Father Of The Modern Submarine

PrintPrintEmailEmail“Without celebration,” the New York Times reported under date line of May 17, 1897, “the Holland, the little cigar-shaped vessel owned by her inventor, which may or may not play an important part in the building of the navies of the world in the years to come, was launched from Lewis Nixon’s shipyard this morning.” John Philip Holland, her designer, hurried up to the launching platform at the last minute as the builder’s wife, dressed in a smart brown tailor-made gown, nervously held a bottle of champagne tied with the national colors. The launch captain yelled, “Wedge up!” and then, “Saw away!” Mrs. Nixon took accurate aim with her bottle; and amid the cracking of timbers, the clanging of bells, and the hooting of whistles, the first submarine to be accepted by the United States Navy slid down the ways and hit the water, floating “trim and true to her estimated water line.”

True, nearly three years of testing, alterations, and plain stubborn persistence on Holland’s part were necessary before the Navy finally accepted his submarine. It is a question whether he is to be honored more for his engineering genius in perfecting the submarine or for his tirelessness in promoting it. But the fence-sitting caution of the Times proved unwarranted. The successful Holland was indeed to play a decisive role in this country’s Navy, and its basic principles were to be adopted in the submarines of England, Germany, Russia, and Japan. An even more impressive proof of the inventor’s genius is to be found today at Groton, Connecticut, where the atomic submarines of Skipjack design are openly compared to the original Holland. John Holland, generally called the “Father of the Modern Submarine,” richly deserves the title.

The genes which determine a man’s physiognomy and the mysterious forces that shape his role in history sometimes work in perfect harmony. No one seeing John Holland’s bowlerecl head emerge from the conning tower of one of his submarines could doubt this was an inventor. He was a small, intent-looking man with rimless glasses and a bustling manner, and his speech—direct and to the point—revealed an eager, inquiring mind. He was, a reporter once noted, “Irish from the just apparent bald spot above his cerebellum to the tips of his sturdy shoes, and his intonation … is that of the educated Celt.”

He was born in 1840 (authorities differ on the year) in western Ireland, near where the river Shannon flows to meet the sea. He was a resident of Cork when in 1862 the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac served notice to the world that the day of the wooden warship had passed. Realizing that England would soon have an iron fleet second to none, Holland, ever an Irish patriot, began to wonder “how she could be retarded in her designs upon the other peoples of the world.” He began planning a submarine, and before emigrating to the United States in 1872, he had already worked out the basic operating principles.

Holland’s education had been elementary, but through his own efforts he became a capable draftsman and a fine, if intuitive, engineer. And he could not keep away from submarines. Arriving in Boston to live with relatives, he slipped on the ice one day and broke his leg; the enforced idleness gave him a chance to review his earlier submarine plans.

He was already familiar, of course, with the work of previous American designers like David Bushnell, whose tubby, hand-operated Turtle, had very nearly succeeded in sinking British ships during the Revolution, and Robert Fulton, whose crank-operated Nautilus had been tested during the Napoleonic wars. And he definitely knew at least something of the gallant but tragic little Hunley, also propelled by a crank, which was developed by the Confederates during the Civil War and became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship of war (see “The Submarine That Wouldn’t Come Up,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1958).

In 1873, established as a teacher at St. John’s Parochial School in Paterson, New Jersey, Holland was still talking submarines. Two years later a friend persuaded him to send a plan for a little one-man boat to Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, who referred it to Captain Edward Simpson at the Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island.

The result was the first of many rebuffs John Holland was to suffer at the hands of unimaginative Navy officials. You couldn’t get a man to go down in such a boat, Simpson told him; and it couldn’t be steered while submerged. Drily, Holland remarked that evidently Captain Simpson “had no notion of the possibility of steering by compass under water.” But to Simpson’s clinching argument, that “it was very uphill work to put anything through in Washington,” the young inventor had no answer; indeed he was to discover over the next thirty years that this was a gross understatement. Rejected by the government, Holland turned to a less reputable source of backing: the American members of the Fenian society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.