- Historic Sites
The ‘Holland’ Surfaces
The U.S. Navy’s first submarine was scrapped half a century ago. But now we have been given a second chance to visit a boat nobody ever expected to see again.
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
John Holland arrived in Boston in 1873, a thirty-two-year-old schoolteacher from County Cork who, a decade before, had read the accounts of the battle between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac with fascination and worry, realizing that the age of fighting sail was over. “I knew,” he wrote years later, “that in a country where coal and iron and mechanical skill were as plenty as they were in England, the development of large armor-plated ships must come first. … I was an Irishman. I had never taken part in any political agitation, but my sympathies were with my own country…”
When he landed in Boston, he already had developed the principles for an undersea boat that could challenge a British battle fleet. After getting himself settled as a teacher in a Paterson, New Jersey, parochial school, he sent his plans to the Navy. They were received with the military’s usual relish for the novel: nobody would be willing to go in the boat, said Captain Simpson of the Newport Torpedo Station, and besides, it couldn’t be steered underwater.
Holland guessed that the Irish revolutionaries who made up the Fenian Society in America would have no such prejudices and he approached them. The tough and active Fenians could not have been much impressed by Holland’s appearance: he was slight, high-strung, and shy. But he also had an obdurate commitment to what he knew he could accomplish; easily dismayed, he was not so easily checked. John Devoy, the chairman of the Fenian executive committee, saw this at once. Holland, he said, “was well informed of Irish affairs. … He was cool, good-tempered, and talked to us as a school-master would to his children.” The way to hit England was by sea, Holland said; the means, a submarine. A group of high-ranking Fenians came and watched a thirtyinch working model plunge and surface in the waters off Coney Island, and soon afterward the trustees of the Skirmishing Fund gave Holland the money to build the real thing.
The inventor launched his Boat No. 1 in the spring of 1878. A fourteen-foot, one-man vessel powered by a clattering Brayton internal combustion engine, it performed well enough for the Fenians to put up money for a boat that could actually be used in combat.
A newspaperman (despite Holland’s efforts at caution, it turned out to be impossible to test submarines in secrecy) called this new boat the Fenian Ram , and the name took. She was a handsome and effective vessel. Boat No. 1 looked like a washtub; the Fenian Ram looked like a submarine. Carrying a crew of three, she could run at nine miles per hour on the surface and almost as fast submerged; an “air gun” in the bow fired a projectile designed by no less a colleague than John Ericsson, the father of the Monitor ; and on the day after her launching in 1881, Holland proved that her supply of compressed air was sufficient to keep her on the bottom for two and a half hours without ill effect to boat or crew.
Whether the Fenian Ram could have thrown a scare into the Royal Navy will never be known. By the early 1880s the Irish Revolutionary movement in America was beginning to disintegrate into squabbling factions. In 1883 one of these dissident groups, bearing a forged pass, stole the Fenian Ram from her New Jersey berth, towed her up to New Haven, and finding they couldn’t operate her, abandoned her there. “I’ll let her rot on their hands,” Holland said. He was an American now, and perhaps his allegiance to his invention had become greater than that to his sometime homeland; in any event, he had learned what he needed from the Fenian Ram . “I never bothered again with my backers,” he wrote, “or they with me.”
In the late 1880s the U.S. Navy, at last worried by the submarine activity going on in other nations, announced an open competition for a “submarine torpedo boat.” Holland entered, won—and the government reneged. He entered again the following year and won again; this time President Cleveland left office, and the Harrison administration put the submarine funds into surface vessels. Holland turned his efforts to designing a flying machine, and took a fourdollar-per-day job with a dredging company. In 1892 Cleveland came back into the White House; Holland tried again, and at last, in 1895, the government awarded its first submarine contract: $150,000 to the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company.