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Father Of The Modern Submarine

May 2024
21min read

Dauntless John Holland not only perfected the undersea boat but fought to get it accepted. Both achievements brought him only grief

“Without celebration,” the New York Times reported under date line of May 17, 1897, “the Holland, the little cigar-shaped vessel owned by her inventor, which may or may not play an important part in the building of the navies of the world in the years to come, was launched from Lewis Nixon’s shipyard this morning.” John Philip Holland, her designer, hurried up to the launching platform at the last minute as the builder’s wife, dressed in a smart brown tailor-made gown, nervously held a bottle of champagne tied with the national colors. The launch captain yelled, “Wedge up!” and then, “Saw away!” Mrs. Nixon took accurate aim with her bottle; and amid the cracking of timbers, the clanging of bells, and the hooting of whistles, the first submarine to be accepted by the United States Navy slid down the ways and hit the water, floating “trim and true to her estimated water line.”

True, nearly three years of testing, alterations, and plain stubborn persistence on Holland’s part were necessary before the Navy finally accepted his submarine. It is a question whether he is to be honored more for his engineering genius in perfecting the submarine or for his tirelessness in promoting it. But the fence-sitting caution of the Times proved unwarranted. The successful Holland was indeed to play a decisive role in this country’s Navy, and its basic principles were to be adopted in the submarines of England, Germany, Russia, and Japan. An even more impressive proof of the inventor’s genius is to be found today at Groton, Connecticut, where the atomic submarines of Skipjack design are openly compared to the original Holland. John Holland, generally called the “Father of the Modern Submarine,” richly deserves the title.

The genes which determine a man’s physiognomy and the mysterious forces that shape his role in history sometimes work in perfect harmony. No one seeing John Holland’s bowlerecl head emerge from the conning tower of one of his submarines could doubt this was an inventor. He was a small, intent-looking man with rimless glasses and a bustling manner, and his speech—direct and to the point—revealed an eager, inquiring mind. He was, a reporter once noted, “Irish from the just apparent bald spot above his cerebellum to the tips of his sturdy shoes, and his intonation … is that of the educated Celt.”

He was born in 1840 (authorities differ on the year) in western Ireland, near where the river Shannon flows to meet the sea. He was a resident of Cork when in 1862 the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac served notice to the world that the day of the wooden warship had passed. Realizing that England would soon have an iron fleet second to none, Holland, ever an Irish patriot, began to wonder “how she could be retarded in her designs upon the other peoples of the world.” He began planning a submarine, and before emigrating to the United States in 1872, he had already worked out the basic operating principles.

Holland’s education had been elementary, but through his own efforts he became a capable draftsman and a fine, if intuitive, engineer. And he could not keep away from submarines. Arriving in Boston to live with relatives, he slipped on the ice one day and broke his leg; the enforced idleness gave him a chance to review his earlier submarine plans.

He was already familiar, of course, with the work of previous American designers like David Bushnell, whose tubby, hand-operated Turtle, had very nearly succeeded in sinking British ships during the Revolution, and Robert Fulton, whose crank-operated Nautilus had been tested during the Napoleonic wars. And he definitely knew at least something of the gallant but tragic little Hunley, also propelled by a crank, which was developed by the Confederates during the Civil War and became the first submarine to sink an enemy ship of war (see “The Submarine That Wouldn’t Come Up,” AMERICAN HERITAGE, April, 1958).

In 1873, established as a teacher at St. John’s Parochial School in Paterson, New Jersey, Holland was still talking submarines. Two years later a friend persuaded him to send a plan for a little one-man boat to Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson, who referred it to Captain Edward Simpson at the Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island.

