The Other Nautilus and Simon Lake’s Dream of Under Ice Travel

Blue Nose

In my time on board submarines, I traveled many places around the world. But traveling under the ice to the North Pole remains one of my most elusive goals. The sheer adventure of the trip appeals to me as a submariner and I am indeed envious of anyone who has safely navigated through that foreboding journey. Recently, the USS Pittsburgh (SSN 720) completed such a passage which was documented after the fact in public sources. The Captain informed me that it was the only time the boat did such a feat and it is indeed sad that it was done as the boat traveled to her final resting place. As I said in a recent article though, what a “cool” way to end a boat’s operational life.

The exact quote from the “Port of Pittsburgh” (Official Publication of the Navy League of the United States, Pittsburgh Council) President’s article from April, May and June of 2019:

“Just as she had always done, she did it with bravery and purpose. I can think of no better way to bring the final chapter to a close, so Bravo Zulu to our amazing crew and Captain for sliding into home base in a cloud of sea spray.”

While preparing for another project, I ran across another article on one of the web sites I frequent about another proposed journey under the ice.

The Library of Congress now has digitalized images of old newspapers from the past few hundred years. This resource has been invaluable in my writing and often provides me with stories that otherwise may remain buried in the vault. This particular one was the basis of the post today.

Simon Lake arguably was one of the greatest influences on submarine development worldwide.

In 1931, the world was still at relative peace even though there were rumblings from both German and Japan. The memory of the horrendous costs of the First World War still hung over the entire civilized world. Treaties had been enacted to try and completely eliminate the use of submarines even though most countries continued to develop the technology.

In this article, Lake himself seemed to be trying to extend his earlier belief that submarines would be used for peaceful purposes. The idea of using submarines in civilian commerce was not new. Certainly the Germans had proven the possibility with the Deutschland at the beginning of the war.

But Lake was convinced that the real money would be made using undersea boats to circumvent the world’s existing travel routes under the ice.

This article discusses what his plan was.

Sunday Evening Star (Washington, D.C.) 1854-1972, January 11, 1931

Simon Lake, Submarine Inventor, Foresees Time Shortly When Huge Submersibles Will Ply Ice-Packed Arctic Routes, Shortening Distance Between Ports on Opposite Sides of the Globe.


GIGANTIC submarines, floating under sea palaces as luxurious and as well appointed as the finest passenger liners of today, will soon be hurtling through the dark depths of the seven seas unhampered by winds or storms, unaffected by the tossing and pitching of mountainous waves in a heavy sea. Huge cargo-carrying submersibles will revise the trade routes of the world, plying unhampered under or through Arctic ice, the chief barrier to man’s utilization of the valuable polar lanes between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres, saving millions of dollars in fuel costs, canal tolls and freight rates.

THESE are not the imaginings of a modern Jules Verne seeking to emulate his prophetic forecasts by a modem rendition of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.” They are the calm and calculated predictions of Simon Lake, a man who has facts and figures to back up his claims as well as a life time spent in inventing and designing submarines. Few men can lay claim to such a record of engineering and construction in the field of submersibles as he possesses. Germany’s sudden successful switch from the dreadnought to the submarine as a major weapon in naval warfare has left the impression that it was Prussian scientists who were responsible for the advancements made in submarine fields during the World War. The boats manufactured by Krupps, however, were on plans of the Lake submarine, copies of patents and even secret data which lake had been induced to turn over under the impression that he was protected by contract. Russia and Germany bad entered into negotiations with him to permit construction of his type of submersible at a plant in Russia after the Russo-Japanese War. Immediately after, however, the industrial revolution which followed the war took place and the Krupps withdrew from the arrangements, notifying Lake that since his submarine was not protected by German patents they considered themselves free to manufacture them at will. The submarines which startled and terrified the world early in the World War were Lake type boats.

Lake was responsible for perhaps the greatest single step in submarine designing yet taken. He devised the method of even-keel submergence, which overcame the greatest obstacle to undersea craft navigation, the uncontrolled dive. Previous to this Invention submergence was usually effected by pointing the bow of the submersible downward. The disadvantage of this method, tragically proved a number of times, was that once started diving the craft might not be stopped until it had buried its nose in the bottom. Famous commercial German submarine Deutschland, which served as a blockade runner for the central powers during the World War.

