No One is Laughing Now Mr. Holland

April is submarine month in the United States and April 11, 1900 is traditionally celebrated as the day the submarine force was started with the purchase of the Holland Submarine.

This year, I have spent a lot of time researching through the national archives for stories from 1900 or at least from the early part of the twentieth century. I will be posting some of those unique stories over the next week but wanted to start with a classic story about John P. Holland. This book was published not long after Holland passed away and is in line with many of the stories that have been published in the hundred plus years since his death.

One cautionary warning about this and other stories from the early twentieth century. The “facts” as we know them are often colored or skewed by the authors of writers in the case of old newspapers. Farnham Bishop was the son of Joseph Bucklin Bishop (September 5, 1847 – December 13, 1928). His father was an American newspaper editor (1870–1905), Secretary of the Isthmian Canal Commission in Washington, D.C. and Panama (1905–1914), and authorized biographer and close friend of President Theodore Roosevelt. Joseph Bucklin Bishop was the author of 13 books and dozens of magazine articles, and he edited the 1920 best-seller, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children.

Farnham wrote or co-wrote a number of books including two books on submarine development prior to the First World War. His works are pretty complete and seem to be as accurate of an account as any I have read.

Today’s story focuses on the man who Bishop pronounced as one man who “the world owes the modern submarine to”. A man that some called eccentric but driven, John P. Holland. This is his story according to Bishop.

From “ The Story of the Submarine by Farnham Bishop, 1916”


WHEN the Merrimac rammed the Cumberland, burned the Congress, and was fought to a stand-still next day by the little Monitor, all the ‘world realized that there had been a revolution in naval warfare. The age of the wooden warship was gone forever, the day of the ironclad had come. And a twenty-year-old Irish school-teacher began to wonder what would be the next revolution; what new craft might be invented that would dethrone the ironclad. This young Irishman’s name was John P. Holland, and he decided to devote his life to the perfection of the submarine.

Like Robert Fulton, Admiral Von Tirpitz, and the Frenchman who built the Rotterdam Boat in 1652, Holland relied on submarines to break the power of the British fleet. Though born a British subject, in the little village of Liscannor, County Clare in the year 1842, he had seen too many of his fellow countrymen starved to death or driven into exile not to hate the stupid tyranny that characterized England’s rule of Ireland in those bitter, far-off days. He longed for the day of Ireland’s independence, and that day seemed to be brought much nearer by the American Civil War. Not only had many thousand brave Irish-Americans become trained veterans but Great Britain and the United States had been brought to the verge of war by the sinking of American ships by the Alabama and other British-built, Confederate commerce-destroyers. When that Anglo-American war broke out, there would be an army ready to come over and free Ireland if only the troublesome British navy could be put out of the way. And already the English were launching ironclad after ironclad to replace their now useless steam-frigates and ships-of-the-line. It is no use trying to outbuild or outfight the British navy above water, and John P. Holland realized this in 1862, as several kings and emperors have, before or since.

Though his friends in Cork kept laughing at him, Holland worked steadily on his plans for a submarine boat, throughout the sixties.

Presently he came to America and obtained a job as school-teacher in Paterson, New Jersey. There he built and launched his first submarine in 1875. It was a sharp-pointed, little, cigar-shaped affair, only sixteen feet long and two feet in diameter amidships. This craft was designed to carry a torpedo and fix it to the bottom of a ship, on the general principle of Bushnell’s Turtle. It was divided into four compartments, with air-chambers fore and aft. Air-pipes led to where Holland sat in the middle, with his head in a respirator shaped like a diver’s helmet, and his feet working pedals that turned the propeller.

There was nothing revolutionary about this Holland No. I.

A similar underwater bicycle is said to have been invented by Alvary Templo in 1826, and Drzewiecki used one at Odessa in 1877. But Holland used his to teach himself how to build something better. Just as the Wright brothers learned how to build and fly Aeroplanes by coasting down through the air from the tops of the Kitty Hawk sand-hills in their motor less “glider,” so John P. Holland found how to make and navigate submarines by diving under the surface of the Passaic River and adjacent waters, and swimming around there in his No. I and her successors.

The Holland No. 2 was launched in 1877 and became immediately and prophetically stuck in the mud.

She had a double hull, the space between being used as a ballast-tank, whose contents leaked constantly into the interior, and she was driven intermittently by a four horse-power petroleum engine of primitive design. After a series of trials that entertained his neighbors and taught the inventor that the best place for a single horizontal rudder is the stern, Holland took the engine out of the boat and sank her under the Falls Bridge, where she lies to this day.

