The Diving Submarine

by Terry Hogan

It was a long time ago. I was just a kid, in grade school. But the ad got to me. It was on the back of a cereal box, if I remember correctly. For a "mere" 25 cents (one whole week's allowance), you could buy two diving submarines. They looked big. They looked really neat. I had to have them.

Off went the week's allowance in the mail, along with the required number of boxtops. And the great wait began. I don't recall how long the wait was. I only remember it was too long. Finally, the package arrived in the mail. But it seemed way too small to contain the two large toy submarines that dived, surfaced, and then dived again.

With excitement and concern, I tore open the little package and there enclosed were two, gray, plastic, tiny submarines with a small place on the belly to insert baking powder. They were really small, just a couple of inches long. They looked so big in the ad.

The submarines worked with baking powder (not baking soda). A small amount of baking powder was inserted in a small compartment on the underside of the submarine. The submarine was then placed in the water. The sub’s weight caused it to sink. The baking powder would react with the water, creating a bubble of carbon dioxide that would be trapped on the underside of the submarine. The submarine, with the bubble for buoyancy, would float to the water's surface. On reaching the surface, the little sub would tilt to one side and the bubble would escape. Losing its buoyant bubble, the sub would again sink and repeat the process until the baking powder reaction was depleted.

Thus I learned two lessons. One was scientific and related to baking powder and water. The other was practical and had to do with the old saying of "Let the buyer beware" (even if he is just a child). I'm not too sure either lesson stayed with me too long, however. Later, I was to get hooked on "stamps on approval". I'd buy some and return most. But the company would bill me for those that I'd returned. It threatened to sue me; me, who had not yet reached ten years of age! But that's another story, I guess.

It seems that I wasn't the only young child to get taken in by the sub scam. Years later, I mentioned this to my wife. She too had ordered the subs and had found them to be disappointing and not very similar to the impressive ads on the cereal box.

So now here it is, Christmas, 2004 plus a few days. Santa came and stuffed my stocking with more stuff than I deserved. (I don't think Santa reads The Zephyr as coal might have been the result.) Among the candies and odds and ends, were two submarines. These subs were a little bigger than the ones from my childhood. The package proclaimed "Diving Submarine" - "The amazing baking powder engine. Fill it with baking powder and watch it dive and emerge. It's amazing!"

I became interested on why the submarine had resurfaced, so to speak, after half a century. I went to the Internet and did a search. Yep, all kinds of people are collecting not only submarines but scuba divers and other toys that operate in the same manner. You can even order a copy of the patent for the original Kellogg Company submarine. You can also buy the toys (new and old) on EBay.

In our current litigious culture, the new Santa subs are laden with various warnings and disclaimers, including one that warns not to use it in a fish tank. That particular warning puzzles me. Is baking powder a threat to the fish? Are the fish likely to swallow the sub? Is the manufacturer trying to prevent a claim of fish psychological trauma? It's got me puzzled.

Regardless of the fish tank warning, I think Santa must have a wicked sense of humor. After probably a span of nearly half a century, he taunts me with the amazing submarines. Maybe he just didn't know I'd been down that path before, or maybe he did and he is just a "Merry old soul" who likes to tease old folks. I don't know.

I am a little worried that next year Santa may give me "stamps on approval."