At any given time I tend to carry story ideas around in my head that for various reasons I never seem to get around to fleshing out. One of the more interesting ideas that I never got around to, probably because I thought it was just too preposterous, was the story of Mal Jones and his submarine.
I asked several people who know Mal, and they all said words to the effect of, “No, can’t say I’ve heard of Mal building a submarine, but it sure sounds like something he’d do.”
Kenneth (“Mal”) Jones is a jack of many trades, he’s an inventor, a machinist, a sailor, an astronomer, a farmer, a champion of women’s rights, and a lifetime advocate of thinking outside the box.
Recently, I finally got around to asking the man himself. I called Jones on the phone and said, “Mal, this may sound crazy, but I heard that you once built a personal submarine.”
“Yeah, it’s right out in my backyard,”Jones said, as if he were talking about a lawn ornament. “What do you want to know about it?” I set up a time to come out and see the submarine for myself, and let’s just say, I was not disappointed.
Mal Jones lives in a modest house on 184 acres on Deep Bottom Cove off Tisbury Great Pond, on property once owned by actor James Cagney.
To get to his house, Mal directed me to go through a bumper gate — to open it up you push against it with the bumper of your car — then keep going down a dirt road until you get to his house. “You’ll know the house, there’s a lot of stuff out in the backyard,” he said. That would prove to be an understatement.
Jones, who is 87 years old, is pretty visible around the West Tisbury community; I’d often see him at the Post Office and at town meetings, where he’s been known to speak his mind. As I pulled up to the house, Jones came out to greet me. He was wearing a blue knit cap, an N95 mask, and his large aviator-style sunglasses, which gave him a rather fly-like appearance.
Jones took me on a little tour of “the wreckage,” as he called it, out in his expansive yard. There were sheds full of the flotsam and jetsam of past experiments and projects — here a large box of light bulbs he planned to use for extracting tungsten … there the carcass of a schooner that ran aground off South Beach in 1913 … and then there, right in front of me, was a bright yellow submarine about the size of an SUV. I looked up at Mal, and the only word I could muster was, “Why?”
Jones explained that it was a long story that involved diving off the coast of Libya, the wreck of the Andrea Doria, and his desire to save the whales.
Jones was in the Air Force in the early ’50s, and stationed in Libya, where he and his friends took up scuba diving and enjoyed exploring the wrecks of German ships sunk in World War II. Then in 1960, Jones and his young family moved to his parents’ farm on Deep Bottom Cove, where Jones acted as caretaker. Four years prior to that, the SS Andrea Doria, an Italian passenger liner, collided with the MS Stockholm, a Swedish passenger liner, off the coast of Nantucket.
Jones had enjoyed exploring the sunken wrecks in Libya, but the waters where the Andrea Dorea lies were 250 feet deep, frigid cold, and laced with treacherous currents, all of which made for difficult scuba diving.
Lesser men would have been discouraged by the dive, but Jones came up with a workaround. He decided to build a submarine.
Coincidentally, around that same time, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution was working on its own submersible, called the Alvin. The big difference was that the Navy was bankrolling the Alvin, which would go on to explore the Titanic in 1986.
But Jones’ budget was far more modest. The body of the yellow submarine was fabricated from a heavy-duty steam tank that Jones found in a dump. Many of the fittings were appropriated from old car parts. And since nothing like this had been created before, the whole project was very much a learning process for Jones.
Jones’ yellow submarine would predate the “Yellow Submarine” made famous by the Beatles, but if you squinted, the two actually bore a passing resemblance. They both had a large yellow hull and conning tower, circular portholes, and a propeller in the stern.
Jones’s submarine was essentially a diving bell, a chamber that could transport passengers from the surface to a depth and back again. A 40-horsepower Westerbeke engine was to be used for propulsion.
The submarine could theoretically accommodate passengers up to a combined weight of 600 pounds. I say theoretically, because the yellow submarine was never to actually see the water. Building a submarine is not like, say, building a car. The stakes are far greater; extreme pressures can literally crush a vessel. While the yellow submarine was never actually launched, Jones considered it all a great learning experience.
To get information needed to build his submarine, Jones created a steel cylinder that he could pressurize and simulate the stresses the craft would undergo at various depths. Elsewhere in Jones’ yard, there was a decompression chamber Jones created in the event that a diver got the bends. So yes, he was dead serious about this enterprise.
The building of the yellow submarine was actually part of a three-stage plan. The original submarine was intended to work out the design kinks and see if the concept worked. The second stage was meant to take the vessel to the next level and improve power and maneuverability — this evolution would be called the Breacher, the term for when a whale breaks the surface. But this stage was just a precursor to the third and final stage: the Whale Tick.
Jones became devoted to the Save the Whales movement, and like so many others, he became frustrated that rogue countries like Russia and Japan were harvesting endangered species. That’s when Jones came up with a game-changing idea: the Whale Tick.
The Whale Tick would utilize the speed and maneuverability achieved through the Breacher stage, and use it to attach itself to a whale, much like a tick attaches itself to a host. The Whale Tick could extract blood and protein from the whale to provide sustenance for passengers to stay attached to the whale for long periods of time. The thinking was that no ship could attack a whale that was attached to human passengers. No one ever accused Mal Jones of being a small thinker.
But unfortunately, none of Jones’ submarine ideas came to fruition. Jones explained that family matters diverted his attention from the project, and in time, the technology of underwater exploration had shifted to drones. “Today what you have are scientists looking at computer screens in a boat on the surface,” Jones said. “There’s really no reason to send divers to the bottom.”
But building submarines was just one chapter in Jones’ illustrious life as an inventor. He once devised a plan for an environmentally responsive land-accreting barge that could stop sand from washing into and blocking channels.
He also worked with Polaroid on ways to modify its SX-70 camera for use as a diagnostic tool for women’s health issues.
I asked Jones what was next — a mind as fertile as his mustn’t take well to sitting still. “Inventors are always looking for things to work on,” Jones said, “and when I looked up, bonobos had their hands up.”
Jones explained that bonobos are our closest connections to the primates; they’re very averse to aggression, and as a society they’re female-dominant. “I’m really fascinated with bonobos,” Jones said; “we can learn a lot from them.” Coincidentally, as a side note, while in Libya, Jones once had a girlfriend named Loretta Bonobos, “but that’s really neither here nor there,” Jones said.
Today, Mal Jones looks back on his life philosophically, and admits that he doesn’t really fit into today’s world. He would like to clean out some of “the wreckage” in his yard; he even has an excavator and some tractors to help with the effort, “but they’re just sitting there rusting and waiting,” Jones said. He is reluctant to get rid of things, because he just doesn’t know what the future might bring.
“I’ve acquired a lot of knowledge from all my projects,” Jones said. “Now I just need the universe to tell me what I can do with it that will do the most good.”