The Art of Science
3:00 pm
Tue February 5, 2013

From The Curious Vault At The Miami Science Museum: Mr. Williamson’s Submarine Tube

  “I call this my magic window.” -Captain Nemo from the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Sp.69, Sp.71, Sp. 72, 1924, watercolor on paper 11 3/4 x 9 inches

The Roy Miner Collection was donated to Miami Science Museum in 1976 and sat untouched in the archives room until it was re-discovered again in 2000 by Rachel Delovio who was the Collections Manager at the time. The archive itself consists of 4500 glass lanternslides and negatives made between the 1920s to the 1940s as well as various ephemera from the period. The story of how it was found again is dear to our hearts, because the practice of carefully combing through and looking for unknown clues at the Miami Science Museum is what The Curious Vault column is based on. In exploring the Miner Collection our team had a unique “EUREKA” moment when we came across a peculiar series of watercolors depicting various underwater scenes and specimens.

The Roy Miner Collection
Credit Paul Stoppi

On the sketches themselves, 6 in total, are various notations written in pencil, but one consistency screamed out for further investigation. They are numbered, “Tube Sketch No. 3” for instance. We decided to spread them out to check the notations on the pictures and saw that some are simply numbered, while others have longer descriptions. Two in particular say “Sketched from Mr. Williamson’s Submarine Tube”. It was then that we realized that these watercolors were actually made underwater (!) at Hog Key Inlet in the Bahamas in 1924.

Tube Sketch no. 2, 1924, watercolor on paper 9 x 11 3/4 inches

Diving a little deeper we found an image of the apparatus at work. Captain Charles Williamson initially built the device around the turn of the 20th century for the purposes of treasure salvage. A 1911 article in the New York Times shows the excitement around the search for $500,000 in silver from the shipwreck Merida off the shores of Williamson’s hometown Norfolk Virginia. However, by the 1920s, the treasure of the Merida was still unrecovered, and it seems Williamson’s sons had begun to understand the Tube’s power as a facilitator to the study of underwater life. They decided that the Tube was perfectly suited for documenting underwater life, particularly through photography, and most importantly motion pictures (see January 1915 article in The American Magazine).

Williamson Submarine Tube attached to the boat

The Tube took many different technical variations, but it’s most public and important contribution to underwater exploration was the production of the groundbreaking cinematic photography used in the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Skip to 30:00 into the YouTube clip for underwater footage, or more interestingly 59:10 for the footage of the sea monster that the Williamson Brothers patented a year after their production company made the film. The movie was the first time the general public had ever been exposed to underwater motion picture footage. Think of what it must have been like at the time to see this unbelievable motion picture. This is a fascinating link to film history that the Miami Science Museum can make to real objects in their collection.

The watercolor sketches are currently on display at the museum for public viewing. They were made by Charles E. Olsen, whose biographical information is scarce. He appears to be a highly skilled amateur, and the watercolors themselves are beautiful in their near perfection. Most importantly is their uniqueness to the time period. These paintings were made underwater in 1924! It appears, as these pictures show, that the Williamson brothers went on to utilize the Submarine Tube for not only entertainment, but also scientific discovery. Their contribution to the niche world of early underwater photography and exploration is significant. This series of watercolors is just one of the many treasures to be uncovered inside The Curious Vault. Endless fascination lay hidden and ready for all of our eyes to see. We are so glad to be a part of this cultural excavation and hope that you will stay with our continued journey of the Museum’s hidden secrets in the New Year.

Special thanks to Rachel Delovio for re-discovering the Roy Miner Collection and The Rebreather Site for the New York Times Image and the Sea Monster Patent. Check out their site for more images of Mr. Williamson’s Submarine Tube. If you have any knowledge about the artist Charles E. Olsen please contact the Museum.

This story was reposted with permission from The Curious Vault, a bi-weekly online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email karrow@miamisci.org.