The Baker Boat

George C. Baker

Sketch of Baker's Submarine

US Patent 530,460 Granted to George C. Baker in 1894

Length 46 feet
Beam 9 feet
Depth 13 feet
Displacement 20 ton

A - Wooden Shell
B - Wooden Sheathing
D - Fixed Ballast
E - Water Compartment
H - Boiler
I - Adjustable Smokestack
  J - Steam Engine
L - Dynamo
M - Storage Batteries
T - Conning Tower
U - Transparent Covers
X - Torpedo

George C. Baker was born December 21, 1844 on a farm in Illinois. At age 18, he joined the Twenty-third Iowa Regiment and went off to fight in the Civil War. By 1879, he had invented several barbed wire machines, built a small factory and entered the barbed wire business. In 1887, he moved his factory from Des Moines to Lockport, Illinois and set up offices in Chicago. A year later, he submitted plans for a submarine boat to the Navy Department.

George Baker was one of several inventors that submitted plans to the United States Navy Department in 1888. Although, John Holland is rumored to have won that competition, there was a change of administration and nothing was done. George Baker took the bold step of building his submarine anyway. Construction of the "Baker Boat" began in 1890 at the Detroit Boat Company. Trials began on April 29, 1892, when the inventor and the construction foreman submerged the boat for one hour and fifty minutes. The second trial was held on May 20, 1892 in the River Rouge, south of Detroit, Michigan. Baker and Goddard were accompanied by the editor of Western Electric. Following the trial, the editor reported:" Some little difficulty was found in depth keeping, however, and this was perhaps the chief fault of the boat. The twin propellers with their every-way gearing , are distinctly novel and the 'Baker' is on the whole a great credit to her inventor."1

The hull of the "Baker Boat" was wood - 7 inches thick. On the surface, the boat was propelled using a small steam engine. The boiler was built by C. P. Willard and Company of Chicago, and the steam plant developed 60 Indicated Horse Power (IHP). The smoke stack for the boiler telescoped up when the boiler was in use, but collapsed to a few inches tall for submerged operations. The ends of the smokestack were closed. Perforations near the bottom of the stack allowed the exhaust gases to enter and perforations near the top allowed them to escape. The outer edge of the top of the stack was designed to seal against the opening in the top of the hull.

When submerged, the submarine was powered by an electric motor, which could operate as a genterator to recharge the 232 Woodward accumulators (batteries). The 220 volt motor could develop 50 horse power.

The steam engine and electric motor were connected via gears to a horizontal shaft that ran across the boat at its center. At each end of the shaft was a set of bevel gears that transmitted the power to a propeller located at right angles to the shaft on either side of the boat. A control mechanism allowed the operator to orient the propellers as required to drive the boat up, down, forward or backward. A standard rudder arrangement was used to steer the boat.

Having an operational submarine in his possession put Baker in a unique position when the Navy Department opened a new competition for the design of a submarine torpedo boat in 1893. In July 1893, The New York Times declared John Holland the winner, but George Baker did not give up easily.

In his book, John P. Holland: Inventor of the Modern Submarine, Richard Morris describes the events as follows:

"... There was something ominous about the ensuing silence from officialdom. A month passed before Holland heard from the Board on Submarine Torpedo Boats in the Bureau of Ordnance, and then it was a request from Lieutenant Commander C. S. Sperry for further descriptions and calculations to support Holland's drawings. Such an inquiry could only mean that pressure was being placed on the Board to postpone a final decision. Baker's influence in Washington was impressive. He was, in fact, considered by many observers to be the original instigator of the congressional appropriation of 3 March 1893, and thus his stake in the competition loomed large. E. B. Frost set out to counteract the Baker lobby. He requested Holland to find a shipbuilder for the submarine should he, Frost, be able to negotiate a contract with the Navy."
"What happened in Washington during the summer of 1893 is a complicated story. Baker had completed the actual construction of his boat one year prior to these events and he was fully prepared to demonstrate her on Lake Michigan for the benefit of the Navy. Senator William B. Allison of Iowa and General C. M. Shelley, Baker's lawyer, persuaded the Secretary of the navy that the Board on Submarine Torpedo Boats should put Baker's little vessel through her paces. The Board, in fairness to Holland, Baker's major competitor, offered him the opportunity to present a boat of his own. Holland objected to these tactics, for he knew through Secretary Whitney and others that his design had received the approval of the Board. His reply to the Board's invitation was both masterful and clear."
"The Fenian Ram, he wrote, still existed, but vandals had stripped her of gauges and other machinery; and she lay in a state of neglect in the yard of James Reynolds in New Haven. The cost of refitting her would be considerable; and his company, already financially embarrassed as a result of the design competition, should not have to bear the expense. Furthermore, the circular advertised for designs only; it said nothing about pitting completed boats against each other. If The New York Times report of 28 July was correct, the Holland design had been accepted by the Board. Did the Board now intend to change the tenor of its report? "
"The Board was stung by the sharpness of Holland's objections to its procedures and replied that The New York Times, or any newspaper in the country for that matter, was not the official organ of the Navy Department. The Board also asserted that, when a boat such as Baker's existed, it was quite proper to desire to test her. The case rested there as far as the Navy was concerned"2

The tests were completed by mid September and the newspapers declared that the Board had again recommended the Holland design over that of George Baker.

"In spite of the optimism among the officials of the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company over the decision of the Board, other circles in Washington set out to delay the Secretary's approval. In fact, when the report reached the Secretary's desk, he decided not to issue the contract for the construction of the Holland boat. He claimed the appropriation should be diverted to other naval construction. Was this the result of the political influence Baker was able to command? If so, Frost would attempt to undermine Baker's power, as Creecy urged him to do. The officials of the Company were prepared to gamble. They would suggest that Baker join them in exchange for $200,000 in Holland Company stock, provided that Baker assign his patents, 'free of all encumbrances' to the Holland interests." 3

The Secretary of the Navy continued to stall. In November, he ordered the Navy Department to conduct tests to determine if the crew of a submarine could survive an underwater explosion. The tests were conducted in December at the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island. The tests consisted of submerging a tank containing a cat, a rabbit, a rooster and a dove, then setting off a series of explosions progressively closer to the tank. The cat and the rooster survived, but the rabbit and dove did not. The decision to award a contract for the construction of a submarine boat was further delayed as the Secretary mulled over the results of these tests.

In March of 1894, George Baker traveled to Washington to see if he could end the delay and secure the $250,000 that Congress had appropriated for the construction of a submarine boat. Unfortunately, he fell ill and died of appendicitis on March 23, 1894. 4 The contract was finally awarded in March of 1895 - to the Holland Torpedo Boat Company.

  1. Burgoyne, Alan, Submarine Navigation: Past and Present, E. P. Dutton & Co., New York, 1903, pg 182.
  2. Morris, Richard Knowles, John P. Holland: Inventor of the Mordern Submarine, University of South Carolina, Columbia, pg 68-69.
  3. Ibid., pg 70
  4. Des Moines, Iowa newspaper

2001,2002 Gary McCue

Gary W. McCue