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The ‘Holland’ Surfaces

July 2024
11min read

The U.S. Navy’s first submarine was scrapped half a century ago. But now we have been given a second chance to visit a boat nobody ever expected to see again.

IN 1930 THE United States Navy’s first submarine was hauled away from the Bronx park where it had long been on display and was knocked into scrap by a salvage company that had paid one hundred dollars for the privilege. This would scarcely have surprised John Philip Holland, the boat’s inventor: throughout his life he had been beset by every possible mishap and rebuff. What would have surprised him is the fact that eighty-odd years after the U.S. Navy bought his boat, the ocean would yield up its twin and that it would be painstakingly restored by Great Britain, the very nation whose absolute control of the seas had provoked Holland into building submarines in the first place.

John Holland arrived in Boston in 1873, a thirty-two-year-old schoolteacher from County Cork who, a decade before, had read the accounts of the battle between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac with fascination and worry, realizing that the age of fighting sail was over. “I knew,” he wrote years later, “that in a country where coal and iron and mechanical skill were as plenty as they were in England, the development of large armor-plated ships must come first. … I was an Irishman. I had never taken part in any political agitation, but my sympathies were with my own country…”


When he landed in Boston, he already had developed the principles for an undersea boat that could challenge a British battle fleet. After getting himself settled as a teacher in a Paterson, New Jersey, parochial school, he sent his plans to the Navy. They were received with the military’s usual relish for the novel: nobody would be willing to go in the boat, said Captain Simpson of the Newport Torpedo Station, and besides, it couldn’t be steered underwater.

Holland guessed that the Irish revolutionaries who made up the Fenian Society in America would have no such prejudices and he approached them. The tough and active Fenians could not have been much impressed by Holland’s appearance: he was slight, high-strung, and shy. But he also had an obdurate commitment to what he knew he could accomplish; easily dismayed, he was not so easily checked. John Devoy, the chairman of the Fenian executive committee, saw this at once. Holland, he said, “was well informed of Irish affairs. … He was cool, good-tempered, and talked to us as a school-master would to his children.” The way to hit England was by sea, Holland said; the means, a submarine. A group of high-ranking Fenians came and watched a thirtyinch working model plunge and surface in the waters off Coney Island, and soon afterward the trustees of the Skirmishing Fund gave Holland the money to build the real thing.

The inventor launched his Boat No. 1 in the spring of 1878. A fourteen-foot, one-man vessel powered by a clattering Brayton internal combustion engine, it performed well enough for the Fenians to put up money for a boat that could actually be used in combat.

A newspaperman (despite Holland’s efforts at caution, it turned out to be impossible to test submarines in secrecy) called this new boat the Fenian Ram , and the name took. She was a handsome and effective vessel. Boat No. 1 looked like a washtub; the Fenian Ram looked like a submarine. Carrying a crew of three, she could run at nine miles per hour on the surface and almost as fast submerged; an “air gun” in the bow fired a projectile designed by no less a colleague than John Ericsson, the father of the Monitor ; and on the day after her launching in 1881, Holland proved that her supply of compressed air was sufficient to keep her on the bottom for two and a half hours without ill effect to boat or crew.

Whether the Fenian Ram could have thrown a scare into the Royal Navy will never be known. By the early 1880s the Irish Revolutionary movement in America was beginning to disintegrate into squabbling factions. In 1883 one of these dissident groups, bearing a forged pass, stole the Fenian Ram from her New Jersey berth, towed her up to New Haven, and finding they couldn’t operate her, abandoned her there. “I’ll let her rot on their hands,” Holland said. He was an American now, and perhaps his allegiance to his invention had become greater than that to his sometime homeland; in any event, he had learned what he needed from the Fenian Ram . “I never bothered again with my backers,” he wrote, “or they with me.”

In the late 1880s the U.S. Navy, at last worried by the submarine activity going on in other nations, announced an open competition for a “submarine torpedo boat.” Holland entered, won—and the government reneged. He entered again the following year and won again; this time President Cleveland left office, and the Harrison administration put the submarine funds into surface vessels. Holland turned his efforts to designing a flying machine, and took a fourdollar-per-day job with a dredging company. In 1892 Cleveland came back into the White House; Holland tried again, and at last, in 1895, the government awarded its first submarine contract: $150,000 to the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company.

Now, WITH HIS goal all but realized, Holland began to feel the pinch of government restrictions. He had money, but not the freedom to use it as he wanted. The Navy insisted on a surface speed for the Plunger that meant the ship would have to be powered by a huge, tripleexpansion steam plant; three propellers were demanded where one would have served better. Holland saw that the boat was being overengineered into uselessness (and, in fact, she never did perform properly); he kept on building her but persuaded his backers to pay for another submarine, one that would be his alone.

‘What will the navy require next,” Holland asked, ‘that my boat should climb a tree?”

