The Great Lakes’ First Submarine L.D. Phillips’ Fool Killer – Fall 1983


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The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Patricia A. Gruse Harris

In this original research you may be startled by the early dates involved and the youth of the inventor. Had his character and personality been just a wrinkle more mature, he might have ranked with Erickson and Fulton.

This piece is a drastic condensation, requested by the editors, of Patricia Gruse Harris’ fascinating small book of the same title, reviewed in the last issue. The book contains much more, fully illustrated.

Michigan City, Indiana, has had a long, well-known marine history from Indian canoes, voyageurs, schooners and sidewheelers up through today’s pleasure craft. But the least known is its submarine story.

Lodner Darvontis Phillips launched his first submarine at age 20 in Trail Creek in 1845 at the foot of the Old Lighthouse, the first one ever on the Great Lakes. That first one was not highly successful, but in 185 1 he had so perfected it that it took him, his wife, and family for an all-day excursion on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Lodner Phillips, born in 1825 in Monroe County, New York, was the second son of Cyril and Virena (Bateman) Phillips. The opening west attracted Lodner’s father, in 1842, to move his family of three sons and a daughter from New York via the Erie Canal, and Lakes Erie and Michigan to LaPorte County, Indiana. Boot and shoemakers for generations, they established a shoe factory in Michigan City, one of the largest factories in the area at that time.

But young Lodner had so many ideas churning inside his head there was little room for the design of a new boot or shoe. Instead, he decided to invent a fool killer. In the 1800s anything built to go under the water was called a fool killer, because any fool who would go under the water in some contraption would certainly be killed. In fact, in 1852, when Phillips pro- posed his submarine invention to the Navy Department, he drew the sarcastic response, “The boats used by the Navy go in and not under the water.”

His first submarine was shaped like a white fish. Lodner’s nephew described this first submarine as it had been told to him by his father, Addison Phillips, older brother of the inventor: First Hand Description

“Lodner Phillips’ first submarine was built at Michigan City, he thinks on the beach where it was launched. The hull was covered with sheet copper. It had no apparatus for propelling it except a pole to push it along the bottom of the lake. The pole passed through the hull, the opening being made water- tight with rubber gaskets. It is believed a device similar to a crude cylinder was used for submerging and raising the submarine. When the cylinder was filled with water, it served the purpose of making the craft go down. Expell- ing the water from the cylinder by means of a plunger operated by hand was to give it sufficient buoyancy to rise to the surface. The boat sank in some twelve feet of water about where the harbor now is – pretty near the old lighthouse, but across on the west side of the river. No one was in it at the time. Lodner and his (younger) brother, William, afterwards raised it, and taking it up the river, placed it on the bank.”

The submarine was allowed to go to ruin from neglect and found a final resting place back in the harbor, never seen again.

Another one of his submarines found a watery grave in the Chicago River. It was presumably found when wreckers raised the Eastland, which had capsized in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. This fool killer was put on public exhibition in Chicago in 1916. For 10¢ you could “inspect the interior at your own risk.” After this exhibition, it disappeared.

Phillips had improved his submarine considerably by 1851. For funding the work, his father and brothers cosigned seven notes in 1851 totaling

$241.00. Lodner’s signature on the notes was unique. He signed all of them completely backwards beginning with the “s” of Phillips on the left side and ending with a capital “L” on the right. A perfect signature could be seen by holding the paper to a mirror. His ability to repay the notes was equally capricious. He did not repay on time and his father had to repay them with the sale of some of his property.

Phillips, The Man

Handsome Lodner Darvontis Phillips was described by family and friends as debonair, not the most lovable, a genius preoccupied with his inventions, big-hearted and a lot of fun. He was athletic and the guardian angel of the weak and crippled. Relatives remembered him as ne’er do well, indolent but proud, big-hearted, but not big-hearted enough to keep at work. He had two sons, Lodner, Jr., and William, and a daughter, Mary. Phillips accepted many sacrifices from his family.

Patent No. 9,389

Perhaps it was worth the sacrifice by the family for Lodner Darvontis Phillips of Michigan City, Indiana, received Patent No. 9,389 on November 9, 1852, for Steering Submarine Vessels. The design was now cigar-shaped 40 feet long and 4 feet in diameter. In an 1875 lecture, Lt. F. M. Barber, USN, described it to his knowledge as the “most complete invention of its kind.”

