navy specifications ruled out wheels and airlocks.
In response to growing interest in "Fleet-type" ocean-going submarines, the Navy in 1917 funded the design and construction of three competing prototypes for the significantly larger S-class at Electric Boat (for S-1, SS-105); at the Lake Torpedo Boat Company (for S-2, SS-106); and at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (for S-3, SS-107). At that time, individual constructors were allowed wide latitude in their designs, as long as all the boats of a class met common specifications and performance requirements defined by the Navy's General Board. Thus, submarines of the same class could vary substantially from builder to builder. Of the three resulting designs, Lake's S-2 emerged as the best sea boat surfaced but was the least impressive overall, largely because her configuration required a number of awkward work-arounds to avoid infringing on John Holland's original patents, which had been assigned to Electric Boat years before. Thus, no further S-boats were built to Lake's plans.
Nonetheless, for the first buy of 38 S-class submarines - in fiscal year 1918 - Lake agreed to build four (S-14 through S-17) at Bridgeport to the Navy's S-3 design, and in fiscal year 1919, he was assigned four more (S-48 through S-51), plus four additional boats canceled after the end of the war. Lake's nine S-boats were ultimately commissioned between May 1920 and June 1922, and five of them survived long enough to serve in World War II, although not as combatants. The last to be decommissioned - in June 1946 - was S-15 (SS-120).
However, at only 58 years of age, Lake still had several more careers ahead of him. Some years earlier, he had founded the Lakeolith Corporation to manufacture inexpensive, prefabricated housing from reinforced concrete panels, and in 1925, he began marketing a line of "Sunshine Homes" using that technique. Although several large industrial firms expressed interest in the concept for workers' housing, Lake's idea was apparently too far ahead of its time, and few orders materialized. Later, he sought to refurbish his 1907 submarine prototype, Lake XV - renamed Defender - for use as a passenger-carrying sightseeing boat and then as a submarine rescue vessel, but this venture was overtaken by events when Lake became involved in the 1931 Wilkins - Ellsworth North Pole Expedition.
When Australian-born adventurer Sir Hubert Wilkins and Arctic explorer Lincoln Ellsworth proposed in 1930 to reach the North Pole by submarine, Simon Lake was retained as a consultant and proposed that his refurbished Defender be adapted for the purpose. When the Navy offered the newer Lake-built O-12 instead, the latter was renamed Nautilus and modified by Lake for both under-ice operations and scientific experimentation. Lake predicted that the boat could travel 150 miles on a single battery charge and then use either an ice drill or explosive grenades to penetrate the ice canopy for access to the atmosphere. Nautilus left for Europe in June 1931 - inadequately prepared, in Lake's opinion - and almost immediately suffered an engine failure . Then, on arriving at the ice edge in August it was discovered that several rudders had broken away. Although these unwelcome developments - and several other mishaps - prevented an attempt to reach the Pole, Nautilus made a series of excursions under the ice that gathered significant oceanographic information and demonstrated under-ice operations for the first time before she was scuttled in Norwegian waters later that year.
Somewhat earlier, Lake had re-entered the marine-salvage business and built a large caisson-like "salvage tube" that could be lowered to the bottom for access to sunken ships. In 1934, he used this apparatus to search for the hulk of HMS Hussar, a Revolutionary War-era British frigate that sank in New York's Hell Gate with a milliondollar payroll of gold and silver in 1780. After spending three years - and a good deal of money - on the project, Lake was forced by growing financial difficulties to call off the search in mid-1937 and scale back his other business activities as well.
Soon after this de facto retirement, World War II erupted in Europe, and Lake was quick to offer advice to the government on new and expanded roles that submarines might play in the conflict. He devised a concept for rail-transported coastal defense submarines and proposed the use of large, undersea freighters as an alternative to the Atlantic convoy system that was suffering huge losses to German U-boats early in the war. Neither suggestion saw the light of day in Washington.
Coming as it did in the last months of the war, Simon Lake's death from a heart attack on 23 June 1945 went largely unnoticed by the submarine communities of the world, to whom his energies had contributed so much since the turn of the century. In November 1964, however, his memory was honored by the U.S. Navy in commissioning the submarine tender USS Simon Lake (AS-33), which subsequently served the Submarine Force for 35 years until her decommissioning in 1999.
Dr. Whitman is the Senior Editor of UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine.
1 After 1904, John Holland was no longer associated with Electric Boat. Despite the fact that his patents were the foundation of that company's commercial success, he had been increasingly shunted aside by the time his contract with the firm expired in that year - and he quit to found a new submarine boat company of his own. Because he had signed his patents over to Electric Boat, however, Holland was unable to recreate his earlier success, and he was out of business within a year or two. He died in 1914.
Harris, Brayton, The Navy Times Book of Submarines - A Political, Social, and Military History, Berkley Publishing Group (2001)
Morris, Richard Knowles, John P. Holland - 1841-1914 - Inventor of the Modern Submarine, U. of South Carolina Press (1998)
Poluhowich, John J., Argonaut: The Submarine Legacy of Simon Lake, West Texas A&M University Press (1999)
Weir, Gary E., Building American Submarines, 1914 -1940, University Press of the Pacific (2000)
The author wishes to acknowledge the
considerable assistance of Mr. Jeffrey B. Lake, great-grandson of Simon
Lake, who answered a number of questions and provided several graphics
for the article. Mr. Lake is the Founder and Director of the Simon Lake
Project, whose historical archive and web site, www.simonlake.com,
are an excellent source of information about the life and career of