This diving fault was overcome by Lake, who built a ship-shaped superstructure on the top of the usual bull of the submarine. This increased the stability of the submarine and tended to keep it on an even keel. Horizontal rudders or leveling vanes, which automatically maintained constant depth and level keel, also were used. Modem submarines employ both these features.

BESIDES these all-important devices, Lake also invented and designed numerous other submarine improvements and machines. He was the first to install an internal-combustion engine in a submersible. It can be seen then that any prediction as to the industrial future of the submarine made by him has a lifetime of accurate knowledge and invention in the field of undersea travel behind it.

“After a long delay, the submarine as a valuable instrument of commerce is about to come into its own,” said Lake.

He was asked if he meant that eventually undersea travel will supplant all surface travel.

“Not entirely,” he answered. “Because no matter how palatial a submarine might be made, nor how swift its Journey, may be accomplished in comparison to the giant surface liners, there will still be the element of pleasure to be considered. A good portion of transoceanic travel is of that type. ”

In the field of cargo-carrying alone immense savings through the submarine can be readily computed. In undersea craft lies the eventual means of putting to use the hitherto undeveloped but vastly important trade routes of the Arctic. For instance, in the time factor alone consider the saving a ship would effect if it could travel from Hamburg or Liverpool to San Francisco via the Northeast Passage instead of across the Atlantic, through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific.

“Look at your globe. Trace your course through the Arctic passages from Europe down to San Francisco. Then trace the course now in use across the Atlantic and through the Canal. A glance at the two lines will show that one is almost twice as long as the other.

“This is considering the time factor only. When the expense items are advanced —twice as much fuel required for the longer trip, crew salaries over a longer period, canal tolls (over a dollar a ton) —the value of these Arctic passages can readily be seen. The only thing preventing their being put to use immediately is the ice fields which a ship attempting to make the passage would encounter. This is the only hindrance to development of Arctic trade routes today. But it is a hindrance only to surface ships. I have found that it can be a valuable ally in speeding up undersea travel. All that is necessary is some stimulus to bring the passages into actual use for submarine travel.

“Consider the vast areas in Northern Russia, Siberia and North America rich in mineral products, oil and the like that may be opened to development by cargo-carrying under-ice submarines.

“Capt. Sir George Hubert Wilkins’ dash to the North Pole in a submarine next summer will supply the necessary spark, I think. Very soon after that we will see the underseas craft make its appearance in the Industrial field. I am confident that Capt. Wilkins’ expedition will be a success and that it will prove conclusively that navigation through the Arctic area is both practical and profitable.

“Many persons have the idea that Capt. Wilkins’ voyage will be made entirely under water. This is a mistake. Roughly, I would figure that at least half of it will be made on the surface. The Arctic, of course, is not one vast sheet of frozen water. There are many areas as free of ice as the Caribbean. But where ice is present Capt. Wilkins’ craft and the passenger and cargo-carrying submarines of the future can either go under it or through it.”

A description of the submarine which will be used in the polar dash will give some idea of how the submarines of the future will be equipped for their negotiation of the Arctic passages. It was designed and built by Lake for the United States during the World War.

It was known as the 0-12, but will be renamed the Nautilus in honor of the craft in Jules Verne’s prophetic undersea talc. The Nautilus is somewhat small in comparison to the latest naval submarines, but it is amply large for Capt. Wilkins’ use in his dash from Spitsbergen to the Bering Sea. It had been decommissioned and was lying in reserve in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where it was scheduled to be scrapped under the naval treaty.

The idea of using a submarine for Polar navigation originated with Lake as far back as 1897, when he advocated it as a means of making the North Pole, in an address before the faculty of Johns Hopkins University. In trial runs of the Protector, in the winter of 1903, and of the Kalman, in the Gulf of Finland, most of the he has invented for navigation through or under Arctic ice packs have been proved practical, he believes. One of his important discoveries was that a submarine craft broke with ease through frozen packs, which even the larger surface liners could not negotiate. The second revelation was that travel under the ice could be made with comparative speed and safety by means of an Inverted toboggan superstructure on top of the hull extending over the conning tower, so that the submarine could easily slide along under the ice.

The Nautilus is being equipped with the Inverted toboggan structure, as Sir Hubert will travel under the ice where necessary instead of breaking a path on the surface. The craft will stop at least every 100 miles to take in air. If the trolley indicator on the submersible registers open water above, the ship will rise and take in air by opening the hatches. If there is ice above, a telescope arrangement on the conning tower will be used to pierce it and bring down air from the surface through a tube. A hole can be made by this method large enough to permit the men to clamber out on the ice. If ice of extraordinary thickness is met, a depth bomb could be set and the submarine would retreat some distance to avoid any damage to the hull by the concussion of the blast.

