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Part One

Mr. Merrill retired from a long and distinguished career at the New London Division of the Naval Undersea Watfare Center. He currently writes historical works involving that lab and its accomplishments.

As the new century began, John P. Holland (submarine builder and inventor whose concepts revolutionized naval warfare) was nearing the pinnacle of his success with the United States Navy purchasing his successful submarine HOLLAND VI.

Holland descended gradually from this high point of his career. It had taken Holland 25 years and the construction of five submarines to arrive at his current design of a practical submarine. True recognition of his accomplishment was not realized until after his death in 1914.

At this time Theodore Roosevelt (former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and strongly favorable for a better Navy) was concluding his governance of New York State and within months of his presidency (1901-1909); and American submarine builders were embarking on a century-long development of the submarine as a significant weapon.

In 1899, the recently incorporated Electric Boat Company (EBCO) included the Holland Torpedo Boat Company in its acquisitions. EBCO provided needed fiscal and business support to Holland during the final pre-delivery stages of the three years of intensive testing, modifying and establishing the value of HOLLAND VI to the Navy and others. EBCO went on to become one of the world’s foremost builder of submarines, by 1995 delivering more than 260 submarines to the Navy. The EBCO sale of a $150,000 submarine in 1900 was a modest beginning for a 20th century military/industrial relationship of enormous importance.

President Roosevelt’s international ambitions and the need for a growing modem Navy provided impetus to acceptance of the fledgling submarine. Holland’s successful submarine provided the starting point; what became the American submarine industry with the essential ingredients of private profit motivation and industrial knowledge. Also it took on an international flavor. thrusting the submarine into prominence both at home and abroad.

The submarine represented the increasing trend toward the use of new and more complex technologies for sophisticated armament. The research, development and fabrication for the new approach to armament was often beyond government abilities. In procuring technical armament, institutional experience for buyers such as the Navy during procurement became an essential requirement. Then and in the years ahead this was not always available; sometimes this created awkward consequences.
Roosevelt’s enterprising role and experience as Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1897-1989) made for an opportune time to bring the submarine in as an addition to the Navy’s growing arsenal. On April 10, 1898, while HOLLAND VI was undergoing its long testing and acceptance program, he wrote to then Secretary of the Navy John D. Long (1897-1902):

“I think that the Holland submarine boat should be purchased. Evidently she has in her great possibilities for harbor defense. Sometimes she doesn’t work perfectly, but often she does, and I don’t think that in the present emergency we can afford to let her slip. I recommend that you authorize me to enter into negotiations for her, or that you authorize the Bureau of Construction to do so, which would be just as well.”

The Navy’s 1900 purchase of a submarine was more than the end product of naval contracts and the culmination of a quarter century’s intensive effort by a motivated and talented Irish immigrant, John Holland. The beginnings of the tangle of circumstances which brought to fruition this then-world class submarine resulted both from the determination of the country and the Navy to grow nationally and internationally and in Holland’s resolve to build the right submarine.

In 1878, Secretary of the Navy Richard Thompson (1877-1881) was told of the minimal size of the current serviceable Navy (33 cruisers, 13 monitors, and two gunboats). This marginal fleet placed the United States Navy 12th worldwide in ironclad strength below Chile. The next 20 years saw the Presidents, Congress and general public favorable toward developing a larger and better Navy. As the Navy’s needs were gradually fulfilled, the collective efforts became identified with the expression New Navy or Steel Navy.

President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy, New York lawyer and businessman, William Collins Whitney {1885-1889), observed on the day he took office that “the United States Navy had no one vessel of war which could have kept the seas open for one week as against any first rate naval power.” The Navy’s ships were still mostly wood with a few obsolete ironclads.

In 1898, by the end of the 100 day war with Spain, United States naval successes reflected the beginnings of that New Navy, standing sixth in the world. The end of Theodore Roosevelt’s second presidential term saw a growing Navy ranking second or third in the world. Submarines comprised a small part of the Navy’s modernization and growth, which focused on battleships, an isthmian canal, and possession of Hawaii.

Acceptance of the submarine was slow, but unlike the acceptance of steam over sai_l which required decades. In 1900, with centuries of surface ship tradition, priority and budgetary decisions of the predominately surface ship officer corps did not particularly favor the infant submarine technology and an energetic exploitation of the submarine’s tactical and strategic potentials. A further impediment for submarine acceptance was the torpedo boat acknowledged as the mainstay of coast defense. Further, torpedo boats were not excessively expensive and could be built in a few months. Roosevelt, as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, ordered 75 to be constructed.

