SIMON LAKE AND THE WRIGHT BROTHERS – Local Links to Flight
By William Kelly
To fly with the birds, run like horses, to sink and swim with fishes, to move and go where no man has gone before, to do things man has never done and be the first to do it, were all hallmarks of man’s great technological leaps of the last century.
It’s not a coincidence that Simon Lake went down under, Henry Ford and Harley-Davidson drove and the Wright brothers flew for the first time, all within a short span of time. It was the age of invention, sparked in part by the machine age, when engine power replaced horsepower and propel man into the new century.
That Simon Lake and the Wright brothers were contemporaries is apparent, but that they were also acquaintances, mutual admirers, business associates and possible collaborators is a fascinating footnote to history that has been overlooked and is worth exploring. He may have even designed and built a practical flying machine two years before the Wright brothers.
The Lake family, originally from Pleasantville, purchased Peck’s Beach from the Somers family of Somers Point, and converted the island into the Christian family resort of Ocean City, New Jersey.
When Ralph Lake returned to Ocean City from his Hawaiian coffee plantation to visit his mother and family, he said that his research into his family’s history showed a number of Lake men marrying Somers women, paving the way for the Lake family to convert what the Somers family used as a cattle pen for their plantation, into a full-fledged resort city, just as they had done to Absecon Island and Atlantic City.
What Ralph Lake thought peculiar however, was a short reference to the Wright brothers having a business relationship with Simon Lake, correspondence between them, and the probability that they shared addresses and administrative office space together in London.
Daniel Lake, who gave Pleasantville it’s name, had a son Jesse S. Lake, who married Phoebe Somers, daughter of John R. and Sarah Somers. Jesse was an practical inventor of such things as a whistling buoy, a steering wheel for yachts, rolling shades, a weighting scale and tractor, securing patents for 65 items. Then there was Simon Lake, who married Harriet Somers, the daughter of James and Martha Somers. He was the grandfather of the Simon Lake who invented one of the first practical submarines. Lucas lake, who built the first “turnpike” road to Atlantic City, married Rachel Somers, Phoebe’s sister.
It was John Christopher Lake, whose son Simon Lake, developed the “Argonaut, Jr.,” submarine and organized the Lake Submarine Company. According to the Genealogy of the Lake Family, “In 1901 and 1902 while living at Rutherford, N.J., he invented his flying machine and announced it in the New York Herald over his own signature as follows: “I have a practical everyday flying machine regardless of ordinary wind or weather for air, land and water.” Signed, J. Christopher Lake.”
“This announcement created a furore at that time; but owning to the then questionable practicability of the submarine boat and to the utter impossibility of the flying machine, he was induced to lay the flying machine aside and devote his energies and resources to the submarine interests. This he did for some years and removed to Bridgeport. As VP of the Company, he looked after its business in the United States for some years whenever the President (his son Simon) was in Europe. After the submarine became more popular and the first order was received from the Untied States for a Lake boat and its success was assured, he returned quietly to the promotion of his flying machine. He subsequently purchased the property of the Nutmeg Park Driving Association, with adjoining property of about fifty acres,...After experimenting, building and testing out flying machines within the grounds, he reopened and rechrisened it the “Bridgeport Aerodrome.” It was commonly known, however, as the “Lake Aerodrome”; here was held the first and most successful aviation meet in the State. Since this time he has organized the Lake Aero Company, Inc…having the exclusive rights of manufacture and sale of his flying machine inventions, of his air-borne motor boats, and his flying boats.”
As a student at the University of Dayton, Ohio, I was quite familiar with the Wright brothers. I had to walk past their graves every morning on my way to school, cutting across the cemetery to get to class, and having read most of the available biographies of the men. I had also been to Kill Devil Hill, at Kitty Hawk, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the Wright brothers first flew a powered, controlled flight in December, 1903.
Having lived in Ocean City, I was also familiar with the Lake family and Simon Lake, the inventor of the first practical submarine, but a connection between the them was a link worth investigating.
While the Wright brothers had never graduated from high school, let alone college, and were humble bicycle mechanics, Simon Lake was the wealthy inventor who had patented ideas for vertical flight – the helicopter, and had developed a number of practical submarines. While the Wright brothers were experimenting with control devices on their gliders, Simon Lake had perfected workable submarines he called the Argonaut and the Protector.
Like the Wright brothers, who were competing with others in the race towards being the first man to fly, Simon Lake was up against Holland’s submarine, which had the endorsement of the US government. The Wright’s main competitor was Samuel P. Langley, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute.
