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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
Holland had had enough of the Fenians. With the partnership dissolved, he went to work as a draftsman for the Pneumatic Gun Company in New York, and as usual began talking about submarines—so persuasively that he managed to enlist the help of his employers in setting up the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company. The new organization was reinforced, some time later, by additional backers brought in by Lieutenant Edward Zalinski, an artillery officer well known as an inventor of military devices.
In 1886, at Fort Lafayette near New York City, where Zalinski was stationed, Holland proceeded to build his third submarine. He went to work—behind a canvas screen to keep out the curious—on a “rough experimental vessel, wooden sheathing under iron frame,” designed to show the stockholders that his ideas would work. The “Zalinski boat,” as it came to be called, was about forty feet long, powered by a secondhand Brayton engine, and armed with Zalinski’s new “dynamite gun” (which by compressed air hurled a heavy charge of dynamite a considerable distance). But when she was completed, disaster struck: the ways collapsed just as the boat started toward the water. She was almost a complete loss. In Holland’s reaction, recorded some years later, is a fleeting insight into the long, lonely struggle he was to wage all his life: the accident set back the development of the submarine at least ten years, he said, “as it was that long before I was able to secure backing to construct another boat.”
Holland was about ready to give up. But his work had attracted the attention of a group of young naval ordnance officers, one of whom was to become Holland’s life-long friend and advocate. Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) William W. Kimball had seen Holland’s 1875 design—the one he had sent to Secretary Robeson—and knew “in a general way” about the Fenian Ram. After meeting the inventor in 1883, Kimball not only urged the Navy to hire him, but also gave the submarine question “a little fillip in the Navy Department.”
The time was propitious, for the United States, like other major powers, was just beginning to build up a modern fleet. In 1887 Kimball and his friends managed to persuade Secretary of the Navy William C. Whitney, a zealous advocate of naval expansion, to divert some of his funds from capital ships to submarines. Open design competitions were held in 1888 and 1889, and Holland won both over some of the leading submarine designers of the day—Sweden’s T. V. Nordenfeldt, for example, and the American inventor Professor Josiah L. Tuck. But no contracts followed. Holland was deeply discouraged. Captain Simpson had been right: it was indeed “very uphill work to put anything through in Washington.” To an interviewer he said, with some heat: “So you have sought me as an authority on submarines? Go down to Washington, and you will find plenty of people there who will tell you I know nothing about the subject, nothing at all.”
Nevertheless, his friends were steadfast. Kimball urged him on, and warm support came from Charles A. Morris, an engineer who employed Holland in his dredging company from 1891 to 1893; and so far as the Navy was concerned, the times were in Holland’s favor. A notable period of experimentation had set in, both in Europe and America, which was to bring the submarine safely to its first maturity.
In Europe Nordenfeldt and an Englishman, G. W. Garrett, were selling their large submarines—64 feet long and displacing 60 tons—to Turkey, Greece, and Russia. France’s little electric Goubets of the 1880’s had been succeeded by the giant 148-foot Gustave Zédé, while in Spain the 70-foot, electrically-operated Peral had been launched in 1888. In this country, Congress was becoming aroused, and the submarine was becoming a public issue. Simon Lake had begun to experiment with a submarine, designed for underwater salvage work, which submerged on an even keel instead of diving, and Tuck had also produced an experimental craft. In 1893 there was another competition. Again Holland won. At last, in 1895, the Navy signed its first submarine contract, for $150,000. The contractor: the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company, formed by Holland and a young lawyer named Elihu B. Frost.
Some idea of the kind of enthusiasm that Kimball and his friends stirred up in the Navy Department appears in the testimony before a Senate committee about that time by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, the country’s foremost naval expansionist. “In our present unprotected condition,” said Mahan, “the risk of losing the money by the government by reason of the [Holland] boat’s being a failure is more than counterbalanced by the great protection the boat would be if a substantial success.” And Rear Admiral James E. Jouett testified: “If I commanded a squadron that was blockading a port, and the enemy had half a dozen of these Holland submarine boats, I would be compelled to abandon the blockade and put to sea to avoid destruction of my ships from an invisible source, from which I could not defend myself.” Impressed, Congress hastened to appropriate $300,000 for two more Holland boats, should the first one prove successful.