Worse than a rattlesnake in the grass: those contemptuous submarines

Change does not come quickly to some organizations. Advancements in technology often challenge the status quo and strike fear into the hearts of the traditionalists. Maybe it’s because of the unknown. Or maybe it’s because so many times in man’s history a dreamer comes along and stirs up the imagination of the masses and science and industry are simply unable to bring the vision to a reality.

Submarines had long been a vision of dreamers. As far back as man has existed, stories of crude attempts to conquer the undersea world are on record. But man’s ability to create the physical method for realizing those dreams had always lagged. Until the twentieth century. It was during the industrial age that man finally began to see the proper way to marry technology with vision and come a step closer to the idea of living beneath the waves for longer than he could hold his breath.

This little article shows the realization in the fleet of the potential for the fledgling little submarine fleet. In 1902, steam had replaced sail and now the internal combustion engine coupled with primitive batteries was providing the answer to the age old question of motive ability. Compared to the trend to build bigger ships with larger guns, this pesky little problem suddenly cast some doubts on the direction the Navy was taking. Not enough to stop the headlong charge to build more iron ships with massive steam engines. But enough to cause a small pause in the minds of a new generation of dreamers. My favorite quote from the story is the title to this post: a rattlesnake in the grass. I am sure some Submariners with their slanted sense of humor would easily cling onto the description with a rough pride. Some might even have made a tattoo from it.



Freeland tribune. (Freeland, Pa.), 21 July 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

From an article previously printed in Colliers Magazine:

The United Stated has Six Effective Boats of the Fulton Clues Now Afloat or Building Submarines Could Have Defeated Dewey.

Since our war with Spain, four years ago, no weapon has made greater gains in the estimation of the naval men of the world than the submarine torpedo boat, writes John B. Spears. And that statement is astonishing to all who know the praiseworthy dislike that all able naval men have always held toward those boats. Just how and why this dislike is fading is one of the most interesting stories of recent days in the navy.

When submarines were first proposed to naval men it was with difficulty that they could lie induced to consider the matter. Since the days when John Paul Jones laid the Bonhomme Richard alongside the Serapis, and the favorite range for high sea battles was “within pistol shot.” our naval officers have asked no better opportunity than an open fight on the high seas with no favors. They have read with a feeling not far from contempt of the shore fighters who gained victories by arranging ambushes for unsuspecting enemies. To their minds a submarine boat was worse than a rattlesnake in the grass. To strike within range and destroy at one stroke a whole ship’s company without giving them any chance whatever for their lives was little If any better than legalized assassination.

To add to the disgust of the conservative naval men the promoters of the submarine schemes were in every case enthusiasts, and in most cases made claims that were utterly ridiculous. Thus pictures were made and printed, even in scientific Journals, which represented the submarine boat passing under a battleship and leaving under its bottom two buoyant torpedoes, to be held there by horseshoe magnets while the boat went away to a safe distance and exploded the torpedoes by a current of electricity sent through a trailing wire.

But because the promoters were enthusiasts, and because there was a germ of success in their idea, they persisted and their most recent work has brought fruition. The first real success was scored when they persuaded Congress to build a number of these submarine boats and place them In charge of young naval officers for trial and experiment. There seemed to be not a little spice of danger in experimenting with a thing like that, and the youngsters took hold with an enthusiasm equal to that of the promoters, and one result at least has been simply astounding.

The submarine Fulton has proved that she can dodge a cannon’s projectile as the loon and the elder duck dodge a musket hall. When steaming along the surface under service conditions she repeatedly closed all ports and dived far enough below the surface to be safe from an enemy’s shot in less than three seconds. It has been done in two. Our best cannon throw a shell a range of 3000 yards at an average speed of about 2300 feet per second. It follows that if the torpedo boat were at a range of 2500 yards, and dived at the flash of the gun, she would be safely beneath the water when the projectile arrived, three seconds later.

As compared with the latest submarine boats built by France—the only nation that has hitherto given this class of vessels adequate attention—the diving speed of our submarines is striking. For the French have to unship a smokestack, draw a fire in a steam boiler and wait for the furnace to cool—in all about fifteen minutes—before going under.

We have six effective boats of this class now afloat or building. Great Britain is building six more from exactly the same plans, and that is a fact of which we may make boast. It is interesting to note, too, in connection with the British flotilla, that the inventor of these boats, Mr. John F. Holland, was described in a New York paper, about twenty years ago, as a Fenian, who was making his experiments for the purpose of developing a craft to blow the British navy out of the water!

