The war effort : Edison’s floating laboratory for national defense
The strike of World War I induced a turning point for the World, including the United States and the Sachem. Germany's tactic to defeat Britain was to block supply lines coming from North America. Indeed the supplies for the Allies entered Europe through Britain. Germany would attempt to "besiege" Britain, provoke starvation and economic weakness. The newly-invented war submarine, the U-Boat, was deployed massively in the Atlantic to dissuade allied convoys to reach british harbors. In March 1917, on the belief that the US would anyway enter the war, the german Kaiser adopted an unrestricted warfare policy, in which U-Boats crews were required to target and sunk any ship that was suspected to carry supplies to the Allied.
As United States started to send supplies and troops to the Allied side, a counter-attack method had to be found to defend against armed submarines, a new kind of weapon that could strike without warning and that was for the time, extremely hard to detect.
Left : 1915 drawing by Willy Stöwer of the attack and sinking of a supply ship out of Liverpool. In 1917, few ships — and their crewmen — could make it through the Atlantic ocean.
So the U.S. Government began requisitioning private crafts for a rent. The yachts were more versatile in size, speed and maneuverability, enough to outmaneuver and spot German U-Boats, and would constitute sufficient fleet auxiliaries. The Sachem was one of these private yachts ; Manton Metcalf agreed to loan the ship to the Navy, which took ownership on July, 3rd of 1917, and renamed it USS Sachem (SP-192). The prefix "SP" for Section Patrol is a World War I designation for the civilian patrol crafts.
The USS Sachem (SP 192) was modified in July, probably at the Brooklyn Navy yard, then entered in commission on August, 19th 1917, under the Third Maritime District and assigned to harbor patrol as a submarine chaser. During the war, the ship was captained by a USN Lieutenant, Warren Stone Harris.
Below : Painted in gray with a custom pilothouse and new equipments, the USS Sachem had more of a naval corvette than a yacht in spring 1917.
But before patrolling the harbors, the Sachem had a special duty during the war...
A secret mission
The Navy needed creative ideas to defend against Germans ; they turned to the civilian society and inventors, such as Nikola Tesla and most notably Thomas Edison, and the following story is rarely told. The famous inventor is one of the world's greatest mind and inventor, and considered an unmatched genius who, though applied research, developed a whole new commercial model of innovation. He was the first to conceive a machine that could record sound : the phonograph ; to record motion : the Kinetograph (the world's first motion picture camera), the first electric incandescent lightbulb, the first electric car (even with electric windshield wipers), wireless devices, various electrical power distribution systems, among an astonishing 1,093 patents he registered. In 1908, he even invented prefabricated housing by improving the Portland Cement from the Atlas Portland Cement Company, once directed by the Sachem's first owner John Rogers Maxwell !
Above : Inventor Thomas A. Edison at the Key West Navy Base, Florida, circa 1916.
The ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ (as Edison was sometimes called), after the outbreak of World War I, had a queer obsession with producing any new technology that would help the United States against the enemy submarines, and was certain that he could produce defensive and offensive means for the United States Navy. After the shocking sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 (1200 casualties) The New York Times devoted three pages of interview to Thomas Edison. He outlined a plan advocating military preparedness, on the idea that military training and equipment procurement should be organized along industrial lines. He proposed the creation of military research laboratories with civilian help.
His views got the attention of Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy and a Republican politician— at the time, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary for the Navy, and he was enthusiastic about using small private boats against submarines.
Daniels asked Edison, in July 1915, to head an advisory board of experts from engineering and scientific societies to generate ideas and evaluate those submitted to the Navy by the citizens. Edison accepted and was appointed President of the newly formed Naval Consulting Board of the United States, on October 7, 1915.
Above : ‘Magic Lantern’ slide of 1915. Daniels and Edison leading a joined effort to create a smarter naval defense.
Above : Edison at the Brooklyn Navy yard in 1915
Fighting the submarine threat
In 1916, Thomas Edison found much difficulty in finding bureaucratic support, funding, and data on submarine warfare. But he understood Daniels’ allegation that the Allied may be defeated if no answer to the submarine threat is found, so he dedicated all his time and facilities on offering the Navy novel ideas to camouflage ships, upgrade their detection capabilities, fire more effective shells, and much more.
While his relations with the US Navy were tumultuous, the independent-minded Edison began researching war-related problems in January 1917 in a special laboratory near his West Orange lab, then at the Sandy Hook, New Jersey naval station. At the time, the US was few months from formally entering the war, and the inventor was 70.
But he did not praise an analytical and administrative role, for so he soon needed a vessel to use as a floating laboratory, which he asked Josephus Daniels. Between some nonreliable and aging crafts, — on which Edison started to work — the Navy finally assigned him the SP-192, which Edison judged large and suitable for his works. The vessel was then outfitted for Edison and his employees : few weeks after having been commissioned, the USS Sachem switched to become exclusively at the use of the inventor.
Right : Article from the Topeka State Journal, October 25, 1917. The mission was promising, and recognized of national importance. An “All eyes on Edison” campaign even existed.
Above : Thomas Edison (down, center) and the crew members of SP-192, during the time of Edison's experiments.
The USS Sachem had been in commission since August 19th 1917 and for the next ten weeks Edison, his crew, including Theodore, one of his sons, and Mina, his wife — who insisted on staying on the Sachem in the rear deck house—, lived on the sea, mostly along Long Island’s shore. Edison, enabled to work on projects requiring tests simulating conditions at sea, conducted numerous secret experiments onboard the SP-192, departing from New London, Connecticut, along New York harbor, Sag harbor, Florida and the Caribbean.
Below : In this rare photo by Edison's professional photographer Lewis Lueder, Edison is seen unshaven and relaxing onboard the Sachem (SP-192). He reportedly enjoyed his time aboard, even though he would only rest part of the nights !
