Sunday, January 11, 2009
Captain Nemo of Oshkosh...Richard Raddatz
A photo of Richard Raddatz submarine in dry dock near the Fox River, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, 1897.
Many thanks to Tom Claasen for the New York Times links and for being the impetus for this post.
At the turn of the 19th century, Wisconsin lead the nation in new ideas, education, political reform and invention. The entire east coast of the state from the paper making capital of the world that was the Fox River Valley to Milwaukee, "America's machine shop", a heavily industrialized city that was in the business of providing cutting edge machinery to the industrialized world.
The state was long practiced in being first in the nation at nearly everything (click on "firsts" in the categories column). Almost every car part that Henry Ford would later figure out an assembly method for, was invented in Wisconsin. The Car frame was invented here. The fortune that Orson Welles inherited came from his fathers invention of the first practical all weather automobile headlight, etc. etc. It's a very long list, well documented in this blog. In 1897, Richard Raddatz, a young mechanical engineer from Oshkosh, an industrial city seated midway along the shores of Lake Winnebago between Fon Du Lac to the south and the interconnected cities of Fox River Valley to the north, was hard hard at work putting his new creation, a submarine, through a series of trial runs on Lake Winnebago, The Fox River and Lake Butte Des Morts. Raddatz had solved the critical issues that had vexed sub inventors of the past, namely, submersion control and air supply. In June, the 65 foot long, 31 ton vessel slid into the Fox River. Like Nemo's Nautilus, it was a war ship. It's pointed iron beak was designed to ram surface ships. Raddatz and his wealthy Oshkosh investors clearly had their eye on winning a contract with the US Navy. The sub had many innovations. When running on the surface, the submarine relied on a kerosene engine. It's average speed was 14 miles per hour on the surface and 10 miles per hour submerged. When submerged, it switched over to a 30 cell electric storage battery and a light years ahead of it's time air supply system that Raddatz would forever remain tight lipped about. He designed the sub to run submerged for over 24 hours with a crew of 3. At the time, this was an unheard of feat. The tests continued into autumn. The local press sang its praises (almost daily) and in November The New York Times sent a correspondent to see what all the fuss was about. The subsequent article brought Raddatz some name recognition and caught the attention of John P. Holland, the not yet credited inventor of the first practical submarine. Holland had launched his own creation one month before Raddatz. His vessel was the first submarine to run submerged for any considerable distance, and the first to combine electric motors for submerged travel and gasoline engines for use on the surface. Although the performance specs of Holland's sub paled in comparison to Raddatz' invention, Holland had the ear of the United States Navy. In 1898, Raddatz sold his submersible to a Milwaukee business man named "Mr. Lyendecker" and the vessel was moved by rail to Milwaukee for further testing on Lake Michigan. Raddatz is said to have moved to Philadelphia, where it is believed he found employment with John P. Holland. That would explain some of the radical air supply and ballast improvements that were made to Hollands submersible between the years 1897 and 1900, when he delivered his first vessel to the US Navy. Conspiracy time. Flash forward. 20 years ago I remember a semi drunken conversation at a bar in Madison with an older, unreformed, Reagan-hating hippie intellectual (what other kind is there?). He was working on a book - never published, of course - that would reveal America's long standing, complicit involvment with the arms makers of Germany and the power they hold over us to this day. He claimed that Milwaukee was the conduit of this long standing relationship and that it all began when a group of Milwaukee businessmen sold the secrets of Richard Raddatz' submersible to the Kaiser, thus paving the way for German undersea dominance in both world wars. Ya, right. Here's the real end of the tale, courtesy the website of one of my favorite places to visit, The Oshkosh Public Museum. "There are conflicting versions of the fate of the Raddatz submarine. One version states that after the initial tests in Lake Michigan, the Raddatz submarine rusted away on Jones Island until it was sold for scrap. The second version states that the Raddatz submarine was sold to the Holland Boat Co. in Philadelphia and tested in the Atlantic Ocean."
It would be another 68 years before another, albeit less ambitious, submersible would ply the waters of the Fox River. Here is another view of Raddatz' submersible
from The Oshkosh Public Museum. If I remember correctly, the museum has a two blade propellor from Raddatz' sub. Check out the smokestacks and the Oshkosh city skyline in the background. I love smokestacks!
Here's a link to The New York Times Nov. 1897 piece about Raddatz. I want to say it again...."I love smokestacks!"