He then entered into negotiations with the Fenian Brotherhood, a secret society organized for the purpose of setting up an Irish republic by militant methods. Though not a Fenian himself, Holland was thoroughly in sympathy with the brotherhood, and offered to show them how they could get round, or rather under, the British navy. You may have seen a once- familiar lithograph of a green-painted superdreadnought of strange design flying the Crownless Harp, and named the Irish battleship Emerald Isle. The only real Irish warships of modern times, however, were the two submarines Holland persuaded the Fenians to have him build at their expense.

Rear- Admiral Philip Hichborn, former Chief Constructor, U.S.N., said of these two boats:

“She (the earlier one) was the first submarine since Bushnell’s time employing water ballast and always retaining buoyancy, in which provision was made to insure a fixed center of gravity and a fixed absolute weight. Moreover, she was the first buoyant submarine to be steered down and up in the vertical plane by horizontal-rudder action as she was pushed forward by her motor, instead of being pushed up and down by vertical-acting mechanism. Her petroleum engine, provided for motive-power and for charging her compressed-air flasks, was inefficient, and the boat therefore failed as a practical craft; but in her were demonstrated all the chief principles of successful, brain-directed, submarine navigation. In 1881, Holland turned out a larger and better boat in which he led the world far and away in the solution of submarine problems, and for a couple of years demonstrated that he could perfectly control his craft in the vertical plane. Eventually, through financial complications, she was taken to New Haven, where she now is.”

Political as well as financial complications caused the internment of this submarine, which a New York reporter, with picturesque inaccuracy, called the Fenian Ram. The Irish at home were by this time thinking less of fighting for independence and more for peacefully obtaining home rule, while the arbitration and payment of the “Alabama claims” by Great Britain had removed all danger of a war between that country and the United States. Under these circumstances, many of the Fenians felt that it was wasted money for their society to spend any more of its funds on warships it could never find use for. This led to dissensions which culminated in a party of Fenians seizing the Ram and taking it to a shed on the premises of one of their members at New Haven, where it has remained ever since.

But the construction and performances of this submarine, and of several others which he soon afterwards built for himself, won Holland such a reputation that when Secretary Whitney decided in 1888 that submarines would be a good thing for the United States navy, the great Philadelphia ship-building firm of Cramps submitted two designs: Holland’s and Nordenfeldt’s, and the former won the award. But after nearly twelve months had been spent in settling preliminary details, and when a contract for building an experimental boat was just about to be awarded, there came a change of administration and the matter was dropped.

This was a great disappointment for Holland, and the next four or five years were lean ones for the inventor. He had built five boats and designed a sixth without their having brought him a cent of profit. It was not until March 3, 1893, that Congress appropriated the money for the construction of an experimental submarine, and inventors were invited to submit their designs. By this time John P. Holland had not only spent all his own money, but all he could borrow from his relatives and friends. To make matters worse, the country was then passing through a financial panic, when very few people had any money to lend or invest. And all the security Holland could offer was his faith in the future of the submarine, which at that time was a stock joke of the comic papers, together with those other two crack-brained projects, the flying-machine and the horseless carriage.

“I know I can win that competition and build that boat for the Government,” said Holland to a young lawyer whom he had met at lunch in a downtown New York restaurant, “if I can only raise the money to pay the fees and other expenses. I need exactly $347.19.”

“What do you want the nineteen cents for? ” asked the other.

“To buy a certain kind of ruler I need for drawing my plans.”

“If you’ve figured it out as closely as all that,” re- plied the lawyer, “I’ll take a chance and lend you the money.”

He did so, receiving in exchange a large block of stock in the new-formed Holland Torpedo-boat Company.

To-day his stock is worth several million dollars.

Mr. Holland won the competition and after two years’ delay his company began the construction of the Plunger. This submarine was to be propelled by steam while running on the surface and by storage-batteries when submerged. Double propulsion of this type had been first installed by a Southerner named Alstitt on a submarine he built at Mobile, Alabama, in 1863, and theoretically discussed in a book written in 1887 by Commander Hovgaard of the Danish navy. Though a great improvement on any type of single propulsion, this system had many drawbacks, the chief of which was the length of time from fifteen to thirty minutes that it took for the oil-burning surface engine to cool and rid itself of hot gases before it was safe to seal the funnel and dive. Though the Plunger was launched in 1897, she was never finished, for Mr. Holland foresaw her defects. He persuaded the Government to let his company pay back the money already spent on the Plunger and build an entirely new boat.

Holland No. 8 was built accordingly, but failed to work properly. Finally came the ninth and last of her line, the first of the modern submarines, the world-famous Holland.