Prior to 1900 and United States’ purchase of HOLLAND VI, France was the only nation to have a submarine fleet. In 1863 a not-too-successful French submarine, 140 feet long, LE PLONGEUR, was in operation. The French Navy continued to encourage French designers and by 1886 began ordering large numbers of submarines, expending government resources for a particular strategic need. Further, France saw the submarine’s offensive as well as defensive value and regarded the submarine as a safeguard against an attacking British Navy in the event of war.’ By 1880, there were 42 separate submarine projects under way in various nations, 15 of which led to finished boats.

The French and international view of the submarine as a coastal defense weapon remained entrenched until World War I, when Germany’s successful submarines destroyed naval as well as merchant ships in an unforseen offensive role.

John Holland

To describe Holland, words such as visionary, persevering, gifted, insightful, daring, and hardworking seem appropriate. Born on the coast of Ireland in 1841, Holland lived his early life in very limited circumstances. Early, he demonstrated aptitude for the physical sciences but was restricted in vocational directions by poor health, nearsightedness, and lack of funds. At 17, in 1858 he joined the Irish Christian Brothers, a teaching order, becoming a teacher. Under the Brothers’ tutelage his mechanical aptitude, drafting skill and mathematical abilities developed.

As a child witness of the Irish famine (1846-51), Holland saw his father, uncles and male relatives succumbing to hardships and disease (possibly Asiatic cholera). Further, he would have been aware of the spectacle of mass emigration primally to America as a result of the famine and general economic conditions.

In his later teen years, it is probable that Holland’s views of his homeland were also influenced by the ongoing political turmoil related to Ireland’s desire for independence in which his brothers were involved. His younger brother, an active member of the secret Fenian Society established in Ireland in 1858 to challenge English rule, found it desirable to leave for America in 1869. In the years ahead, the Fenian played a decisive role in Holland’s submarine-inventing and -building career.

Holland’s mother and older brother left Ireland for America in early 1872. With few ties remaining in Ireland, Holland withdrew from the Christian Brothers and took steerage passage to Boston, landing in November 1873.

Shortly after arrival, he slipped on the ice, broke his leg and spent time convalescing. Later, in an interview with the Washington Star in 1900, he recalled that during his recovery he reconsidered his earlier thoughts on basic problems of submarine navigation. In 1874, he was again teaching with the Christian Brothers, this time in Paterson, New Jersey.

Holland’s Six Submarines (1878-1900,)

In addition to teaching, Holland developed plans for an original one-man self-propelled submarine. He found investors to support him in the event that he could obtain a government endorsement. In 1875, he submitted his plan for a 14 foot submarine to President Grant’s Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson (1869-1877). The Navy’s reply agreed technically with Holland but did not believe that anyone could be convinced to operate the submarine underwater.

Private submarine building occupied Holland for the following 10 years. As engineer and innovator with hands-on direction and experience, he launched three submarines: HOLLAND I in May 1878, FENIAN RAM in May 1881, and FENIAN MODEL in November 1883. Fenian Society activists in the New York area provided the funding, intending that these submarines would be transported to Europe and used to inflict damage on the British fleet. It is important to note that these Fenian boats were equipped with Brayton internal combustion engines and not the steam that was in vogue. The boats met specifications, but none found its way beyond the New York area for the intended purpose.

Two years later in 1885, based on Holland’s designs and efforts at the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company, the privately financed 50 foot wood and steel ZALINSKI BOAT was launched. During launching, the submarine was critically damaged and later discarded. This disaster temporarily brought Holland’s submarine development efforts to a standstill. At that time, he held several submarine-related patents.

In 1888, with encouragement by naval officers and Secretary of the Navy Whitney, Congress appropriated $150,000 for a submarine. Whitney invited submarine developers to submit their designs and competitive bids. Holland’s design, reviewed with those of five other competitors from the United States and overseas, won. The government then canceled the plans for submarine procurement. The following year, there was a second call for bids. Holland’s design again triumphed and Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Franklin Tracy (1889-1893) reallocated the submarine funds to complete surface ships.

During this period of turndowm by the Navy, Holland obtained a position with the Morris and Cummings Dredging Company as an equipment designer. While with Morris until 1893, Holland made the acquaintance of a company lawyer, Elihu B. Frost.

Initially this was fortuitous for Holland. Naval historian Albert B. Christman, in writing about Holland commented concerning Frost that “Besides knowing the law, Frost had Washington connections, a keen sense of business and politics, and uncommon admiration for John Holland’s technical skill and determination.”

