Published by Ashley Sterne in London Opinion
Reprinted in Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners' Advocate, May 15, 1915
My previous article on the torpedo having proved, understand, more of a boon and a blessing than a certain kind of pen nib, and more grateful and comforting than a certain kind of cocoa nib, now for that little-understood vessel, the submarine.
Ever since the days when Jules Verne caused our youthful tongues to loll and our eyes to bulge with his prophetic romance, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the attention of engineers has been directed towards constructing a boat than shall possess all the advantages of a whale and none of its drawbacks – such as the enforced degurgitation of jettisoned Jonahs, its tendency to blubber on the slightest provocation, and its regrettable habit of spouting (due, doubtless, to the spread of socialistic propaganda) on any and every occasion.
The principal difficulty with which the designers had to contend was so to construct the boat that it should not be merely capable of swimming on the surface or sinking to the bottom of the sea (any fool of a boat hired at half a crown an hour can do that), but that it should be able to swink – that is, to swim submerged without sinking. For a long time they sat up late every evening in vain attempts to solve the problem until an idea occurred to one of them – the one that sat next the syphen – to try compressed air. Why he thought of compressed air, and not condensed milk, I cannot say. But, anyway, he thought of trying compressed air and so he procured a box – goodness knows how – filled it with nice fresh air, and then got several of his friends to help him compress it by sitting on the top of it. When they had compressed it sufficiently, he took the box amidst scenes of indescribable excitement to the submarine – or, rather, supermarine as it then was, since it could do nothing better than just float – upon which they were experimenting, unscrewed the lid, and inserted the box. Immediately the boat stopped floating and swank!
The most difficult part of the problem was now solved. A boat had been invented which could duck and wet its head. The next point was to fill it with works to make it go. Ordinary engines were useless for the job, as there was only room in the submarine for about two coal scuttles, and to make the boat larger would, of course, only make it bigger – a state of affairs which would necessitate larger engines and more coal scuttles. (Even today space in a submarine is exceedingly restricted, and that may be one reason why corporal punishment in the submarine branch of the navy has been abolished. There is not sufficient room to swing a cat.)
But this difficulty was eventually got over by the substitution of gas engines for the coal-driven variety, and the particular gas selected to fill this honourable post was acetylene. This was on account of the simplicity of its manufacture. No gasometers, retorts, furnaces, or scrubbers are required to make it. All that is necessary is to drop a lump of caustic potash or ironic perlmutter into a pail of water, and then skim off the gas with a gas-ladle as it rises to the surface. It is then stuffed into the engine, and the wheels go round.
But here again the designers were met with a rebuff. It was found that the engines did not consume all the gas provided for them. They left some on the side of the plate (as it were), which, mixing with the air, formed an explosive and dangerous compound, for which there was no immediate use. Fond as the British tar is of a good blow-out, he prefers it to be caused by a series of good fat meals rather than by a set of lean gases. (Pardon!) The danger arose from the fact that the leakage of gas, though sufficient to render the atmosphere highly combustible, was not sufficient to enable its presence to be detected by smell; and it was only after several workmen had been so thoroughly decimated that they were incapable of knowing their own mothers that it occurred to the engineers that the gas supply was the source of these sudden and unauthorised absences from duty.
Accordingly they went to the man who had thought of compressed air and the gas engines, and asked him to turn round three times and think of the solution to their present difficulty. This he obligingly did, and gave the answer "white mice." His colleagues not unnaturally resenting this reply, thinking that he meant what a less refined person conveys by saying "Rats!" But he really did mean white mice, for he explained to them that these gifted vermin possess the peculiar faculty of fainting when acetylene gas is present in sufficient quantity. Experiment proved his assertion to be true, and now every submarine carries a cargo of white mice. whose sole duty it is to smell the air and faint whenever the proportion of loose acetylene gets above so much percent.
The science of submarinery has developed enormously in recent years, amongst other improvements being the introduction of the periscope – an instrument which informs the navigator whether he is about to run into a lamp-post without his having to go through the tiresome and moist formality of opening a manhole in the roof and sticking his head out thereat. In fact, our submarines of today may be said to have acquired all the most useful attributes of the fish, even as the aeroplanes have acquired those of the bird; while those pertaining to the remaining class of the animal kingdom, the beast, would seem have found permanent employment in – (Answers to be written on the back of the paper only, and addressed to Kultur, The Palace, Dairspot.)