- 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
At that time the boat’s inventor had less than a year to live. Nothing very good had happened to Holland since the Navy had bought his submarine. His firm had been absorbed by the Electric Boat Company, and he had been squeezed out of any real control. At no point had his partners paid him a salary of more than ninety dollars a week. He tried to develop a highspeed attack submarine during his last years, but with little success. He died at his home in Newark, New Jersey, in August of 1914, just as the world was about to learn how effective a weapon he had bequeathed to it.
The Holland ’s long-submerged batteries could still take a charge.
History continued to vindicate Holland’s vision. As Richard K. Morris demonstrates in his admirable biography of the inventor, the Holland VI was a very advanced boat indeed: the nuclear power that finally rendered obsolete the vessel’s means of propulsion at the same time resurrected the shape of her hull. Once submarine engineers had a plant that could drive the boat as efficiently under the water as on the surface, they abandoned the long, sharp hulls of the World War II submarines in favor of a more bulbous, porpoiselike shape—the shape that Holland had developed for his craft over half a century earlier.
So Holland’s achievement never was quite eclipsed, and it was particularly well remembered at Gosport, the home of the Royal Navy’s submarine museum. America, Britain, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, Chile, and Scandinavia had all built Holland boats, but the only one that might possibly have survived lay on the bottom of the Channel. In April of 1981 a navy mine-hunter, picking through the wrecks of two world wars off Eddystone, found the Holland I lying in two thousand feet of water. The next summer divers cleared away the tangle of lines and fishing nets that shrouded the hull and ran great straps beneath the vessel. The attending salvage ship raised the boat to just below the surface and bore her gently to Plymouth Sound, where she was set down in forty feet of water. There divers made their way in through the turret and found the interior remarkably intact; even the wood decking was still solid. The first task—a miserable one—was to remove the fifty-nine half-ton storage batteries. The work went slowly until it was discovered that the battery shop at Devonport Dockyard had had the unbelievable prudence to keep the proper type of lifting bar on hand. Chloride Ltd. of Manchester, the manufacturer of the batteries, is still in business; the firm took one of them, ran a charge into it, and noted with considerable satisfaction that it worked passably well. With the hull lightened, the Holland I could begin her last voyage, upriver to Devonport Dockyard, where she was placed in a cradle in an immense submarine dock.
The next day No. 12 dock was pumped dry and, for the first time in seventy years, the Holland I’s brassand-copper conning tower broke the surface. At once workmen sluiced the hull with high-pressure water jets, blasting away years of marine growth, then covered it with Fertan, a compound with the alchemical powers to transform rust into a material as strong as the original steel. They worked through the night, racing the rapid deterioration that afflicts long-submerged metal suddenly exposed to air. By morning the job was done: the Holland I stood sound and clean in her cradle.
The last leg of her journey was overland. Cut in three and with the heavy engine removed, the boat was carried by tank transporters to Gosport, the old base from which she had operated a lifetime earlier, when battleships decided issues at sea and the submarine was a cranky toy.
She is on display there today, a British boat built by British workmen in a British yard, and yet as American a monument as there is.