As a result of Frost’s efforts, energy and enthusiasm, early in 1893 the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company was formed, incorporated in New York state, and stock issued. Holland became the company manager. Holland then held United States patents for “a gun patent, a steering apparatus for submarine vessels (patented early in 1893), and another submarine design for which a patent was still pending.”

Because of the Navy’s reluctance to move forward with submarine construction, Frost took action abroad to obtain foreign patents for Holland’s designs. Patent sales were sought in European capitals, Japan, and the South American countries of Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina. Sales of Holland’s patents to foreign nations potentially provided opportunity for submarine building abroad while the United States Navy procrastinated. Later foreign patents played a formidable role in Holland’s demise as a submarine builder.

Congress appropriated $200,000 in March 1893 to reopen design competition for an experimental submarine. April brought a call for submarine design. For the fifth time Holland submitted his submarine plans and when the bids were opened June 30, Holland again was first. Supporters favoring construction of the submarine included President Grover Cleveland. However, others in the Washington bureaucracy stalled award of the contract.

To justify a technical question regarding submarine habitability, an experiment was conducted at Newport, Rhode Island in which a cat, a rooster, a rabbit, and a dove were submerged in a watertight metal container. Explosions of gunpowder were made increasingly closer to the container, each with a larger charge and finally, at 30 yards distance, 100 pounds of gunpowder. The cat and the rooster survived. The metal container was not damaged, yet the favorable test results did not fully convince all who were concerned.

Pro-Holland efforts to obtain the release of the Congressionally appropriated funds by convincing Navy Boards, Senators, the Secretary of the Navy and others were successful. Finally, almost two years later on March 3, 1895, Frost gained the $200,000 contract for a Holland submarine torpedo boat. This incessant assault on the bureaucracy was an essential ingredient in obtaining the contract. This was seven years after the first naval competition for submarine design and 20 years from Holland’s first approach to the Navy with a submarine design.

The position of the Navy with regard to the implementation of the new submarine contract has been inferred by some as being adversarial. Another author saw the Navy’s attitude as “The Navy had lost the war, but it remained resolute in its determination to be anything but cooperative in defeat.

At the Columbia Iron Works in Baltimore, the scene of the new construction opened with a keel laying in 1896 for the new submarine called PLUNGER. Even at the start, design concepts were put in place contrary to Holland’s experience and design. Two of his previous submarines were propelled on the surface using the Brayton internal combustion petroleum engine with a single propeller. The 85 foot PLUNGER required a 1500 horsepower engine to obtain the specified speed on the surface.

Steam was the only viable way to meet the substantial horsepower requirement, yet steam had already been shown to be impractical by European submarine builders. On PLUNGER, engine heat in the fireroom at 130 degrees F made it extremely difficult for the crew. The specifications for the new submarine called for five propellers, three for forward motion and two that (it was hoped) would allow the boat to hover at fixed depths. These issues alone can be described as anti-Holland.

During PLUNGER construction, differences between Holland and onsite Navy personnel continued. Holland’s decades of experience included design, construction, and operation of four submarines. Involved Navy personnel proved limited in submarine knowledge and oriented to conventional shipbuilding. A fully maneuverable submarine with ease of submerging and surfacing similar to a dolphin’s performance was dominant in Holland’s operating requirements. The Holland hull configuration would be fishlike, not that of a surface craft.

The PLUNGER design was moving in directions not in tune with Holland’s concept. The continuing flow of changes by the Navy made construction difficult and tended to make PLUNGER look more like a surface vessel, contrary to Holland’s goal of a hull design enhancing underwater maneuverability.

Launched in August 1897 with unresolved technical problems, PLUNGER did not get beyond dock trials at the Iron Works. Steam propulsion and its difficulties were overtaken by internal combustion engine advances. The same year, the Otto engine, a new internal combustion petroleum operated engine, was acclaimed at an international exhibition in Paris. The horsepower was adequate for submarine surface operation for a smaller submarine. Holland was aware of this development.

Prior to the launching of PLUNGER, Holland initiated a parallel submarine enterprise in adjacent New Jersey at the Lewis Nixon’s Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, to build with private funds a smaller submarine of his design, incorporating the latest technology, a 45 horsepower Otto engine, and without interference from the Navy. The new submarine, HOLLAND VI, at 54 feet in length was more than 30 feet shorter than the 85 foot PLUNGER with its 1500 horsepower steam engine requirement. Almost four years later in April 1900, the Navy purchased its first submarine, HOLLAND VI.

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