Drawing of Phillips’ Submarine designed for war (under-water cannon and torpedo) and
for salvage (hinged bow).

Phillips’ major reason for inventing the submarine was for salvage, and to this end it had a hinged bow with a ball-and-socket joint through which front end tools could be operated.

He also designed for war. The top of the submarine was protected by solid armor plating and was equipped with a submarine gun and torpedos.

To maintain longitudinal balance, a clock placed in the center of the ship activated the valves and governed the introduction of water either in the forward or rear reservoir. A double vertical rudder gave control in a horizon- tal plane. By the admission and expulsion of water into tanks along the lower part of the boat, the vertical level could be controlled.

It was propelled by hand power or electromagnetism with a screw of Phillips’ invention, for a speed of 4-l/2 knots per hour. The 1851 model was called the Marine Cigar.

Phillips’ system of air purification far surpassed any other attempts of the period. (The book explains all technology in interesting detail.–Editor.)

The Navy And Phillips

In 1864 Phillips proposed use of submarines in naval warfare to the Secretary of the Navy. The planned submarines varied in length from 40 feet to 200 feet and would travel up to eight miles per hour below water with an air supply that could sustain five men for 24 hours; another plan expected to sustain twenty men for five days.

Plate VIII from Lt. F. M. Barber’s 1875 lecture showing drawings of Phillips’ Submarine Torpedo Boat.

The Secretary of the Navy sent the plans to the Permanent Commission of the Navy Department, a board which handled plans and inventions. They reported there had been “no successful application of a plan for submarine warfare nor practical demonstration.” However, considering the importance of the invention and “simplicity and apparent feasibility of the plans,” they recommended “an appropriation sufficient for the construction of one of the smaller vessels.” This was one of the rare instances when a plan was accepted, but no record of its construction by the Navy is found.

Lake Erie Voyage

Many early writers said Phillips perished on his submarine in Lake Erie. He did, in fact, lose a submarine in Lake Erie in connection with the wreck of the Atlantic.

The steamer Atlantic was sunk by a collision with the propeller Ogdens- burg on August 20, 1852, in Lake Erie between five and six miles south of Long Point, Ontario, Canada. She sank in 160 to 180 feet of water. To examine the wreck, Phillips’ submarine was shipped by railroad to Detroit. While descending to the wreck, the submarine sprung a leak and Phillips returned to the surface. On a subsequent test he lowered the boat on a hawser. The hawser parted leaving Phillips’ submarine on the bottom of Lake Erie. Possibly divers to the Atlantic will someday find this early submarine. Phillips lost his submarine there, but not his life.

Genius Personality

Lodner’s inventive genius was not restricted to submarines. On October 14, 1856, while living in Chicago, he received Patent No. 15,898 for diving armor, successfully demonstrated in the Chicago River. Once again the principal idea was salvage.

While living in New York City, he also received Patent No. 60,053 for a “Machine for Making Buttons from Plastic Materials” on November 27, 1866. Phillips is said to have had other inventions, although no patents were found for them: a plastering machine, a machine for carding wool, a steam wagon, and a diving bell for bringing up treasures from wrecks.

Throughout his inventive life, Phillips continued to borrow money, his

father and brothers co-signing, and Phillips leaving them to pay off the notes.

Although Pesce in 1906 said “The modest shoemaker was truly a precursor of genius such as the painter Fulton had been,” he died almost penniless in New York City, October 15, 1869, buried unmarked in the Green-Wood Cemetery there.

His original drawings, patent models, a wooden model four feet long by one foot in diameter stored for years in a Michigan City home, silver reflectors used in the submarine and played with by the Phillips children, are all apparently gone. But a model of the 1851 submarine has been made by G. C. Calvert from remaining drawings to a scale of 1” – 1’. It is on display in the Old Lighthouse Museum along with copies of his three patents. The Old Lighthouse Museum is located just opposite the site of the 1845 launching of Lodner Phillips’ submarine.

The author wishes to be advised of any new information concerning Phillips and his inventions, especially original drawings, patent models and any descendants of his son, William, last known to be living in the state of Wisconsin in 1941.

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