“The men who go down into the waters in these boats must take their lives in their hands.” Holland’s Invention in 1898

Sunday, April 24, 1898, the San Francisco papers and papers across the country were filled with the latest news about the Spanish American War that was already underway.

America woke up that morning to the realization that it had seacoasts that stretched from north to south in both the east and the west. There was also a brutal realization that much of these coasts were woefully unprepared for an enemy with large ships and the newly invented torpedo-boats that could cause havoc to shipping as well as attack civilian population centers.

Since the Civil War had ended decades earlier, the US Navy had shrunk to a peacetime level that did not really anticipate having to deal with a hostile force of nearly any size. Peace is an interesting neutralizer of fleets and armies. While there is the illusion of peace, there is also the illusion of diplomacy and international treaties keeping hostile nations apart. In 1898, the public was made aware of how fragile peace and security were.

So it comes as no surprise that when the guns begin to fire once more, the need for protection against modern weapons comes to the front. The Civil War had proven how much technology was growing. Steam had largely replaced sail as the primary means of moving warships to their destinations. While coal was still king, there were hints that oil fired boilers were going to be the next great innovation. But lurking in the background were new weapons that threatened to upset the status quo.

Those weapons were torpedoes.

Torpedoes were game changers since they could be fired at larger vessels with relatively smaller and less expensive ones. The smaller torpedo-boats were swift and agile and would someday even pit plywood against heavy armor. In their infancy, however, how to deliver them with little risk was the question.

Two years before America officially bought its first submarine, there were many who came up with ideas about how to bring this weapon to the battle. This article comes from the San Francisco Call Newspaper and discusses some proposals and a recent test by a man named Holland.


INVENTOR HOLLAND has just come to the front with another marine wonder; he calls it a semi-submerged torpedo boat. It is a vessel designed to stand up and fight the enemy in an interchange of heavy blows. It’s fighting equipment and make up is, therefore, somewhat different from his submarine torpedo boat. This new craft does not wholly disappear under the surface of the water, but is only semi-submerged, just enough for what is considered safety in a fierce sea battle.

In both his boats Mr. Holland’s idea has been to have sufficient protection to get within striking distance of an enemy’s ship. In the submarine boat this is carried out by making an attack from beneath the water, where she is safe because unseen; in the semi-submerged torpedo-boat part of the vessel is protected by being sunk four feet under the water. The small exposed portion is surrounded with armor at least as heavy as that on the armored cruisers of the present day.

President W. H. Jacques of the Holland Torpedo-Boat Company describes the new semi submerged torpedo-boat as follows:

“We all know how difficult it is to adequately protect a ship with armor even if by the most careful distribution of weights. The semi-submerged boat represents a type in which you can armor such parts as are necessary, employing very heavy armor, because you have reduced to a minimum the parts that are exposed, and, possessing submarine qualities, it is the only kind of boat that will do this, as you well know there is not a torpedo boat in existence today that will meet these conditions.

“In such a craft you can get close to your ship and fire your torpedo into her, while an ordinary torpedo-boat will be simply riddled and sawed into pieces by rapid fire ammunition. Further, a submerged armored torpedo-boat will be able to get so near her target that by greatly reducing the range she will eliminate the disadvantages of the present long ranges required for the Whitehead torpedo. Again, you are giving a well-disciplined crew a chance to do something for their quarters will be infinitely more comfortable then those they at present occupy in the torpedo-boat. They will have a feeling of safety which they do not now enjoy, and they will know they will land their torpedo close enough to blow up the ship.

“Such a craft may be compared with an automobile torpedo, one of a sufficient size to carry a crew and yet possessing not only similar automatic devices for controlling the position, but having them supplemented by direct mechanical ones under the direct control of the brain of man.

“Such a boat will be practically irresistible and in vulnerable; will even resist the attack of heavy ordinance and is a type it will be impossible to avoid.”

Inventor Holland proposes to build one of these all around fighting submarine machines as follows: A vessel 220 feet long, 24 feet wide and drawing 14 feet of water. Its displacement will be 1000 tons; the engines will have 10,000 or 12,000 horsepower and develop a speed of twenty five knots. The armored superstructure to protect the smokestacks and companionway is to be between 30 and 40 feet long and ten feet wide in the middle, the ends being made half round. The armament will consist of four large rapid fire guns of ten or twelve pound caliber, in revolving turrets. The armor will be as heavy as the vessel can carry but not less than twelve inches. When light the superstructure will be only 15 inches above the water in the middle; in action it will be covered by 4 feet of water, and the guns will be but five feet above the water line.