He completed the plans for his new boat in September of 1896. “I don’t think I can improve on the arrangement or general features of this design …,” he wrote of the Holland VI . At fifty-three feet she was less than two-thirds the length of the Plunger but she carried three Whitehead torpedoes, she had a cruising range of nearly a thousand miles, and she was driven on the surface by a forty-five-horsepower gasoline engine and by batteries when submerged. This arrangement—internal combustion for surface running, electric power for underwater—would be standard on submarines until the nuclear age.

On May 17, 1897, the Holland VI stood on the ways at Lewis Nixon’s Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, New Jersey. On her hull, a workman had chalked, “This vessel when launched will never float.” Mrs. Nixon smashed a bottle of champagne on the blunt bow, workmen swung their sledgehammers, and as Holland watched through his thick glasses, the seventy-five-ton boat slid down the ways, drove deep—too deep, it looked —into the water, then bobbed to the surface to ride bravely right at her estimated waterline.

Holland fussed and fussed over her. He might never have another chance like this one, and he wanted to make sure everything was perfect. He tinkered and adjusted until that October, when a workman left for the day without closing a sea valve. The next morning, the Holland VI was on the bottom, full of water. They raised her and pumped her out, but her wiring was soaked. For a month Holland tried with oil stoves and superheaters to dry the motors, but the damp circuitry kept grounding out against the hull. It looked as though the boat might have to be demolished, but then a young electrician with the sturdy engineer’s name of Frank Cable came up with a brilliantly simple solution: reverse the current in the armatures, and the fierce heat would dry the dynamos out from the inside. In a week the Holland VI was ready.

On March 17, 1898, after three weeks of brief preliminary trials, the Holland VI churned out through the scud and drizzle of a stormy St. Patrick’s Day. As Holland watched from the open turret, the sun came lancing down through a rift in the clouds ahead and a rainbow spread its arch beneath the thunderous skies over Staten Island. Against this operatic setting, and with crowds cheering from the shore, Holland took his boat through her first truly successful dive.

During the next few weeks the inventor brought his vessel up to her peak fighting trim: the Holland VI could clip along at eight knots on the surface, seven submerged; her steelplated hull could keep her safe at depths of up to seventy-five feet; and as the original description read, “she is … completely lighted by electricity; has a water-closet; and the crew of 6 men can comfortably live aboard for 40 hours.”

Navy officials came to watch, were impressed, and came to watch some more. In April of 1898, with war with Spain drawing closer, the assistant secretary of the Navy wrote to his boss: “I think the Holland submarine boat should be purchased. … Sometimes she doesn’t work perfectly, but often she does, and I don’t think in the present emergency we can afford to let her slip.—T. Roosevelt.”

No action was taken: it seemed that more demonstrations were necessary. “What will the navy require next,” asked Holland, “that my boat should climb a tree?” The board had not yet reached its decision, he was told again and again. He knew “boards,” he said: they were “long, narrow and wooden. ”

America and Spain went to war. Holland made an offer to the secretary of the Navy. “If the government will transport the boat… to the harbor of Santiago … Mr. Holland will undertake the job of sinking the Spanish fleet. …” The inventor closed with the suggestion, modest enough under the circumstances, that if he succeeded, “he would expect the government to buy his boat.”


The war ran its brief course without any help from Holland, who continued to demonstrate his boat for anyone who cared to see it. In July of 1899 the seventy-seven-year-old Clara Barton came aboard, went for a short cruise, and then chided the inventor for creating so frightful a weapon. Holland replied with the logic that has become all too familiar in this century: the submarine was potentially so devastating that it would demonstrate the futility of war.

ON MARCH 14, 1900 , a group of congressmen and Navy officials watched the Holland VI dive and surface in the Potomac. Among them was one man who knew a good deal about combat steaming. “If [the Spanish navy] had two of those things in Manila,” said Adm. George Dewey, “I could never have held it with the squadron I had. … With two of these in Galveston, all the navies of the world could not blockade that place.”

A month later the United States Navy bought the Holland VI for $150,000. The boat had already cost her owners $236,615.

Now it was a question of how many more of these submarine torpedo boats the Navy should have. This meant Holland’s undergoing a daunting amount of questioning from the House Committee on Naval Affairs. But on his subject the inventor was lucid, calm, and utterly convincing. Speaking of the subsequent boats the Navy should purchase, he said they would be “slightly altered” and gestured to a model on the table before him. “We call this and the Holland the same type. This is the Holland with its defects eliminated. … The boat is a little longer, and she has much more power…”

That summer, the Navy ordered six of these boats; with the original HoLland VI they would make up our first submarine fleet. And across the sea the world’s most professional navy was beginning to take reluctant notice.

