“What nation will own the submarine monster is a question.” The Original Submarine Day Story

“What nation will own the submarine monster is a question.”

I was watching the posts put up on social media about the “Original” submarine day recently (March 17th). My own tradition has always been to recognize April as the American Submarine month. I also have been pretty much centered on 1900 as the founding year for American submarining despite a lot of research that shows our advances and innovation prior to the year 1900.

But in the interests of advancing submarine knowledge, here are a collection of stories that may help shape a narrative for future discussions. I offer no opinion as to changing our traditions, I only like to highlight information I discover in my ride through the annals of history. Much of my research comes from the Library of Congress through its “Chronicling America” program. This program has digitalized many newspaper archives from the past few hundred years. It’s always interesting to read the stories that were published back in the days before the internet was even imagined.

The first article is fairly recent:

The Original Submarine Day – March 17th

“On March 17, 1898, St. Patrick’s Day, Irish-born engineer John Philip Holland demonstrated a submarine he designed, the Holland VI, for the U.S. Navy Department, off the coast of Staten Island. During the demonstration, the vessel was submerged for 1 hour and 40 minutes. Holland launched the submarine the year before, on May 17, 1897, after it was built at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The submarine was noteworthy for having features that would become the standard for submarines in future years. It and other of Holland’s submarines are also noteworthy for being the first to run on electric batteries when submerged, but on internal combustion engines when on the water’s surface. Some celebrate the Holland and all other submarines on March 17 each year.

Future president Theodore Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time the submarine was demonstrated, and he pushed for the Navy to purchase it. However, it didn’t happen right away, and it wasn’t until April 11, 1900—after Roosevelt was already the Governor of New York—when the Navy bought the submarine, for the price of $150,000. April 11 has since become known as National Submarine Day.

The submarine was commissioned and officially became known as the USS Holland (SS-1) on October 12, 1900, in Newport Rhode, Island. It was the first submarine commissioned by the Navy, but it was far from being the first submarine used by the United States or even owned by the Navy. The first submarine used by the United States was the Turtle, which was used during the Revolutionary War, and the first submarine owned by the Navy was the Alligator, which was used during the Civil War.

The USS Holland (SS-1) served as a training submarine and was usually kept in Annapolis, Maryland. It was decommissioned on July 17, 1905, and was then put on reserve in Norfolk, Virginia, for just over 5 years. It was sold for scrap in 1913 for $100 but was then put on display in various locations for a number of years before being torn apart in 1932. After purchasing the USS Holland (SS-1), the Navy went on to buy other submarines from Holland’s company, such as those of the Plunger class.

The designing of submarines came to prominence in the nineteenth century, and submarines were first widely used during World War I. Modern submarines range from small vessels that can only carry one or two people and stay submerged for just a few hours, to being large vessels such as the Trident Class submarines which can stay submerged for months.”

And now, the rest of the story.

In February 1898, relations between the United States and Spain had already been deteriorating. Dupuy de Lôme, the Spanish minister to the United States had written a stinging letter about President McKinley to a personal friend. The letter was stolen and soon found itself on the desk of William Hearst, who promptly published it on February 9. After public outcry, de Lôme was recalled to Spain and the Spanish government apologized. The peace was short-lived, however. On the evening of February 15, a sudden and shocking explosion tore a hole in the hull of the American battleship Maine, which had been on patrol in Havana harbor. The immediate assumption was that the sinking of the Maine and the deaths of 260 sailors was the result of Spanish treachery. Although no conclusive results have ever been proven, many Americans had already made up their minds, demanding an immediate declaration of war.

War fever gripped the country as the newspapers helped to whip up enthusiasm for a conflict. This would be the conflict that pushed America into a global realization for their Navy. Up until now, American military focus had not been focused on having a powerful force that could project itself on the world stage. The coming Spanish American war would forever change that mindset.

This must have been a gold mine for the inventors of submarine technology. What better way to advance the cause of the potential uses for submarine warfare than a looming war with a large naval power like Spain.

So it happened that the submarine demonstration of March 17 would ignite the imaginations of many planners and common people. This new weapon could be a game changer for a Navy that had still not outgrown its limits of the post-Civil War period. (Remember that the Navy still had Monitors in their inventory in 1897 – including the one my Grandfather served in during the First World War).

THE WICHITA DAILY EAGLE. (Wichita, Kan.) 1890-1906, March 19, 1898, Image 4


There is more peace talk and more active preparations than any country ever experienced at one and the same time going on now in the United States.