While Simon Lake took parties down in his submarine, opened a hatch and caught some fish, cleaned and grilled them and held dinner parties on the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, the Wright brothers were perfecting their control devices of their gliders. With the Wright brothers concentrating on control, pitch, roll using wing flaps, devices that are part of every successful flying machine from their first Wright Flyer to the Space Shuttle, Langley was convinced that flying was only a matter of getting enough power from an engine. In the fall of 1903 both of Langley’s well publicized and government financed ($30,000) flights fell right into the Potomac River. The Wrights suggested that Langley try to develop a submarine instead.
Lake had already succeeded in doing that, though the U.S. government declined to buy his Protector, built in 1901-1902. Both Japan and Russian, then at war, were keenly interested in Lake’s subs however, and Lake made a deal with the Ruskies. He shipped the first Protector to St. Petersburg, where it was sent to Vladivostok, 6,000 miles across Russia to Siberia on special railroad cars. The Protector, renamed the Osetr, worked and six more were ordered, and built by the Newport News Shipbuilding Co. and formed the basis of the Russian submarine fleet. Other nations took interest, including the Krupps of Germany, as well as England and France.
Meanwhile, the Wright brothers, on December 17, 1903, flew man’s first powered, controlled flights at Kill Devil Hills, and then retreated to their home in Dayton, where they perfected their “Flyer” over Huffman field, a cow pasture that’s now the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and air museum.
While the Wrights too were having a hard time convincing the U.S. Government and the Army of the utility of their new invention, a flying machine, Simon Lake was in Europe selling his submarines to foreign governments.
From the one citation that Ralph Lake noticed in “Argonaut – the Submarine Legacy of Simon Lake” (By John J. Poluhowich, p. 102), there is the reference that, “…Hart Berg asked Lake to review a proposal that had been submitted….Berg said, “Simon, here is a lot of stuff (Flint) sent over. He has evidently got hold of another ‘crazy inventor’, a man who thinks he can fly, and tells me he can get the European rights to this invention if we assist in financing the building of one of these flying machines.” The ‘crazy inventor’ was Wilber Wright. Lake had an interest in flight….and spent the better part of that evening reviewing the Wright patents and came to the conclusion that the brothers’ claims were justifiable and that the plane would fly. He recommended to Berg that he contact Flint immediately and sign a contract with the brothers as their representative. Inadvertently, Lake did not ask to be a subscriber to their venture, a mistake he would later regret. Flint had requested that Lake permit the Wright brothers to use one of his offices as their European headquarters. Lake befriended Wilber Wright and was able to witness one of the aviator’s first flights at LeMans, France.”
While Orville Wright stayed at home, attempting to convince the Army of the usefulness of the airplane for our national defense, Wilber Wright went to Europe to sell their invention to foreign governments, where he hooked up with Simon Lake, already successful in such dealings.
With Wilber in Europe demonstrating the airplane to the skeptical Europeans, Orville flew at Fort Meyer, Virginia. After a few successful demonstrations, a propeller shaft broke and the plane crashed, injuring Orville and killing his passenger, Lt. Thomas Selfridge, one of the first casualties of flying. Eventually, the Army set a requirement of a two seated flying machine that could stay aloft for at least one hour, and when Orville flew around the Virginia country side for over and hour and fifteen minutes before landing, and no other attempts were made, the Army bought a Wright airplane and began training pilots.
In France, Wilber was breaking new duration records every time he went up in the air. In September 1908 at Le Mans, France, Wilber put on a remarkable demonstration of flying, and after he landed, Mrs. Edith Hart O. Berg asked if she could go for a ride. Without further documentation, Mrs. Berg is most probably the wife of Hart Berg, Simon Lake’s assistant who handled the correspondence from Wilber Wright.
Tying her long skirt down with a rope, Mrs. Berg became the first American women to fly as a passenger in an airplane, taking a short, two minute, seven second flight seated to the right of Wilber Wright. According to reports, “A French fashion designer watching the flight was impressed with the way Mrs. Berg walked away from the aircraft with her skirt still tied. Mrs. Berg was then credited with inspiring the famous ‘Hobble Skirt” fashion.” [Photos of Mrs. Berg in the plane are at: http://www.ctie.monash.edu.au/hargrave/berg.html. ]
One other reference to the Lake and Wright brothers collaboration comes from the website Simon Lake Who? [http://www.simonlake.com/html/simon_lake_who_.html ], which notes, “Simon Lake…shared part of his London office with the Wright brothers who were also forced to market their inventions abroad due to lack of interest by the US government. The inventors first met when the Wright brothers submitted their airplane designs to Simon Lake for his review before making their famous Kitty Hawk flight.”
So there you have it, Simon Lake, the man inspired by Jules Vernes’ “2000 Leagues Under the Sea” who developed the first practical submarine, was a mentor, business associate and friend of the Wright brothers, and played a role in the development and marketing of their invention, the airplane. Xxxx