Simon Lake and the Submarine Contest of 1893

Simon Lake is not remembered for the great submarine contest of 1893. Despite his future success in submarine development, Lake didn’t make it very far in the competition. Without the financial backing that Holland and Baker had, Simon Lake could not cover the required bond to be considered in the competition. What would have happened had Lake been able to complete the competition? History will never know. But Lakes’ contributions to submarine development are still considered a success.

Simon Lake was born in Pleasantville, New Jersey in 1866, the grandson of Simon Lake who helped founded Atlantic City and Ocean City, New Jersey. His love of submarines was inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Lake states “Jules Verne was in a sense the director-general  of my life. When I was not more than ten or eleven years old I read his Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and my young imagination was fired. This generation may have forgotten that Verne was a great scientist as well as the writer of the most romantic fiction of his day. I began to dream of making voyages under the waters, and of the vast stores of treasure and the superb adventures that awaited subaqueous pioneers. But with the impudence which is a part of the equipment of the totally inexperienced I found fault with some features of Jules Verne’s Nautilus and set about improving on them.”[1] So began Lake’s passion for submarines and it was during his childhood that he planned his Argonaut submarine. While planning and designing his submarine at night, Lake grew up, worked with his father, and eventually moved to Baltimore where he married Margret Vogel. Vogel was supportive of Lake’s dream of building a submarine. By this time, the true difficulties of submarine development were not lost on Simon Lake. A childhood fancy had developed into exhausting research on how to overcome the issues with submerging a vessel. When the submarine contest came around, Lake believed that a submarine would be more profitable for commercial use than for the Navy.

Simon Lake’s Submarine during production – notice the wheels!

In 1892, Simon Lake’s wife found the advertisement about the bids for a submarine from the U.S. Navy. At the young age of twenty-seven, he set off to Washington D.C. to submit his plans. He was the youngest of the inventors and was not considered a threat to the other inventors. However, Lake truly believed he would prevail. In his autobiography, he stated that “I was confident that my plans were superior to those of the Holland and Baker submarine. Every inventor presumably feels that way. I could name several points of superiority. It seemed to me, too, in my almost infantile ignorance of how things are done in politics that my proposition would appeal to the chiefs in the Navy Department. I had not submitted a bid for the construction of a boat, for the very good reason that I had neither money nor backers, but I had asked that, if my plans were accepted, I be given a position in the capacity of constructor and my boat be built in one of the Navy’s yards. It seemed to me that this suggestion was both practical and a promise of economy. What I did not know was that there was the smell of business in the building of submarines. Let me emphasize that this statement is not necessarily critical. The Mends of Mr. Baker and Mr. Holland, one or both, had aroused interest in submarines among members of Congress. An appropriation of $200,000 was made, and it was the very natural feeling of those who had put this appropriation through that Baker and Holland were entitled to the first chance at it.”[2] Lake’s design gave the submarine the ability to submerge on an even keel, a diving compartment, five propellers, a double hull and wheels so the submarine could be operated on the ocean floor. The competition, unfortunately for Lake, was hinged by political influence, bickering and bureaucratic delay. It wasn’t until years later that he found out the truth about why his design wasn’t accepted. Lake met with Admiral Baird, who had been a member on the board at the time. The two men had the following conversation:

Baird: “Lake, I’m glad to meet you. We should have been building your boats all the time. Four of the five members of the Board voted for your plans in 1893, you know.”
Lake: “Then why didn’t you build my boats?”
Baird: “Because the Navy’s advertisement had required that a bid be submitted for the construction of a submarine. You made no such bid. Four of us wanted to call you over to the Navy Yard and have you make up working drawings. Then we could build in one of the Navy’s yards under your supervision. But they beat us.’”[3]

If Lake had been able to make the bid entering the contest, the history of the US submarine program may have begun very differently. But the rejection of his design only fueled Lake’s passion.

Despite his loss in the Great Submarine Contest of 1893, Simon Lake continued his dream of building submarines. In 1894, he built his first submarine, the Argonaut, Jr. It was successfully tested in New Jersey and led to the creation of the Lake Submarine Company of New Jersey in 1895. It was this company that built the Argonaut, the first submarine to operate in open sea successfully in 1898. Powered by a 30-horsepower gasoline engine, the Argonaut sailed more than 2,000 miles from Cape May to Sandy Hook in New Jersey. Not only was the distance a great feat, but the submarine traveled during a nor’easter that sunk an estimated 100 ships. This feat even caught the attention of Jules Verne, who sent Lake a congratulatory telegram. Lake would attempt to sell several designs to the US Navy even after they began work with Holland, all of which were rejected. Lake would eventually take his designs to foreign countries who were happy to latch on to the advanced designs. Lake’s Protector, built in 1901, was sold to Russia in 1904. This design had diving planes mounted forward of the conning tower and a flat keel. Four diving places allowed her to maintain depth without changing ballast tank levels. Following this sale to Russia, Lake would spend the next several years designing and engineering submarines in Europe. Upon his return, the Lake Torpedo Boat company was founded in Bridgeport, Connecticut where the first Lake submarine was built for the US Navy.   The Seal, or G-1, was the first of 33 submarines that were built for the United States Navy at Bridgeport, Connecticut, and in California at California Shipbuilding & Dry-dock.

Jules Verne’s open letter to Simon Lake

When the Lake Torpedo Company closed in the 1920’s, Lake would go on to invent new techniques in cargo and salvage developments. He is credited with basic submarine design elements such as even-keel hydroplanes, diver’s compartments, twin-hull designs, and the periscope. During his lifetime he achieved over 200 patents for his designs. Some people today regard him as the Father of the Modern Submarine.

Interior of the Protector. Photo Courtesy of Library Of Congress

Submarine. The Autobiography of Simon Lake as told to Herbert Corey, 1938.  Pg 10

[2] Submarine, pg 37

[3] Submarine, pg 41

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