There has been considerable speculation, not to say bragging, over the supposed success of the submarine boat, an American invention, which dived down under the water the other day and remained there half an hour with her crew before she was brought to the surface. A boat capable of taking a complement of torpedoes and a crew and navigating the depths of the sea, of following the wake of the fish, beneath the hulks of an opposing navy, silently and unseen, would prove a formidable affair, if effective. There seems no doubt that such a vessel can be successfully submerged and that it can be made to remain even for hours beneath the surface, but a boat cannot go blindly. The men who guide it must have light or other means of knowing just where they are, or otherwise meet Self-destruction. The trouble with these submarine affairs is the darkness which reigns beneath the waters of the ocean. Divers, below a depth of fifteen of twenty feet, have much difficulty in prosecuting their work for want of light. Thirty or forty feet down it becomes next to midnight A submarine boat cannot move blindly nor be effect be in the absence of a knowledge of its surroundings and bearings. The development of a submarine boat for naval warfare has all along been on the line of the torpedo boat. The idea has been to get out of sight, beneath the waves and to thus reach an advantageous position for planting a torpedo effectively near the bottom of an enemy. Without some light this would be well-nigh impossible. No means or device has yet been invented whereby light can be made to penetrate deep waters for any considerable distance.

THE NATIONAL TRIBUNE. (Washington, D.C.) 1877-1917, March 31, 1898, Image 5

One of the unknown quantities in naval warfare will have a trial in the submarine torpedo boat Holland in case of conflict with Spain. This boat is the invention of John P. Holland, of Newark, N. J., and has been at the Brooklyn Navy-yard for the past three or four years, being constantly studied and experimented with by naval experts.

The craft is 54 feet long and 11 feet in diameter. It is shaped somewhat like a cigar rounded at both ends, not very sharp-pointed. It has the power of diving beneath the surface and steaming for five or six hours at a time under water and coming up again at the will of the navigator. When it moves upon the surface it presents a round turtle back deck with ‘i smokestack and pilot-house. Under such circumstances it is propelled by steam.

When it is desired to take a submarine trip the smokestack and pilot-house are instantly shipped below deck, and the- apertures hermetically sealed, the engine room is closed up, and the vessel is propelled by electricity supplied by storage batteries capable of sustaining a speed of eight knots an hour. Compressed air is carried in cylinders for the supply of the crew, and in the forward part of the boat is an apartment from which torpedoes may be fired under the water. It has a capacity for carrying seven torpedoes.

The vessel makes its dive by opening small apartments or pockets in the bow, by the operation of which the prow is depressed and the tilting of the rudders at certain angles cause the boat to go down to the required depth, when it may be brought to a horizontal keel and proceed at the required distance below the surface. There is a propeller at both ends of the boat, and when one of them is at work the tendency is to cause that end of the ship to rise. In this way the angle of ascent or descent is controlled at will.

There is an ingenious arrangement for running a tube above the surface of the water, which is fitted with a camera, by means of which a perfect picture of all that is going on on the surface of the water may be observed by the navigators from any depth, and thus the submerged boat may be intelligently steered.

It is admitted on all sides that even if successful the Holland is a dangerous craft to operate. She must approach very near her enemy, and is, therefore, in danger of all sorts of accidents, not only from hostile efforts, but also from the work of her own explosives. If the theory upon which she is constructed, however, can be put in practice she will be able to steam within a few miles of a hostile fleet, disappear from the surface approach, and deliver her blows right and left without possibility of harm from the enemy’s shot and shell.

The crew are supplied with divers’ helmets and life preservers, so that in case of accident they may stand some chance of coming to the surface and of being rescued.

Last Saturday she made a successful cruise about Staten Island, diving under the water four times and coming up again, after steaming from 400 to 600 yards. The trial was a perfect success. Experiments have yet to be made with her torpedo equipment, and it is understood that she is to leave New York when properly fitted out and sail to the South, perhaps coming to the Potomac and stopping at Washington.

But despite a successful test, the United States Navy was not quite ready for Mr. Holland’s inventions

Omaha daily bee. (Omaha [Neb.]), 03 April 1897. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Fiction Outdone

Rival of the Wonderful Boat About Which Jules Verne Wrote

Guarded day and night by armed watchmen at the Nixon ship yard In Elizabeth, N.J., Is a craft which bids fair to attract the attention of the entire world within a few weeks. It is the Holland submarine dynamite torpedo boat. Though but a trifle over fifty feet long itself, related the New York Herald, it is possible for It to sink the largest Ironclad afloat. What nation will own the submarine monster is a question. The United States government will not. This is an assured fact, for there now two dynamite boats somewhat similar to this one now being constructed at Baltimore under order from the naval department.

