Image: Lake Estate, US Patent Office
When is a submarine a car? This isn’t a riddle, it’s an honest question. I think if something has wheels and drives on the ground, it qualifies as a car. If that ground happens to be under a lot of water because it’s the bottom of the ocean, I’m not so sure that really changes things. It’s still a car. Just an underwater car. And, incredibly, these appear to have existed since 1894! Let’s dive in.
The story of wheeled, underwater vehicles is pretty limited; I think there’s some deep-sea submersibles that employed some wheels or rollers, and there’s some uncrewed underwater robots that use them, but there’s really hardly any actual wheeled underwater automobiles, as in wheel-propelled vehicles that drive on the ocean (or lake or river or sound or whatever) floor. But an inventor named Simon Lake actually managed to build a number of such vehicles, starting in 1894.
Image: Utah Press
Simon Lake is considered by some to be the father of the submarine, though that’s pretty contested, as submarines seem to have many parents, including names like Drebbel, Bushnell, Fulton, and Holland. But Lake was absolutely a crucial pioneer, and his wheeled designs remain a fascinating and strange early development.
Lake wasn’t a great student, he didn’t really have any money, but he somehow still managed to build one of the first actually successful submarines, a dream that started by his reading Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Unable to get funding from the U.S. Navy, Lake borrowed money from his aunt and built his first sub, the Argonaut Junior, on the cheap. And, unsurprisingly, it ended up being something that looked like some dude borrowed money from his aunt to build.
Here, look at this thing:
Image: Lake Estate
Majestic, isn’t she? All the grace of a backyard shed, mounted on discarded cable spools.