Submarine Technology in “The Temple”

the-temple-1200px_www.arkhamangst.com The Temple (www.arkhamangst.com)

The United States entered WWI one-hundred years ago this year and it was during this war when submarines were for the first time a major military threat.  German U-boats sunk approximately 5,000 Allied merchant ships during WWI. On the eve of this war submarine warfare was in its infancy, only about a dozen years old. In 1914 no nation on the Earth had the means of combating, or even detecting, submarines so they were a formable and particularly frightening type of navel technology.

Lovecraft used submarines in a number of this tales, including a juvenile story “The Mysterious Ship” (written in 1902) as well as in “The Shadow of Innsmouth” (1931). There is also a brief mention of non-human alien submarine technology in The Shadow out of Time (1935) where the Great Race were known to use gigantic submarine vessels with searchlights to view the ruins of sunken cities and the strange aquatic life. However, the majority of the tale “The Temple” (1920) occurs in a human manufactured submarine.

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In “The Temple” the crew of a German submarine (U-29) destroys a British freighter and finds a seemingly dead member of that ship’s crew, holding onto a piece of ivory carved into the image of a youth’s head with a laurel crown. They take the small idol and place his body back into the ocean where several of the men are stunned to see dead seamen’s eyes open and swim away. This event has a profound impact on the crew and they experience a series of strange situations through the rest of the tale. However, this article will focus on the submarine itself.

Again, while the use of submarines in naval warfare was in its infancy during WWI, Germany built 360 U-boats, which sunk over 5,000 Allied ships over the course of the war. However, of the 360 U-boat submarines, 178 were lost over the course of the war.  Is it possible that the one cited in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Temple” was one of those missing U-boats?

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Lovecraft had a fairly good understanding of the design and operation of a submarine as described in “The Temple” with one large exception. A number of times Lovecraft mentions members of the crew looking out of undersea potholes, when in fact none of the U-boats at the time had potholes. The only way of peering out of the submarine would be going into the conning tower, which is the raised platform portion of the submarine that contains the periscope.

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As part of the series of strange and unfortunate events, there was an explosion in the engine room that was never explained in the story. However, Lovecraft makes a point to state that while as a result of the explosion the U-boat could no longer be propelled or guided, the chemical air generators and the means of raising / lowering the submarine were still intact. On submarines oxygen is typically generated with the use of pure water (typically produced from sea water through desalinization), a mix of potassium hydroxide and electricity in electrolytic cells in an electrolytic oxygen generator cabinet. The excess oxygen can then be stored and used by the crew for respiration.NAVY_AEOG_Treadwell_lg An electrolytic oxygen generator cabinet (US NAVY)

In addition to producing oxygen, a submarine must have a means of removing our respiration byproduct – carbon dioxide.  On submarines carbon dioxide is typically removed with the use of mono-ethanol amine (MEA) in “scrubbers.” The MEA absorbs the carbon dioxide from the air and is then heated to drive out the gas in a compressed form and then ejected overboard.

H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Temple” may have been the first weird tale to take place on a submarine and he had a surprisingly accurate understanding of how these vessels operate. Next time, we will present a set of hypotheses on what may have been responsible for the demise of the crew of the Submarine U-29. Thank you – Fred.

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4 thoughts on “Submarine Technology in “The Temple”

  1. Not an explosion in the battery compartment. From what I’ve read those were fairly common and sometimes catastrophic. There would’ve been a fire and a release of smoke and toxic gas that would’ve killed the crew pretty quickly if the boat couldn’t surface.
    But killing the crew quickly wasn’t the point..

  2. you can find a good adaptation of the short story The Temple in the comic by Spanish authors Rotomago & Florent Calvez; U-29. cheers.

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