Father Of The Modern Submarine

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But that first Navy boat, the Plunger, was a fiasco from the start. She was built at the Columbian Iron Works in Baltimore. During a good part of the time she was under construction Holland was sick, and the project fell into the hands of naval engineers who knew a good deal less about submarines than he. Unrealistic Navy specifications calling for 1,500 horsepower on the surface and 70 submerged—the Plunger was supposed to be capable of a six-hour run at eight knots—resulted in a cumbersome monster 84 feet long. Along with the diving planes which Holland favored, she was equipped with two small down-haul blades in open hatches fore and aft, designed to hold her on an even keel while submerged. Port and starboard main propellers, coupled to a pair of triple-expansion steam engines, drove the submarine on the surface. To propel her underwater she had a third screw, on the axis of the vessel and aft of the rudders, driven by a 75-horsepower electric motor. An additional compound steam engine operated the dynamo used to charge the batteries. She carried two torpedo tubes in the bow.

The Plunger was, to put it mildly, over-engineered. Holland, dismayed by what he had brought forth, suggested alterations in the direction of simplicity, but instead the Navy supervisors insisted upon more “improvements” which merely made matters worse. Launched at her dock in 1897, the Plunger was so unstable that when her engines were started she nearly turned turtle. When the hatches were closed, moreover, the heat from the huge oil-burning boiler in the center of the boat was so intense that it threatened to cook the crew alive. Attempts were made through 1900 to rehabilitate the boat with a diesel engine, but eventually she was abandoned.

Long before the Plunger was finished, Holland realized she would be a dismal failure, but he knew too that further Navy contracts depended on his producing a successful submarine. “The Lord only knows,” he wrote, “when [the Navy] will consent to be satisfied to recommend the construction of other boats.” Consequently, he persuaded his backers—among them Mrs. Isaac Lawrence of New York, who came up with $25,000—10 finance another submarine of his own design. If the Navy wouldn’t buy it, at least it could be used as a demonstrator or sold abroad.

With a sense of urgency, Holland sat down at his drafting board, and by September of 1896, when the plans were finished he wrote, with the ardor of an inventor who knows he’s on the right track: “I don’t think I can improve on the arrangement or general features of this design … it represents a powerful and effective boat.”

And so it did. Designed in accordance with Holland’s belief that “a submarine boat should be as small as possible consistently with possessing sufficient offensive powers,” the Holland measured only 53.3 feet compared to the Plunger’s 84, but would make seven knots submerged and eight on the surface. Moreover, she had a surface cruising range of about 1,000 miles. She was armed with only one torpedo tube—the Plunger had two—and two inclined dynamite guns; inside her cramped interior there was room for a crew of five. Like the Plunger, she was to have had a steam plant to propel her on the surface, and an electric motor for subsurface running, but when Holland observed at an exhibition in New York a 45-horsepower gasoline engine, he substituted that for the steam plant, retaining the battery-operated electric motor for running underwater.

Thus it was that the following May, at her husband’s shipyard in Elizabethport, New Jersey, Mrs. Lewis Nixon appeared in her best brown dress to christen the Holland with a bottle of champagne. There were still many details to be attended to after the launching, however, and not until early in 1898 was the Holland ready for testing.

By that time the Cuban situation was boiling up toward war, and when, on February 24, the Holland headed down Arthur Kill to her first base at Perth Amboy, New Jersey, conflicting rumors began to circulate. One said that the inventor had sold his boat to Cuba, another that he was about to attack the Spanish warship Vizcaya, then anchored in New York Harbor. A Navy tug followed carefully that February day, and the next morning the New York Times quite seriously reported: “Spanish spies watched the Holland from docks above and below the shipyards all the morning.”