Wednesday, January 25, 2006

 

Submersible Stands Test of Time

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Connecticut Post
By Dirk Perrefort
January 23, 2006




'Father of the submarine' recalled

MILFORD — The barnacle-encrusted submersible that lies at the bottom of the city's harbor may seem like a forgotten piece of sea wreckage left to the ravages of time and nature.
But to those who know better, the century-old vessel is a fascinating relic from the city's past, one that opens a portal into the life of city native and inventor Simon Lake, a pioneer in the field of submarine technology and underwater exploration.

"Simon Lake is the true father of the modern submarine," said Jeff Lake, one of the famed inventor's descendants. "There were a lot of people at the time who had the right ingredients for a submarine, but Simon Lake had the right recipe. He was the only one to receive a telegram from Jules Verne in 1898 congratulating him on making his dream become a reality."

While some mistakenly believe the submersible in the city's harbor is an early submarine, it is actually a chamber that would be lowered to the ocean floor by a boom on a ship. People could walk to the chamber through a 200-foot-long tube with a staircase that was connected to the structure.

"People called it Simon Lake's stairway to the sea," Lake said. "The chamber was used to do salvage work on the ocean floor and explore sunken wrecks. He would also use the chamber to harvest oysters and clams."

One of three such chambers built by Lake was used by England in 1907 to salvage the Lutine, a treasure-filled ship that sank in the Zuider Zee, a former arm of the North Sea that was later shut off by dikes, according to the inventor's family.

Joseph Leary, an author and historian from Fairfield, said that while many people have incorrectly referred to the chamber as a submarine, it is still an important relic built by the Lake Torpedo Boat Co. in Bridgeport. The chamber, more than 20 feet in diameter, can still be seen along Rogers Avenue during low tide.

"It was an innovative design for its day," Leary said. "It points to the breadth and depth of Simon Lake's interest in all things underwater. Lake was interested more in the practical applications of his designs than the technology itself." City resident Winifred Oldroyd, 89, Lake's granddaughter, said her grandfather was more interested in having his submersibles used for peaceful purposes, such as explorations and salvage expeditions, than for war. At onepoint, Lake was involved with an expedition to the North Pole that was canceled at the last minute, she said.
"He hated to think that the submarine could be used for an evil purpose," Oldroyd said.

She added that Lake believed drawings he submitted to the German Naval Ministry 10 years before World War II were later used to create the infamous U-boats.

Oldroyd said her grandfather, who died on June 23, 1945, at 78, built many of his submersibles in a workshop behind his house on Broad Street. The house is now the site of the Smith Funeral Home.

Although some have expressed an interest in raising the submersible from the harbor floor, experts say it might not be worth the expense — though they concede it's an interesting and feasible proposition.

"Whoever would raise the vessel would be responsible for its conservation and preservation in perpetuity," said Nick Bellantoni, the state archaeologist. "That could cost millions of dollars for a vessel like that."

Bellantoni added, however, that he would be interested in conducting additional research on the chamber, possibly through a newly developed underwater archaeology program at the University of Connecticut.

"It sounds like a fascinating project," he said. "We would be happy to help in any way that we can."

Leary said he would be just as happy if the chamber stays where it is, so that it can serve as a "touchstone for people's memories of the man." He added that the Explorer, the last submarine built by Lake in 1936, is already on display at Milford Landing Marina on Helwig Street. Also on display at the landing is a plaque from the first metal even-keeled submarine "Argonaut," which Lake built in 1897. The even-keeled technology developed by Lake is still used today in modern submarines.

"People should pay more attention to the accomplishments of Simon Lake," Leary said. "He's a forgotten hero."


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