Simple warships are these submarines. They are cigar shaped, sixty four feet three inches long by eleven feet in diameter in the middle. A gasoline engine drives the engine when on the surface, and works a generator with which to charge electrical storage batteries, used in driving the boat underwater. There is a conning tower of four-inch armor plate, a hatch for entrance and exit, and a hollow flagstaff, at the top of which is a “periscope,” a thing that works like the finder of a camera, and enables the pilot to see what is doing on the surface when the boat is floating as much as eighteen feet beneath. Horizontal rudders are fitted astern, as well as the common kind, and it is by tilting these to act like a duck’s feet that the submarine dives. There are ballast tanks to regulate the depth to which it is desirable to descend and to keep the vessel on an even keel. Large flasks filled with air compressed to a pressure of 2000 pounds to the square inch provide for the air supply while under water.

The weapon of offense is the common Whitehead torpedo. As now built these torpedoes travel in a straight line just beneath the surface of the water for 2000 yards—a sea mile—at a speed of thirty-seven knots per hour.

The speed of the submarine torpedo boat is eight knots an hour on the surface and seven beneath. Fuel for a voyage of nearly 400 miles on the surface and twenty-eight beneath can he carried.

Not long ago the Fulton went to the bottom of Peconic Bay and remained there for fifteen hours. A heavy storm raged on the surface, but the boat lay In peace and her crew smoked their pipes, sang songs and enjoyed life as only naval seamen know how to do when on a frolic. It seems incredible to old marline spike sailors, but the fact is that, with its ability to dive quickly and to run beneath the surface, the boat Is probably the safest warship commission.

The effectiveness of the submarine in attacking an enemy is still a matter in dispute, but progress has been made there as well as in other directions. It is observed and may be admitted that a crew would not be able to serve the boat well for more than two days at a stretch. But to illustrate what can be done with one we may imagine an enemy attempting to blockade New York Harbor. If a station for submarines were provided inside of Sandy Hook, with a pier for the boats and barracks on shore for the men, it would be a simple matter for the submarines to go cruising by turns on any day or night, and range all over the water from Barnegat to Shinnecock —to patrol the sea for fifty miles off shore. That is to say it has been definitely proved that our submarines are capable of preventing an effective blockade of any harbor.

As auxiliaries to forts they are admirable. For the defense of our coaling and repair stations at Cavite, Guam, St. Thomas, Key West, etc. they are as now made at once cheap and effective. Said Admiral Dewey recently while talking of submarines:
“With two submarines in Galveston the navies of the world could not blockade the place.”

Referring to Manila, he added: “From what I saw my own belief is that I could not with my squadron, if the enemy had had two of those boats with determined Americans on hoard, have held that bay. We would have had to be under way, and would never have known when the blow was going to strike. It would have worn us out. The human frame would not have stood it. They would have come out dark nights and we could not have seen them until they were close to us, and my experience is that you aim very badly in those conditions. You could not train your guns on them.”

In order to employ submarines in foreign waters it has been proposed to build transports especially fitted to carry them in company with an aggressive squadron. Although our present boats weigh 120 tons each, it is possible to construct such a ship with a derrick that would launch them overboard in quiet waters. For service against a bottled squadron like that of Cervera something great might be accomplished. In narrow waters like these of the British Channel the submarine would quickly sweep away all ordinary commerce. No one but a blockade runner would dare cross a water patrolled by them.

All talk about the submarines replacing other warship is as idle as that of their ability to compel nations to substitute arbitration for war. But they have unquestionably added to the dangers of naval war, and they have compelled naval officers to consider new tactics to take the place of the old style of blockading a harbor. In short, the submarine torpedo boat has at last, in spite of praiseworthy prejudice against its manner of warfare achieved an undisputed position as an efficient weapon of coast defense, and has compelled the naval officers of the world to give it serious consideration.—Collier’s Weekly.

The next generations of submarines frightens me even more than this one probably frightened the traditionalists. Those deep diving monsters will be pure killing machines with no regard to the weakness of the current generations. They will dive deeper, travel faster, carry more deadly weapons and neutralize man for the rest of history. That of course is a non-manned AI managed submarine with independent controls and no need for the cumbersome life support systems that hinder the current models. One that could patrol the environs of the darkest parts of the oceans for years not months and effectively control the seas without the hands of a sailor once touching the wheel.

Now that, to me, is a real rattlesnake in the grass.

Mister Mac



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