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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
It is not known whether Holland subscribed to this far-fetched scheme, but his second submarine was financed by Fenian money and was laid down at the Delamater Iron Works in New York City; after many delays she finally took to the waters of the Hudson River in May of 1881. Holland’s connection with the Irish patriots was well known by this time (though he himself would admit nothing), and a nosy reporter for the New York Sun gave her the only name by which she was ever known: the Fenian Ram.
She was a beautiful craft, surely one of the first practical submarines of the modern type. Thirty-one feet long and powered by the twin pistons of a Brayton internal combustion engine, she was equipped for offense with an “air gun”—a bow torpedo tube operated by compressed air. The submarine could fire a projectile when awash or submerged. On the surface the Ram would do nine miles an hour; submerged, about seven. The first submarine to employ successfully effective diving rudder action, she underwent her first trials near Jersey City in June, when she submerged to a depth of fourteen feet. Holland himself was at the controls, and he later described his sensations on sinking beneath the waves:
Almost immediately the boat began to settle, giving us the suggestion of slowly descending in an elevator. I now looked through the ports in the superstructure and observed that the bow had entirely disappeared and the water was within a few inches of the glass. A second or two later everything grew dark and we were entirely submerged, and nothing could be seen through the ports excepting a dark-green blur.
He surfaced and returned to the dock to find a large, cheering crowd, “among whom opinion was equally divided as to whether we would ever emerge alive from our dive or not.” The next day, on a bet, he took the Ram down and kept her down tor two and a half hours, so alarming the spectators that they began to try to pull the boat up. “The man that wanted to bet was satisfied,” Holland later remarked with pardonable smugness, “and badly frightened.”
In her designer’s estimation the Ram “was very successful indeed.” She responded well, could “come to the surface for a few seconds to take a bearing” (Holland distrusted the periscope, which in any case had not yet been perfected), and then “dive again like a porpoise—steer a straight course in still water, and attack from a distance.” She was later tested in the waters of New York Harbor, passing beneath ships and strings of barges, and at one point descending to a depth of forty feet. The air gun was successfully fired several times, using projectiles designed by Captain John Ericsson, who had built the Monitor.
On at least one occasion, the Ram gave the captain of a conventional boat the fright of his Iife. Cruising across the Narrows underwater one day, Holland suddenly heard the beat of steamboat paddles bearing down upon him. He dove immediately to twenty feet and headed upstream. When he thought it was safe, he surfaced and returned to the dock to find “three or four men jumping around and acting as if demented.” He had, he was told, “frightened the devil” out of the steamer’s skipper. The submarine’s propeller, when Holland dove, had thrown up “a great mass of water … just as big as, or bigger than, any whale could blow.” The bewildered steamboater, uncertain of what danger lay ahead, cut his engines, drifted about apprehensively for a time, then came about, and headed straight for New York.
An air of mystery and intrigue hung about the Fenian Ram. The Brotherhood’s interest in her could hardly be concealed, and submarines, in any event, were a rarity. Public interest ran high. Her novel air gun was duly noted, and there were rumors—closer to the truth than their authors guessed—that the Ram’s size had been dictated by the need to transport her in railroad boxcars or on the decks of ships. But by the early 1880’s, after Holland’s boat had been subjected to every test and passed them all, the organization that had sponsored her began once more to disintegrate, and she became the innocent victim of the intramural bickering.
One dark night in 1883 a group of disgruntled Fenians, using a pass forged with Holland’s signature, stole the boat from her New Jersey mooring place and towed her up Long Island Sound to New Haven, Connecticut, along with a smaller, 16-foot experimental craft built in Jersey City in 1882. The smaller boat sank in 110 feet of water during the passage, but the Ram finally reached New Haven. There the Fenians made several attempts to operate her, but, in Holland’s words, “handled the boat so awkwardly that the harbor master decided that she constituted ‘a menace to navigation’ and demanded a bond if further trials were to be made.” The amateur submariners hauled the Ram out of the water, concealed her on the grounds of a brass factory owned by one of their comrades, and there abandoned her. “I never bothered again with my backers,” Holland said, “nor they with me.”