The craft is being constructed by the Holland Submarine company of New York City and will cost when completed, exclusive of dynamo and pneumatic tubes, in the neighborhood of $30,000.

“It is being built to be placed on the market,” Mr. Holland has said, “and whoever has the price can have the boat.”

What Mr. Holland’s valuation is was not given by him, but it is understood that $100,000 is about the figure. It has been hinted at that the Cubans have promised to give $85,000 for the boat If It proves a success, but this cannot be confirmed.

This boat takes a daily force of nearly 100 men and a nightly guard of half a dozen. The machinery is being made in one part of the yard and the patterns and casting in another. The utmost secrecy prevails, and when the boat is launched not five men will understand its workings.

As soon as the trial trip takes place around the sound on top of the water, a test dissension will be made, and if everything is found to be in working order a 500-mile trip is to be taken.

As the boat rests upon the ways she appears to be a cigar-shaped, hermetically-sealed tube.

Her steel frames are covered with a steel plating, which is half an inch thick in the center, and tapers off to an eighth of an inch at either end. The conning tower is two feet in diameter, and so arranged that a lookout may be stationed in it while the boat is on the surface. A superstructure extends from end to end, broad enough for a man to walk on.

Four rudders control the boat when on the surface or submerged. It is driven by a three-blade propeller four feet nine inches in diameter.

The Interior gives no accommodation whatsoever for sleeping or cooking. It is built for business, not pleasure, and when ten men are crowded in the boat has received its crew. The measurements are fifty feet three inches long from the forward end of the Whitehead torpedo tube to the after end of the stern post. Its diameter amidships is ten foot three inches. The gunners’ room will hold four or five men and the firing is all done by pneumatic pressure.

At the forward end of the craft are two torpedo tubes, one a little above the waterline and the other set/at an angle. At the stern another tube is also at an angle. The oil Engine room and the dynamo quarters are cramped, and the rest of the Interior is taken up by a torpedo room and water tanks.

These water tanks are used in submerging and raising the vessel. They are controlled both fore and amidships by large Kingstone valves and when the boat is below water and is to be raised, instead of pumping out the water a button is pushed, which releases the valves, turns on the compressed air and the water is blown out with terrific force.

When submerging is necessary the water is let in by opening the valves. These tanks are capable of standing a charge of 3,000 pounds to the square inch, and will supply air to the crew nine or ten hours below the surface of the water.

The dynamite tubes are covered on the outside by a steel shield, which fits into sockets, concealing the tubes and preventing the water from getting in. When about ready to fire a button at the side of the tube is pressed, releasing the shield which instantly flies back from the mouth, and after the torpedo passes out closes again.

Both oil and electricity may be used as a motive power, and if the boat is running by oil and it is desired to change it to electricity a clutch is thrown back and the other power controls the boat at once.

The oil engine is intended to run the boat when it is on top of the water. It has forty-eight-horse power. The dynamo, when the storage batteries are fully charged, develops 150-horse power. There are sixty battery cells of two volts each, or a total of 120 volts, which run the boat when submerged for eight knots for eight hours or for ten knots when on the surface.

All through the boat are electric bells, flooding tubes, speaking tubes and lights. On the top of the boat outside are electric dead lights.

When the boat starts out on its mission of destruction it sails on the surface until the enemy is sighted by the lookout in the conning tower. Approaching near enough, a torpedo is fired from the bottom tube on the forward end. A button Is pushed , the conning tower telescopes , the electric water valves are opened up and powerful air lumps suck up water enough to sink the boat twenty or thirty feet in a few seconds.

Having taken the bearings when on the surface the commander sends his boat on at an eight-knot rate until within striking distance of the ship which is floating on the surface, some yards ahead. Then the next shot is fired upward. Passing beneath the ship, the third shot is fired from the stern tube.

About fifty of these dynamite torpedoes are stored on the boat when it starts out.

If the boat proves a success, as everything Indicates it will, Prof. Holland will have solved a puzzle which has bothered so many scientists and inventors, and which

Jules Verne romanced of in his “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.’

The first purchase of an operational Holland boat would have to wait a few more years. But the ground was surely laid for the inclusion of these primitive little monsters.

America would write her name into submarine history and claim her place among giants.

Mister Mac

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