The British admiralty was, if anything, more resistant to the idea of submarine warfare than was its American counterpart. Royal Navy men loathed the thought that the superb fleet that guarded their Empire might be brought low by a skulking iron lozenge. These were “damned un-English” weapons, they said, “weapons of the weaker power”; and in 1900 the controller of the navy declared that in wartime captured submariners should be hanged as pirates. But that same year the British navy ordered five Holland submarines, to be built under license by the Vickers works at Barrow-in-Furness. HM Submarine No. 1 , which instantly came to be known as the Holland I , was launched on October 2, 1901; she displaced 122 tons submerged, and was sixty-four feet, four inches long—just one yard shorter, the press explained, than a cricket pitch.

The boat made a formidable showing in fleet exercises the next year. The great admiral Jacky Fisher saw, as he always did, which way the wind was blowing, and wrote a furious and eloquent warning: “It’s astounding to me, perfectly astounding , how the very best among us absolutely fail to realise the vast impending revolution in naval warfare and naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish! Here … is the battleship Empress of India , engaged in manoeuvres and knowing the proximity of submarines, the flagship of the Second Admiral of the Home Fleet, nine miles out in the open sea, so self-confident of safety and so oblivious to the possibilities of modern warfare, that the Admiral is smoking his cigarette, the Captain is calmly seeing defaulters down on the half-deck, no one caring an iota for what is going on, and suddenly they see a Whitehead torpedo miss their stern by a few feet! And how fired? From a submarine, from a submarine with no periscope at all —it having been carried away by a destroyer laying over her—and yet that submarine followed that battleship for a solid two hours underwater, coming up gingerly about a mile off every now and then, like a beaver, just to take a fresh compass bearing of her prey, and then down again.”

Despite this performance the Holland I was a primitive craft; the crew’s only warning of toxic fumes, for instance, came from the cage of three white mice that was hung above the engine during each cruise. Submarine development progressed rapidly, and the Holland I was declared obsolete after a scant twelve years of life. On October 30, 1913, while under tow to be broken up for scrap in the port of Milford Haven, the HollandI’s line parted, and she sank three miles southeast of the Eddystone Light.

At that time the boat’s inventor had less than a year to live. Nothing very good had happened to Holland since the Navy had bought his submarine. His firm had been absorbed by the Electric Boat Company, and he had been squeezed out of any real control. At no point had his partners paid him a salary of more than ninety dollars a week. He tried to develop a highspeed attack submarine during his last years, but with little success. He died at his home in Newark, New Jersey, in August of 1914, just as the world was about to learn how effective a weapon he had bequeathed to it.

The Holland ’s long-submerged batteries could still take a charge.

History continued to vindicate Holland’s vision. As Richard K. Morris demonstrates in his admirable biography of the inventor, the Holland VI was a very advanced boat indeed: the nuclear power that finally rendered obsolete the vessel’s means of propulsion at the same time resurrected the shape of her hull. Once submarine engineers had a plant that could drive the boat as efficiently under the water as on the surface, they abandoned the long, sharp hulls of the World War II submarines in favor of a more bulbous, porpoiselike shape—the shape that Holland had developed for his craft over half a century earlier.

So Holland’s achievement never was quite eclipsed, and it was particularly well remembered at Gosport, the home of the Royal Navy’s submarine museum. America, Britain, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, Chile, and Scandinavia had all built Holland boats, but the only one that might possibly have survived lay on the bottom of the Channel. In April of 1981 a navy mine-hunter, picking through the wrecks of two world wars off Eddystone, found the Holland I lying in two thousand feet of water. The next summer divers cleared away the tangle of lines and fishing nets that shrouded the hull and ran great straps beneath the vessel. The attending salvage ship raised the boat to just below the surface and bore her gently to Plymouth Sound, where she was set down in forty feet of water. There divers made their way in through the turret and found the interior remarkably intact; even the wood decking was still solid. The first task—a miserable one—was to remove the fifty-nine half-ton storage batteries. The work went slowly until it was discovered that the battery shop at Devonport Dockyard had had the unbelievable prudence to keep the proper type of lifting bar on hand. Chloride Ltd. of Manchester, the manufacturer of the batteries, is still in business; the firm took one of them, ran a charge into it, and noted with considerable satisfaction that it worked passably well. With the hull lightened, the Holland I could begin her last voyage, upriver to Devonport Dockyard, where she was placed in a cradle in an immense submarine dock.

The next day No. 12 dock was pumped dry and, for the first time in seventy years, the Holland I’s brassand-copper conning tower broke the surface. At once workmen sluiced the hull with high-pressure water jets, blasting away years of marine growth, then covered it with Fertan, a compound with the alchemical powers to transform rust into a material as strong as the original steel. They worked through the night, racing the rapid deterioration that afflicts long-submerged metal suddenly exposed to air. By morning the job was done: the Holland I stood sound and clean in her cradle.

The last leg of her journey was overland. Cut in three and with the heavy engine removed, the boat was carried by tank transporters to Gosport, the old base from which she had operated a lifetime earlier, when battleships decided issues at sea and the submarine was a cranky toy.

She is on display there today, a British boat built by British workmen in a British yard, and yet as American a monument as there is.


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