- Historic Sites
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
That summer the boat, under command of Lieutenant Caldwell and a Navy crew, made headlines as well as history by officially “sinking” several large warships while on trial maneuvers with the fleet off Newport. She was commissioned on October 12. Thereafter she sank into obscurity, serving for many years as a submarine trainer before being stricken from the lists in 1910. But her work had been done. Hard on her heels came the seven boats of the Holland-type “A class,” the Navy’s first submarine fleet, while similar craft were built for the fleets of England and Japan. The submarine at last had gained some recognition from the great powers. [The little Holland in her old age was exhibited in several cities; then in 1930 was purchased for $100 from a park in the Bronx and ignominiously scrapped. The Plunger suffered a similar fate; but the Fenian Ram survives in Paterson’s Westside Park, thanks to the generosity of a native of Paterson who as a boy had been kindly treated by Holland. (The inventor loved children, his daughter relates, because “they were the only ones who didn’t think he was crazy!”) As for Boat No. 1, it was dug out of the mud of the Passaic River in 1927 and can now be viewed in the Paterson Museum.]
As for John Holland himself, he was inevitably pushed aside as the Electric Boat Company, under Rice’s guidance, developed into an established concern. Frost, who had helped Holland form his own company not many years before, turned against him. Later there were serious differences over the design of the A class, and the engineering staff began to ignore the old man as far as they dared. Holland, who had never trusted those who had taken over his invention, left the firm in 1904 and tried to set up in business for himself.
He built two boats for Japan that year, receiving the Order of the Rising Sun from a grateful Nipponese government. In 1905, having designed an ocean-going submarine faster than the Fleet-type boats that would appear in World War II, he formed a new company and tried to interest the Navy. But the Electric Boat Company, fighting for its life, scared away his capital with legal actions and blocked him at every turn. The Navy’s rejection of his new boat in 1907 was curt and final.
Nevertheless, he had built soundly. The little Holland set a high standard for the future, and her basic mechanisms and principles were carried over into the submarines of every navy. Unlike the important early submarines of Lake and Nordenfeldt, with their “even keel” method of submerging, the Holland dove like a porpoise. She maintained a “reserve buoyancy” and was forced or steered underwater, while in motion, by her stern diving rudders and propeller. An immovable center of gravity, along with compensation for any loss of internal weight by use of trimming tanks, kept the boat at all times in fine adjustment of balance and weight. The Holland was the first submarine to employ the combination of an internal-combustion engine for surface running and an electric motor for submerged work, setting a firm precedent for the future.
The submarine as it developed through World War II, however, became so heavy and complex both in operation and design that much of the agile simplicity of Holland’s original conception was lost. The large Fleet type, for instance, was in reality a fast, long-range, diesel-powered surface craft capable of submerging for only relatively short distances at a much slower speed. Its ratio of twenty-one knots on the surface to nine submerged was in sharp contrast to the Holland’s remarkable eight to seven. Nevertheless, it was an effective weapon. Even its World War I predecessor, in German hands, very nearly broke the British blockade of the Fatherland. In World War II, U-boats made the efforts of the United States to supply its European allies a difficult and deadly dangerous business. And the American Fleet-type submarine effectively cut Japan’s home islands off from its Pacific outposts of empire.
Right after the war came atomic power, first used in the Nautilus. Radar had forced the submarine below the surface to avoid detection. With atomic power it could now stay there, where it belonged, for almost indefinite periods. The result has been a high compliment to Holland’s genius: a return, in the recent Skipjack class, to the efficient, whale-like configuration, the single screw astern of the rudders, and the one-man control which had been typical of the original Holland design.