The result was the first of many rebuffs John Holland was to suffer at the hands of unimaginative Navy officials. You couldn’t get a man to go down in such a boat, Simpson told him; and it couldn’t be steered while submerged. Drily, Holland remarked that evidently Captain Simpson “had no notion of the possibility of steering by compass under water.” But to Simpson’s clinching argument, that “it was very uphill work to put anything through in Washington,” the young inventor had no answer; indeed he was to discover over the next thirty years that this was a gross understatement. Rejected by the government, Holland turned to a less reputable source of backing: the American members of the Fenian society, the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

United by “the strong tie of bearing one common wrong”—English rule over Ireland—these Irish-American zealots gave generously from their tiny savings to free their mother country. They set up in the United States—on paper at least—an Irish republic with its own president and secretary of war. And in 1860 they achieved their high water mark: an invasion of British Canada by Irish-Americans, most of them veterans of the Civil War. It failed ingloriously, but the spirit behind it lingered on. Years later Mr. Dooley remarked: “Be hivins, if Ireland could be freed [by] a picnic, it’d not on’y be free to-day, but an impirc, begorra.”

But the Fenians were not quite reduced to picnics yet. In the early 1870’s a number of their leaders in Ireland, among them Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, were released from jail by the English and made their way to the United States. In 1876 an American Fenian convention voted to create a “skirmishing fund,” administered by O’Donovan Rossa, to finance a campaign of terrorism against England. Holland was no Fenian, but he wanted to build a submarine, and the obviously complementary nature of their respective fanaticisms threw him and the Fenians together. Not long after his rebuff by the Navy, the inventor constructed a thirty-inch model of an undersea boat propelled by a spring and a clockwork mechanism. A demonstration was arranged at Coney Island for Fenian representatives, and when the tiny model did all the things Holland had claimed it would, they set aside $6,000 from their skirmishing fund to build what was to become, under the simple title “Boat No. 1,” John Holland’s first working submarine.

Amid many a heated argument, Holland and William Dunkerley, a friend and fellow engineer, worked out the plans at a blackboard in St. John’s School, started construction in New York, and launched her in the Passaic River at Paterson in 1878. She was a strange-looking craft resembling nothing so much as a sea-going tank. Intended merely as a working model for a larger boat, she was only fourteen feet long, tapered to a point at both ends.

Dunkerley and Holland had the little boat hauled to the Passaic River on a wagon pulled by sixteen stallions borrowed from a locomotive works. They arrived to find both banks of the river crowded with workers from Paterson’s silk mills—all curious and all in a holiday mood.

Loud cheers broke out as the wagon backed down to the water, and Dunkerley and another helper, John Lister, leaped forward to untie the ropes and chains that held the boat fast. But the wagon had stuck in the mud, and when the lashings were loosened, the submarine tipped over abruptly, her nose in the water, her stern high in the air over the tail gate.

It was a bad omen, and there was worse to come. Wrestling and sweating, Dunkerley and Lister finally righted the boat and committed her to the placid waters above Falls Bridge. The mill hands cheered. And then, without warning and with no one aboard, Boat No. 1 sank slowly out of sight! Someone had neglected to insert two screw plugs in the floor of the main compartment, and the waters of the river leaked in. The cheers turned to jeers.

Once raised, pumped out, and refloated, however, Boat No. 1 performed passably. Holland found she would dive fairly well, though he made a mental note to move the diving planes farther aft and to improve the water-ballast system. “As soon as the boat came up,” Dunkerley later reported,

the turret opened and Holland bobbed up smiling. Hc repeated his dive several times, and then he invited us to try it, but we preferred to “stick to the ropes.” About the third trip we made up the river a stranger was seen hiding behind the rocks on the river road. Hc had a powerful fieId glass, and it was said that he was an agent of the British Government. His presence caused a commotion for a time.

O’Donovan Rossa and two other Fenians there for the test were duly impressed—as much by the delicious air of conspiracy, perhaps, as by the boat itself. At any rate, the experimental craft, having served her purpose, was carefully stripped of all usable equipment and the shell scuttled near Falls Bridge. The Fenians came up with some more money for a larger boat “suitable for use in war.”

