Father Of The Modern Submarine


Though his submarines lacked the power and size of these modern giants, Holland had created something close to the “true submersible”—the ideal of today. “Why, you could spit across the Holland,” exclaimed old Roger Williams, once a member of the little boat’s Navy crew, when he was shown the great bulk of the Nautilus in 1955. But Andrew McKee, chief designer for General Dynamics’ Electric Boat Division at Groton, builder of many of the nuclear-powered craft, has observed that the modern submarine is beginning to look suspiciously like the Holland. Size is unimportant: the design is everything.

That final Navy rejection in 1907, however, had broken the spirit of a proud and gifted man. Rheumatism plagued Holland’s final years. “Unknown to his neighbors as a man of any note,” wrote an associate, Frank T. Cable, “he lived in East Orange, New Jersey, his small frame stooping, his gait awkward, his manner nervous due to his nearsightedness, which increased with the years, yet keen-brained, studious, and ambitious to the last …” He spent much time in a workshop at the rear of his home—it was “sealed with various locks,” Cable remembered—where he designed and built the aeronautical devices that had fascinated him ever since he was a young teacher in Ireland. He would walk out with his old comrade, Kimball, to study the flight of birds. “Many an hour have I held a stop watch on great gulls, frigate birds, booby birds and albatross,” Kimball recalled, “trying to get data for Holland.” In 1912 the old Irish patriot emerged briefly from retirement—to warn England’s First Lord of the Admiralty against the growing submarine menace. He died, almost unnoticed, on August 12, 1914; a month later the submarine first showed its deadly might when a German U-boat sank three British cruisers with the loss of 1,370 lives.

It was Kimball who wrote John Holland’s epitaph: “He was a fair fighter,” the Admiral said, “a most interesting and amusing companion, the staunchest of friends. God rest his soul.”