To expedite travel under the Arctic pack the Nautilus will be equipped with searchlights, but little danger is anticipated in the form of obstructions extending below the ice.

What may seem strange to the uninitiated is the fact that there are no icebergs in the Polar Sea. Admiral Peary, who spent 9 winters in exploring above the Arctic Circle, saw none of these floating mountains of ice. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who has 10 years of Arctic residence to his record, did not see any, and believes that there are no icebergs in the Polar Sea between Franz Josef Island and Spitsbergen on the European side and Siberia on the opposite side. Both of these explorers concur in the belief that an ice cake will not extend more than 120 feet below the surface, basing their theory on the fact that they have never seen an ice cake aground deeper than that. A submarine would have no difficulty in cruising under such an obstruction if one were met. Prof. Nansen reported that the thickest ice found on his Arctic travels was 14 feet. It can be seen, then, that steamships cruising North Atlantic lanes are in more danger of colliding with icebergs than a submarine in the Polar Sea. The tragedy of the Titanic will live as a grim reminder that all the ice is not inside the Arctic Circle.

The Nautilus’s trip from Spitsbergen to open water in the Bering Sea on the other side of the Pole will require about 60 days, allowing for a stay of some length at the Pole. The submarine will be fueled for a cruising range of 7,000 miles, and will have a year’s provision for a crew of 18 men. Since the trip will be made in the summer, no difficulty in the way of protracted travel under the ice is expected, although the submarine is to be equipped and ready for such an emergency. During July and August open water is encountered every 10 or 15 miles in the icefields, according to the explorers The Nautilus at its slowest pace will do I doubt if more than 100 miles a day under ice and about 250 miles in open water. Prof. Nansen estimates the time necessary for a submarine equipped with appliances for Polar travel to go from Spitsbergen to the Pole and back again would be about 10 days.

While opening up of the Polar trade routes and transoceanic travel present the most important developments in the industrial future of the submarine, Lake calls attention to valuable domestic purposes for which the submarine devices can be utilized. One of the major ones is the gathering of oysters and clams.

“In the salvage business, too, modifications of this plan have been found successful. Gold and silver are not the only treasures that have gone to the bottom with the sinking of ships. Coal, copper and other ores line our shores in sunken wrecks. The difficulty has been in retrieving the cargoes on a large scale, since ordinary diving methods are too costly and slow.”


So what actually happened? Was the Nautilus successful?

The answer comes from another source:


“One day I read an interview with Sir Hubert Wilkins, who had just made his first flight across the Arctic:

“There were no suitable landing places,” he said. “I think the Pole could most easily be reached by submarine.”

I met him along with Captain Sloan Danenhower, who had at one time been in command of submarines in the United States Navy, and later had represented the Navy in charge of our builders’ trials at Bridgeport during the testing of new submarines. “

“The Lake-Danenhower Company was formed, the plan being to use the old Defender, built in 1907, but later we were able to borrow the 0-12 from the Navy. It was a much larger and more powerful vessel and was one of those scheduled for destruction under the Balfour agreement. We agreed to pay one dollar a year and, when we were through with her, return her to the Navy for destruction.”

“I designed a new superstructure and put in a diving compartment which later enabled scientists to collect specimens of arctic marine life through an opened door. I understand that the craft itself functioned perfectly, but for various reasons Sir Hubert Wilkins and Captain Danenhower were so anxious to get away on the voyage that they took a chance, and sailed with engines and electric equipment in very bad condition.”

“An engine cylinder was cracked, two of the pumps were not in condition, the ice drill and conning-tower were not functioning properly, and I have been told that one of the large yokes of the generator motor was loose in the rack. In marine engineering, and especially in submarine engineering, there is almost no such thing as a minor defect. A little trouble is apt to multiply into many big troubles.”

Therefore the Wilkins-Danenhower expedition failed of reaching its goal, but it did prove the practicability of traveling through and under heavy ice. It seems that much valuable data was accumulated in determining the contour of the arctic water bed, and I understand that Dr. Sverdrup, one of the scientists on the expedition who spent many hours in the diving compartment, is preparing a book describing this work.