It had to be large enough for three men but small enough to be carried aboard a regular steamer, for someone in the movement had devised a novel plan for its use. Several miniature subs would be built and smuggled aboard a conventional-looking freighter, there to be stored in a special watertight compartment. The freighter would take them to a harbor where a number of British warships lay at anchor, the submarines would sail out through a sea door below the freighter’s water line to wreak havoc among the unsuspecting men-of-war, and then return to the “mother ship.”

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.”

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.

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.”

About the Holland’s performance during her early voyages her chief engineer, Charles A. Morris, was exultant. “She goes like a fish,” he said, “and dives better than one.” But the Holland’s first successful dive ended in a mudbank, and the trials were to go on and on. In Raritan Bay on April 20, with an official Navy Board of Inspection looking on, the Holland made impressive dives of thirty-eight and fifty-eight minutes, and satisfactorily fired both a dummy aerial projectile and a dummy torpedo. The Navy, however, downgrading a favorable report from its board, still dragged its feet. The boat had been offered to the government for the war, which began the day after the April trials, but the offer was rejected by the brass despite Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt’s recommendation. The Holland never saw action; instead, from a new base in Brooklyn, she continued to undergo tests in the peaceful waters of New York Harbor, occasionally giving demonstration rides to American officers like Kimball and to naval observers from Norway and Japan.

More trials were held in November, this time before a review board including Captain Robley (“Fighting Bob”) Evans of Santiago fame. Although everybody was impressed when the Holland fired a real Whitehead torpedo, the boat when submerged yawed “like a drunken washerwoman,” and the board recommended further trials. Something had to be done about her steering. It was Engineer Morris who finally persuaded Holland that the rudders would have to be repositioned aft of the propeller if she were to answer to her helm. (Morris could hardly envisage the enormous power that was to make the original arrangement work in the nuclear submarine Skipjack.) An entrepreneur named Isaac Rice, sold on submarines after a demonstration ride in the Holland, paid for the alterations, which were carried out during the winter of 1898–1899. The stern was rebuilt, weight compensation tanks added, and the after dynamite gun removed as superfluous.

In June of 1899 the Holland, now operating for Rice’s new Electric Boat Company, was towed to Long Island, where the country’s first submarine base was established at the Goldsmith and Tuthill yard at New Suffolk. By July a safe, uncrowded three-mile course had been marked out in deserted Little Peconic Bay, and there, removed from a too-inquisitive public, intensive testing was continued during the summer. Occasionally, exhibition runs were made for important people like Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who scolded Holland roundly for inventing a “deadly instrument of war.” Another time, two visiting senators and the crew were temporarily felled by exhaust fumes; the submarine glided into its basin with no one at the controls. In November final, stringent trials, more elaborate than anything that had gone before, were held before another Navy board. Though the boat and its crew acquitted themselves magnificently, the board still turned in an adverse report to Washington.

“We are going to send the Holland to Washington and make her lobby for an appropriation,” an angry Elihu Frost told Kimball. Congress, perhaps, would change the Navy’s mind. In December, under Cable’s charge, the Holland headed down the inland waterway—no insurance company would insure her for a voyage on the open Atlantic—toward the capital.

It was a 500-mile trip, longer than a submarine had ever traveled up to that time. The public was excited. Headlines announced: THE HOLLAND BOAT COMING TODAY; THE HOLLAND BOAT HERE. Crowds lined the banks of the canals and mobbed the boat wherever she tied up. Arriving in Washington, the Holland was overhauled at the navy yard during the winter, and between March 14 and 27, 1900, final Navy trials were held on the Potomac. An enthusiastic Admiral Dewey watched the first run (his aide, Lieutenant Harry H. Caldwell, was in the boat). While the Holland awaited the Navy’s verdict, exhibitions were held for newspapermen, foreign naval attachés, and congressmen. On April 11 the Navy finally agreed to purchase the Holland, and accepted her a week later. The price was $150,000. She had cost $236,615 to build.

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.

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.”


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