Governments were attracted to the idea of submarines long before the first effective vessels went into production. In 1620 Cornelius van Drebel, a Dutchman, demonstrated a submarine to King James I in the River Thames. More serious attempts began in the late 18th century. In 1776 a Yale student, Daniel Bushnell, devised the Turtle and attacked the British blockade with it. The American engineer Robert Fulton developed the Nautilus for Napoleon in 1801 and, after it failed to sink any British ships, he transferred to the British side, again unsuccessfully. In 1863 the Confederate Navy’s Hunley (designed by Army captain Horace L Hunley) sank the USS Housatonic. More submersible boats were developed in Europe in the 1870s/80s, with varying success, but submarines which we would recognize today were a later American invention ……
The life of Simon Lake spanned 79 years from 1866 to 1945. He was born in Pleasantville NJ into a ‘Family of Invention’. His uncles Jesse and David Lake invented the caterpillar tractor in 1892. Jesse Lake invented the whistling buoy, the cable-car crib, the mowing machine, and a ratchet for house-moving in the 1880s. Another uncle, Vincent Lake, invented an automatic justifying type- setting machine in 1882.
Simon’s father, John Christopher Lake, patented the roller shade and built steering mechanisms for vessels. He maintained a foundry in New Jersey where young Simon honed his skills in mechanical operations at The Lake Manufacturing Company (1885). Simon’s first invention was the Lake Canning Machine. He also developed bicycle mechanisms and fishing and oystering equipment, much used in the Chesapeake and Delaware bays. In working with his father in the J C Lake and Son Company (1892) and with his inventive uncles, Simon Lake was destined for a life of invention and manufacture, during which he formed many companies to market his inventions relating to submarines as well as other areas of engineering.
Simon Lake was fascinated with the Nautilus in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, and he vowed that one day he would build the infamous submarine of fantasy. Thus began his journey of submarine invention. His main interest in submarines was for peaceful and commercial purposes: carrying cargoes under ice in Northern waters, charting and improving waterways, salvaging sunken ships and cargoes, and challenging the sea to give up her treasures of oysters, shellfish, pearls, sponges, minerals and oil. However, governments of the world demanded military submarines, and Simon responded to a US Government invitation in 1893 to submit designs. The features of the Lake design which afterwards attracted the most attention of the scientific journals were the wheels for driving along the sea bed, and the air locked diving compartment, whichpermitted entrance and egress under the sea.
The major US competitor to Lake was John P Holland with his Holland Torpedo Boat Company (merged in 1899 into the Electric Boat Company). The Irish-born Holland had designed a submarine around supply consultancy in central Europe. In 1910, after his technology was adopted by several foreign governments, and the Holland vessel Plunger proved somewhat lacking, Simon Lake was recalled to the US, at last to build submarines for his own country, as he originally intended. The Seal in 1911 was the first Lake submarine built for the US, and it established a world depth record of 256 feet.
Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence that the development of the infamous German U-boats was primarily of Lake technology. One can only ponder that. What if the US Congress had purchased the Lake submarine in the early days? How would that have affected Germany’s development of the submarine, and the ensuing U-boat menace in the 1914-18 war?
Simon Lake’s main companies were The Lake Torpedo Boat Company (C) for military vessels and The Lake Submarine (originally Sub-Marine) Company (C) for commercial ventures. He also formed many smaller companies such as Lake Wrecking and Submarine Navigation Co in 1896, Sound and Coast Wrecking Co (C) in 1900, Pearl Fisheries Submarine Machinery Co in 1909, Bedrock-Gold Submarine-Machinery Co (C) in 1911, The Catawba Dredging Co (C) in 1911, Lake Motor Boat and Aero Co in 1914, Submarine Exploration and Recovery Co (C) in 1920, Deep Sea Submarine Salvage Corp in 1929, Industrial Submarine Corp (C) in 1930, Explorer Submarine Corp and Lake Underseas Development Corp (C) in 1932, Underseas Recovery Corp in 1938.
Lake & Danenhower Inc (C) (1928) related to the re-outfitting of a Lake submarine for under-ice navigation, re-named the Nautilus after Verne’s fictional craft. Other marine companies included The American Submarine Torpedo Boat Co in 1908, California Shipbuilding, 1916, and Housatonic Shipbuilding (C) in 1917. The most profitable commercial companies were the Argonaut Salvage Corp (C) (1919) and The Lake Submarine Salvage Corp (C) (1930).
Simon Lake was a creative engineer in non-marine areas of engineering as well. He designed tunnels, and developed a variety of building construction methods using pre-fabricated concrete walls. As well as Lake Engineering Co, formed 1907, he established Black Rock Estates Inc in 1916 and, in the 1920s/30s, Connecticut Lakeolith Corp (C), Connecticut Building & Supply Co, and Sunshine Homes and Concrete Products Co (C). Other companies included Lake Heat Engine Co (C) in 1900 for building diesel engines and The Lake Aero Corp in 1919. The smaller companies never prospered as well as the main companies.
At one time, Simon Lake employed nearly 5,000 people, and an estimated 10,000 people worldwide during his lifetime. In the United States, he had offices in Milford and Bridgeport CT, Norfolk VA, Baltimore MD, Ocean City NJ, California and New York. Abroad he maintained offices in Austria, Russia, Germany, Italy and England – where he shared his office space with London newcomers, Wilbur and Orville Wright! After his death, his enterprises were apparently all dissolved. The buildings of The Lake Torpedo Boat Company existed until 1970, when they were finally torn down.
Simon Lake is credited with the development of the basic technologies which are essential for safe and successful operation of submarines, such as even-keel hydroplanes, ballast tanks, the divers’ compartment, periscope, twin-hull design, and much more. He achieved over 200 patents in his lifetime. No modern submarine could operate without using the advances made by Simon Lake, which were adopted worldwide in the early 1900s. As well as being an inventor, he was successful as entrepreneur and industrialist. He can now be seen as the Father of the Modern Submarine.
Jeffrey B Lake