Eyes from the Deep A History of U.S. Navy Submarine PeriscopesMention the word "submarine" to anyone, and host of images will spring to mind. The sleek, low, black silhouette pier-side of sliding through the ocean. The drama of an "emergency blow" as the boat broaches the surface in a volcanic eruption of water. And of course, the sinister image of the tip of a periscope feathering the surface, hiniting at what lies lurking below. And inside? The one image indelibly marked on the popular mind is that of the commanding officer crouching in the middle of the control room peering through the periscope - "dancing with the gray lady."
USS Adder (SS-3) running sea trials, circa 1903. Adder was the first U.S. Navy submarine to carry a periscope, in this case a British-made "altiscope," and this photograph depicts one of her first trials with the device.

These last two images arise from one inescapable fact. Once submerged, submarines are essentially blind to the visual world above the surface. Windows and portholes are more or less useless, since they provide only the minutest view of the submarine’s surroundings, especially at depths where the sun’s light never penetrates. Early submariners realized early in the game that they needed a way to see at least some distance above the surface of the water while submerged, without compromising their boats’ inherent stealth.

In 1854, the Frenchman Marié-Davy designed an “optical tube”, which was simply a cylindrical housing with mirrors placed at 45-degree angles at each end. Similar primitive devices were first added to submarines in the 1880s, but they provided only a very poor view of the surface, often less than 10 degrees wide, and were generally considered next to useless. Various minor improvements were made to this design in the following years by various navies and inventors, but a breakthrough came in 1902, when American submarine pioneer Simon Lake included his patented “omniscope” on his own 65- foot, 130-ton Protector. The omniscope, which Lake had envisioned as early as 1893 in his application for a patent for his “Submarine Vessel,” consisted of eight prisms, including two trained ahead, two astern, and one on each quarter. While the forward-looking prisms afforded an upright view, the views to the side were on edge, and the rear view was inverted. This allowed the operator to view the entire horizon from below and even to estimate range. Moreover, the omniscope could be rotated, but the view was considered excessively dim.

Around 1900, Irish-born American inventor John Holland, the so-called father of the modern submarine, experimented with a lens and mirror system called a camera lucida that was mounted in a long tube and projected an image of the above-water scene onto a white sheet of paper. However, this technique provided little advantage, because the image gave no sense of distance and was essentially the same as viewing a photograph. Holland abandoned this approach and reverted back to the then-standard method of fitting a small conning tower with view ports on top of the hull and “porpoising” the submarine at the surface so that the conning officer could establish his course and aim torpedoes when the tower broke the water. Unfortunately, this approach had the adverse effect of revealing the attacking submarine to the enemy.

The first U.S. Navy periscope was a British-made “altiscope” rigged through the forward ventilator of USS Adder (SS-3, later A-2). The fixed-direction device underwent trials in November 1902 and impressed the trials board, but they asked for additional improvements, including two different lengths. Follow-on tests onboard Adder and USS Moccasin (SS-5, later A-4) were less impressive, with the CO of the test boats stating in September 1903 that he preferred Lake’s omniscope. The Navy attempted to purchase periscopes from Lake, but he was only interested in selling entire submarines. In any event, the omniscope was apparently too large physically to gain lasting favor. Electric Boat, created in 1899 with the Holland Torpedo Boat Company as a wholly owned subsidiary, developed a rotating periscope, but these eventually fell out of favor because, as it rotated, the image rotated as well, so that when the periscope faced aft, the image was inverted (similar to Lake’s omniscope). It appears now that while periscopes had become standard equipment on U.S. submarines by 1905, their design had not yet been standardized. The Navy continued to experiment with both fixed and rotating periscopes – the latter with either a fixed eyepiece or walk-around design – and varying sizes and diameters. In 1909, the Navy also began experimenting with periscopes that could partially retract into the submarine, to reduce drag. As a result of this continuous experimentation, the Navy only awarded small specialized periscope contracts as new submarines were built or as replacement optics were needed.

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(above) Simon Lake’s design for a “Submarine Vessel,” which he submitted to the Navy in 1893. Even at this early date, Lake’s design clearly includes a periscope-like device that could be folded flush with the submarine when underway (similar to the periscope and radio/ESM mast on the Navy’s new Advanced SEAL Delivery System).

(left) Simon Lake in an undated photo. Lake was one of the earliest submarine pioneers to incorporate a periscope in his designs. His “omniscope” was preferred by some early submarine captains because it afforded them a 360-degree view of the surface, unlike other contemporary fixed-direction periscopes.

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