The Expedition entered the polar region and navigated under ice. But it was not the success that Lake predicted. The Nautilus was riddled with mechanical problems, as Simon predicted, and the vessel had to be scuttled on November 20, 1931 in a Norwegian Fjord.

One of these days someone, government, transportation company, or well-to-do individual, will build the right kind of a submarine for under-ice and commercial work, and overnight it will be accepted as other mechanical advances of the day have been. Such a submarine should be more rugged than the military type, and the propelling machinery should be designed for giving a powerful thrust at a slow speed rather than for fast going. The expensive installations required for armament and for quick submergence could be dispensed with and the cost reduced to about one-fourth of a military craft.

I’d like to make that trip over the bottom that Dr. Beebe talks about and, perhaps, drift the boat through the streets of Atlantis and peer in through the windows of the drowned palaces. Who knows?

On the day I wrote this article, I had recently turned 65 myself.

And now, the rest of the story.

A ship named Nautilus did indeed become the first submarine to transit to the North Pole. While there are a few similarities in the two stories, it would take an entirely new technology to allow the journey to be completed.

Here is her story:

Sunshine – under the North Pole – Summer of 1958

“In response to the nuclear ICBM threat posed by Sputnik, President Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Navy to attempt a submarine transit of the North Pole to gain credibility for the soon-to-come SLBM weapons system. On 25 April 1958, Nautilus was underway again for the West Coast, now commanded by Commander William R. Anderson, USN. Stopping at San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle, she began her history-making polar transit, Operation “Sunshine”, as she departed the latter port on 9 June. On 19 June she entered the Chukchi Sea, but was turned back by deep drift ice in those shallow waters. On 28 June she arrived at Pearl Harbor to await better ice conditions.

By 23 July 1958 her wait was over, and she set a course northward. She submerged in the Barrow Sea Valley on 1 August and on 3 August, at 2315 (EDT) she became the first watercraft to reach the geographic North Pole. The ability to navigate at extreme latitudes and without surfacing was enabled by the technology of the North American Aviation N6A-1 Inertial Navigation System, a naval modification of the N6A used in the Navaho cruise missile; it had been installed on Nautilus and Skate after initial sea trials on USS Compass Island in 1957. From the North Pole, she continued on and after 96 hours and 1,590 nautical miles (2,940 km; 1,830 mi) under the ice, surfaced northeast of Greenland, having completed the first successful submerged voyage around the North Pole. The technical details of this mission were planned by scientists from the Naval Electronics Laboratory including Dr. Waldo Lyon who accompanied Nautilus as chief scientist and ice pilot.

Navigator’s report: Nautilus, 90°N, 19:15U, 3 August 1958, zero to North Pole.

Navigation beneath the arctic ice sheet was difficult. Above 85°N both magnetic compasses and normal gyrocompasses become inaccurate. A special gyrocompass built by Sperry Rand was installed shortly before the journey. There was a risk that the submarine would become disoriented beneath the ice and that the crew would have to play “longitude roulette”. Commander Anderson had considered using torpedoes to blow a hole in the ice if the submarine needed to surface.

The most difficult part of the journey was in the Bering Strait. The ice extended as much as 60 feet (18 m) below sea level. During the initial attempt to go through the Bering Strait, there was insufficient room between the ice and the sea bottom. During the second, successful attempt to pass through the Bering passage, the submarine passed through a known channel close to Alaska (this was not the first choice, as the submarine wanted to avoid detection).

The trip beneath the ice cap was an important boost to America as the Soviets had recently launched Sputnik, but had no nuclear submarine of their own. During the address announcing the journey, the president mentioned that one day nuclear cargo submarines might use that route for trade.

As Nautilus proceeded south from Greenland, a helicopter airlifted Commander Anderson to connect with transport to Washington, D.C. At a White House ceremony on 8 August, President Eisenhower presented him with the Legion of Merit and announced that the crew had earned a Presidential Unit Citation.

At her next port of call, the Isle of Portland, England, she received the Unit Citation, the first ever issued in peace time, from American Ambassador JH Whitney, and then crossed the Atlantic reaching New London, Connecticut on 29 October. For the remainder of the year Nautilus operated from her home port of New London.”

Many of our later submarines would travel beneath the ice. It was a dream that was ahead of its time, but the significance of being able to overcome these tremendous obstacles should not be lost on our friends or our adversaries.

Where ever there is water beneath the keep, the American submarine force has proven that we own the seas.

Even the one covered by ice.

Mister Mac

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