She was a chunky little porpoise of a boat, 10 feet 7 inches deep and only 53 feet 10 inches long, and looking even shorter and thicker than she was because of the narrow, comb-like superstructure running fore and aft along the deck. But her shape and dimensions were the results of twenty-five years’ experience. Built at Mr. Lewis Nixon’s shipyards at Elizabethport, New Jersey, the Holland was launched in the early spring of 1898, between the blowing-up of the Maine and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. But though John P. Holland repeatedly begged to be allowed to take his submarine into Santiago Harbor and torpedo Cervera’s fleet, the naval authorities at Washington were too conservative-minded to let him try.

“United States warship goes down with all hands!” the small boys (I was one of them) used to shout at this time, and then explain that it was only another dive of the “Holland submarine.” Strictly speaking, the Holland was not a United States warship till October 13, 1900, when she was formally placed in commission under the command of Lieutenant Harry H. Caldwell, who had been on her during many of the exhaustive series of trials in which the little undersea destroyer proved to even the most conservative officers of our navy that the day of the submarine had come at last.

Propelled on the surface by a fifty horse-power gasoline motor, the Holland had a cruising radius of 1500 miles at a speed of seven knots an hour. Submerged, she was driven by electric storage-batteries. This effective combination of oil-engines with an electric motor is one of John P. Holland’s great discoveries, and is used in every submarine to-day. When her tanks were filled till her deck was flush with the water, and the two horizontal rudders at the stern began to steer her downwards, the Holland could dive to a depth of twenty-eight feet in five seconds. She had no periscope, for that instrument was then crude and unsatisfactory. To take aim, the captain of the Holland had to make a quick “porpoise dive,” up to the surface and down again, exposing the conning-tower for the few seconds needed to take aim and judge the distance to the target. Though by this means the Holland succeeded in getting within striking-distance of the Kearsarge and the New York without being detected, during the summer manoeuvers of the Atlantic fleet off Newport in 1900, it has proved fatal to the only submarine that has tried it in actual warfare (see page 160).

Less than half the length of the Nordenfeldt II, the Holland did not pitch or see-saw when submerged. Each of her crew of six sat on a low stool beside the machinery he was to operate, and there was no moving about when below the surface. Neither did the boat stand on her tail when a torpedo was discharged from the bow-tube, for the loss of weight was immediately compensated by admitting an equivalent amount of water into a tank. Originally the Holland had a stern torpedo-tube as well, besides a pneumatic gun for throwing eighty pounds of dynamite half a mile through the air, but these were later removed.

How the Holland impressed our naval officers at that time is best shown in the oft-quoted testimony of Admiral Dewey before the naval committee of the House of Representatives in 1900.

“Gentlemen, I saw the operation of the boat down off Mount Vernon the other day. Several members of this committee were there. I think we were all very much impressed with its performance. My aid, Lieutenant Caldwell, was on board. The boat did everything that the owners proposed to do. I said then, and I have said it since, that if they had had two of those things at Manila, I could never have held it with the squadron I had. The moral effect to my mind, it is infinitely superior to mines or torpedoes or anything of the kind. With those craft moving under water it would wear people out. With two of those in Galveston all the navies of the world could not blockade the place.”

The Holland was purchased by the United States Government on April 11, 1900, for $150,000. She had cost her builders, exclusive of any office expenses or salaries of officers, $236,615.43. But it had been a profitable investment for the Holland Torpedo-boat Company, for on August 25, the United States navy contracted with it for the construction of six more submarines. And in the autumn of the same year, though it was not announced to the public till March 1, 1901, five other Hollands were ordered through the agency of Vickers Sons, and Maxim by the British admiralty. Soon every maritime nation was either buying Hollands or paying royalties on the inventor’s patents, and building bigger, faster, better submarines every year.

The original Holland had outlived her fighting value when she was condemned by Secretary Daniels in June, 1915, to be broken up and sold as junk. There is still room in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for that worthless and meaningless relic, the Intelligent Whale, but there was none for the Holland submarine, whose place in history is with the Clairmont and the Monitor.

John P. Holland withdrew in 1904 from the Holland Torpedo-boat Company, which has since become merged with the Electric Boat Company that builds most of the submarines for the United States navy, and many for the navies of foreign powers. Like most other great inventive geniuses, Holland was not a trained engineer, and it was perhaps inevitable that disputes should have arisen between him and his associates as to the carrying out of his ideas. His last years were embittered by the belief that the submarines of to-day were distorted and worthless developments of his original type. Whether or not he was mistaken, only time can tell. That to John P. Holland, more than to any other man since David Bushnell and Robert Fulton, the world owes the modern submarine, cannot be denied. His death, on August 12, 1914, was but little noticed in the turmoil and confusion of the first weeks of the great European War. But when the naval histories of that war are written, his name will not be forgotten.


Previous Stories about Holland and the Birth of the American Submarine Force:



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