In December 1898, Japan’s consulate in Melbourne, which was an honorary position at the time, wrote a dispatch to Tokyo concerning letters received from one Thomas Carter of Scottsdale, Tasmania, pertaining to an invention that Carter claims to have created and was willing to sell to Japan. In the correspondence, honorary consul Alexander Marks (himself a former British trader who migrated to Melbourne from Yokohama in the late nineteenth century) explained that Mr Carter, a coal and chemical engineer, had approached the consulate with an offer to sell the plans for a “submerged torpedo boat” named “Annihilator”. In his explanation for making this offer, Mr Carter stated that in his view, Japan had been treated “unfairly” in its dealings with China compared to European powers, and so wanted Japan to manufacture equipment that would allow it to successfully resist attempts by these powers, particularly Russia, to impose “unjust concessions on China” (with the implication that these could later be imposed on Japan).
To reinforce the validity of his offer, Mr Carter enclosed a letter written and signed by the mayor of Launceston and officers from the Tasmanian military forces attesting to Mr Carter’s plan and revealing that it was of “sufficient importance to command the attention of the British Naval Authorities”. Mr Carter followed this up with another letter a month later, in which he claimed that one of the authors of the above letter had already written to the British Admiralty and urging them to “lose no time or opportunity of securing the exclusive right of the invention”. As such, in Mr Carter’s view, he was being “pushed for time” on whether to go ahead and sell his patent to the Royal Navy or pursue his original plan of selling the invention to Imperial Japan.
Needless to say, Consul Marks took these claims with something more than a grain of salt, mentioning in his letter that “his (Carter’s) ideas are very extravagant like all inventors” but informing Tokyo of the matter and requesting its opinion on how to proceed.
All these details were discussed in Tokyo in February the following year. In a cable from Naval Secretary Ito Shunkichi to Ministry of Foreign Affairs Secretary Takahira Kogorō, dated for 14th day of February 1899, the Imperial Navy stated that it “had no desire” to purchase the plans for a submersible vehicle, which pretty much brought an end to the entire matter.
Although only a minor episode in the early interaction between both countries, it is an interesting window into diplomatic correspondence as it was conducted some 119 years ago, particularly between Australia’s various colonies and the recently unified nation of Japan. One can only imagine what might have resulted if Japan had gone ahead and purchased Mr Carter’s “Annihilator”, but perhaps it came to some good use in the service of the Royal Navy.