The 49 series of experiments
Edison’s ideas focused on protecting merchant ships from submarines, but he was also convinced the US could rapidly build defense submarines. He studied camouflaging methods and recommended that cargo ships burn anthracite coal, which would lessen smoke emissions. He made much progress in detecting the sound of incoming torpedoes. He also found a way to reduce a ship’s turning range in case of torpedo attack, using a “kite rudder” or sea anchor. He improved searchlights so they would detect periscopes of surfacing submarines. Another prototype were the “collision mats” to allow torpedoed ships to return afloat. These devices were initiated of the Sachem, which was equipped with electrical instruments to detect submarines by sight, sound and magnetic field, as well as improved gunnery.
Below : In this impressive photograph, the USS Sachem in its warship version is seen behind a smoke screen experiment in Long Island Sound on August 17, 1917. These smoke bombs were tested for reducing Allied convoys’ visibility to the U-Boats upon attack.
Above : Long Island Sound, August 26th, 1917. In this photograph, the SP-192 completely disappeared behind a smoke screen. These pictures were sent to the Navy and President Woodrow Wilson for examinations. Below is the paper which was joined.
Above : The inventor also kept detailed notes of the Sachem experiments (here, those about detection and smoke bombs).
Edison and around 15 or 20 of his employees developed and tested 49 projects …. which all had applied use and potential but none were ever put into production before the end of WW1, although some were predecessors to widely-used devices such as the radar.
Edison had already reproached the administration’s lack of belief toward his promising devices, but he most definitely acquired a low regard toward the naval establishment when a proposed project of his was declined approval, and the same invention was discovered to be used by the Germans eight months later !
In Edison’s reminiscences he wrote in 1919, he tells that he was angry at the Navy officials and professionals because they appointed men that couldn’t understand or imagine his explanations. He later told a reporter that the Navy “pigeon-holed” every invention he could come with.
Below : List of Edison’s projects, most tested aboard the Sachem.
During the fall and winter Thomas Edison continued his research in an office at the Navy Annex in Washington once occupied by Admiral George Dewey, and at the U.S. Naval Station in Key West, Florida. Early in 1918, he occasionally continued experiments on the Sachem with help of Captain Ltn. Warren S Harris, but the Navy recalled the vessel for patrol service on May 25th, 1918. Hence, Edison was unable to complete the research.
Nevertheless, Mr. Edison’s brainchild, the Naval Research Laboratory — inspired from the Naval Consulting Board, was finally built in 1923 — by a frank support of the US Federal Government toward technological research. It is this institution we can thank for the radar, jet engines, atomic energy, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and the Internet. That with his commitment to applied research and mobilizing the country’s creative and industrial capacities, is the legacy of Thomas Edison during WW1.
Below : Thomas A. Edison in an animated clip —which he was a pioneer of— at the Key West navy base. How cool is that ! Note the ship in background is not the SP-192 but the USS Hauoli (SP-249), the last craft on which he finished some experiments, even after the armistice, before demobilization put an end to his research.
This animated picture is provided by the US National Archives.
Last months of the war
While the “Wizard” returned to his business ventures, the SP-192 was to spent a few months on patrol duty again.
In late May 1918, the Gas Engine & Power Co. and Charles L. Seabury & Co., Consolidated, established in Morris Heights, New York, promptly converted the ship to a sub-chaser. They removed special equipments and equipped the USS Sachem with modern navigation, removed the masts, elevated the pilothouse, sealed the ornate brass, fringed the portholes, and raised the sides to make it ocean-worthy — These mildly heavy changes resulted in the “current” lines of the ship, with a raised foredeck and hull.
USS Sachem SP-192 was outfitted with depth charges racks, dispensing underwater bombs that were able to sink an U-Boat, but a rather unimpressive defensive armament : one 6-pounder 57 mm deck gun near the stern, two 3-pounder 37 mm guns on the forecastle and in front of the pilothouse, and two M1895 Colt-Browning machine guns behind the smokestack.
Below : The SP-192 in dry dock before conversion to patrol service, probably circa March 1918 as Captain W.S Harris reportedly wanted. Those converted warships needed a high level of maintenance.
Above : The Sachem as a warship after being converted to high sea patrol service in June 1918. Note the anti-submarine guns on deck and “armor belt” on the hull. The crew was 18 officiers, whereas in 1917 it totaled more than 60. The ship’s call sign was LDMH (Love-Dog-Mike-Have).
In service on May 25th 1918, the sea-worthy Sachem patrolled New York harbor to spot submarines, sometimes down to the Florida Keys and the Caribbean. But with the end of German submarine warfare in November 1918, the ship was due to return in the hands of its civilian owner Manton Bradley Metcalf. The ship returned from patrol without any active combat or confirmed U-Boat sightings and was decommissioned with the World War Victory Medal for patrol duty.
World War One had a profound effect on Europe and their transatlantic ally. The young crew of the SP-192 returned home safely, some continuing to serve in the US Navy after the war. Edison, as asserted by Secretary Daniels, had became a true officer and gave his best, and he managed to influence the naval establishment !
Below : This could have been the last letter of Edison’s wartime cooperation. However, Daniels and Edison became friends after the war. He later told him in private many flaws he had noticed in the bureaucracy.
Below : The Captain of the Sachem earned Edison’s best regard and a superior rank : Edison was so satisfied with his service that he recommended in this letter him to be promoted Lieutenant Commander in the US Naval Reserve Force.
Finally after its decommissioning and withdraw from military service, the Sachem was returned to Manton Metcalf from who it was rented from, on the 10th of February, 1919.
The yacht would have all of a famed & interesting career in the 1920’s and 1930’s…