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Father Of The Modern Submarine
Dauntless John Holland not only perfected the undersea boat but fought to get it accepted. Both achievements brought him only grief
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
United by “the strong tie of bearing one common wrong”—English rule over Ireland—these Irish-American zealots gave generously from their tiny savings to free their mother country. They set up in the United States—on paper at least—an Irish republic with its own president and secretary of war. And in 1860 they achieved their high water mark: an invasion of British Canada by Irish-Americans, most of them veterans of the Civil War. It failed ingloriously, but the spirit behind it lingered on. Years later Mr. Dooley remarked: “Be hivins, if Ireland could be freed [by] a picnic, it’d not on’y be free to-day, but an impirc, begorra.”
But the Fenians were not quite reduced to picnics yet. In the early 1870’s a number of their leaders in Ireland, among them Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, were released from jail by the English and made their way to the United States. In 1876 an American Fenian convention voted to create a “skirmishing fund,” administered by O’Donovan Rossa, to finance a campaign of terrorism against England. Holland was no Fenian, but he wanted to build a submarine, and the obviously complementary nature of their respective fanaticisms threw him and the Fenians together. Not long after his rebuff by the Navy, the inventor constructed a thirty-inch model of an undersea boat propelled by a spring and a clockwork mechanism. A demonstration was arranged at Coney Island for Fenian representatives, and when the tiny model did all the things Holland had claimed it would, they set aside $6,000 from their skirmishing fund to build what was to become, under the simple title “Boat No. 1,” John Holland’s first working submarine.
Amid many a heated argument, Holland and William Dunkerley, a friend and fellow engineer, worked out the plans at a blackboard in St. John’s School, started construction in New York, and launched her in the Passaic River at Paterson in 1878. She was a strange-looking craft resembling nothing so much as a sea-going tank. Intended merely as a working model for a larger boat, she was only fourteen feet long, tapered to a point at both ends.
Dunkerley and Holland had the little boat hauled to the Passaic River on a wagon pulled by sixteen stallions borrowed from a locomotive works. They arrived to find both banks of the river crowded with workers from Paterson’s silk mills—all curious and all in a holiday mood.
Loud cheers broke out as the wagon backed down to the water, and Dunkerley and another helper, John Lister, leaped forward to untie the ropes and chains that held the boat fast. But the wagon had stuck in the mud, and when the lashings were loosened, the submarine tipped over abruptly, her nose in the water, her stern high in the air over the tail gate.
It was a bad omen, and there was worse to come. Wrestling and sweating, Dunkerley and Lister finally righted the boat and committed her to the placid waters above Falls Bridge. The mill hands cheered. And then, without warning and with no one aboard, Boat No. 1 sank slowly out of sight! Someone had neglected to insert two screw plugs in the floor of the main compartment, and the waters of the river leaked in. The cheers turned to jeers.
Once raised, pumped out, and refloated, however, Boat No. 1 performed passably. Holland found she would dive fairly well, though he made a mental note to move the diving planes farther aft and to improve the water-ballast system. “As soon as the boat came up,” Dunkerley later reported,
the turret opened and Holland bobbed up smiling. Hc repeated his dive several times, and then he invited us to try it, but we preferred to “stick to the ropes.” About the third trip we made up the river a stranger was seen hiding behind the rocks on the river road. Hc had a powerful fieId glass, and it was said that he was an agent of the British Government. His presence caused a commotion for a time.
O’Donovan Rossa and two other Fenians there for the test were duly impressed—as much by the delicious air of conspiracy, perhaps, as by the boat itself. At any rate, the experimental craft, having served her purpose, was carefully stripped of all usable equipment and the shell scuttled near Falls Bridge. The Fenians came up with some more money for a larger boat “suitable for use in war.”
It had to be large enough for three men but small enough to be carried aboard a regular steamer, for someone in the movement had devised a novel plan for its use. Several miniature subs would be built and smuggled aboard a conventional-looking freighter, there to be stored in a special watertight compartment. The freighter would take them to a harbor where a number of British warships lay at anchor, the submarines would sail out through a sea door below the freighter’s water line to wreak havoc among the unsuspecting men-of-war, and then return to the “mother ship.”