Such a boat as this combines all the qualities of a torpedo-boat and a torpedo boat destroyer, and can also be used as a destroyer of torpedo-boat destroyers. Not only this, but it can move fearlessly right up within easy torpedo range of a line of battle-ships, which can only train their rapid-fire guns upon the little craft, and the projectiles from such guns will strike harmlessly upon the heavily armored superstructure, if they could hit so small a target as the vessel exposes when in action.

The news which comes from New York of the successful trials of the Holland submarine boat has set men considering the possibility of using this terrible weapon of offense in the war that now seems inevitable.

Naval experts of course are divided over the question, they always are whenever any new instrument of destruction is introduced. The more conservative shake their heads gravely and dwell on the many limitations which natural law imposes on submarine navigation; the younger and more enthusiastic members of the profession make light of these difficulties and claim that we have here a weapon which, in deadly effect, will outrival even the torpedo. And we know from sad experience what terrible destruction can be wrought by even one torpedo or submarine mine.

As a matter of fact, we are all in the dark as to what may or may not be accomplished by a submarine torpedo boat. We know little enough about the behavior in real warfare of vessels which maneuver on the surface, and it remains to be seen what those moving in the depths will achieve. All we know, so far, is that the Holland boat has proved herself able to travel for several miles under the water, to rise and sink at the will of her operators, and to discharge a torpedo at a target. She presents no target at which an enemies quick firing guns can aim; she is practically invulnerable. And naval science has not yet devised a means of defense against her attacks. So that if any Spanish vessels come within her range she may, under favorable circumstances, revenge the loss of the Maine.

The Holland boat was tried at Perth Amboy, N.J. las month and subjected to four severe tests. While running full speed she was submerged by simply filling her tanks, reappearing gradually after traveling some distance underwater. In addition to her capacity for submarine work, the Holland could make a good fight on the surface. She can fire an aerial torpedo containing 100 pounds of guncotton for a distance of a mile. Also she is supplied with three 18-inch Whitehead torpedoes, fired from a tube underwater. Further there is a submarine gun at the stern, designed to fire a projectile five hundred yards through the water. When on the surface she is propelled by gasoline engines, when below electric storage batteries do the work. Horizontal rudders regulate the depth to which the boat is sunk, but to keep under water she must be constantly moving. The boat is 55 feet long by 11 feet in diameter, and it is claimed she can run for fifty miles without coming to the surface for breath.

So far, the Holland boat promises well; but the main question is, Will the conditions be favorable for the use of a submarine vessel ever occur in real action?

That is the whole point. The world. Or at least that portion of it which is looking anxiously forward to the Americo-Spanish conflict as a means of solving many unsolved problems in naval construction, watches with interest the first real tril of the boa. A trial under merely peace conditions does not count. The enemy must be at anchor and at not too great a distance from the coast, the water must be comparatively smooth and clear, the torpedo must be discharged with absolute accuracy. The slightest breakdown in the delicate machinery, the slightest mistake on the part of the officer in command may spoil everything and doom all on board to a terrible death.

This is one of the most difficult factors in the problem. The men who go down into the waters in these boats must take their lives in their hands. Once they are sealed under the hatches, whether they accomplish their mission of destruction or not, their chances of return to God’s sunlight are infinitely small.

The advance of modern electrical science has rendered possible many things which were impossible even a generation ago, and therefore we may hope for better results from the Holland boat than from the famous David’s, which the Confederates constructed, and employed with such disastrous results to themselves.

The first David, so named after its inventor, was built at Charleston in 1863. The material used was boiler plate, and the craft was propelled by the power of eight men working a crank. Three times was this unfortunate vessel tried, and every time she refused to rise to the surface after disappearing beneath the face of the waters.

All on board perished, yet men were found ready to man her a fourth time, when, marvelous to relate, her errand of death was successful. She made her way out of Charleston harbor, sought Land found the Northern vessel Housatonic, and blew her up with a torpedo. Unable to clear herself from the wreck in time, she went down with her victim, and this was the last of the David’s career. Several other boats of the same pattern were constructed by the rebels, but they never achieved anything of note.

Though this is perhaps the only recorded instance where a submarine boat has been successfully used in action, the idea, like most other ideas under the sun is by no means new. It is centuries old. As far back as the beginning of the seventeenth century a Dutchman named Cornelius Drebel constructed a submarine boat on the Thames and induced King James to sanction its trial. Far in advance of his times, he proposed to use artificial air to sustain the lives of those on board; but as history does not record what became of this Dutchman and his boat, we may presume that the enterprise was a failure. The next inventor in the field was a rash individual of the name of Day, who in 1774 made a descent in Plymouth harbor in a vessel of fifty tons which he had fitted out for the purpose. He accomplished the descent right enough— most ships will sink when the conditions are favorable—but he failed to come to the surface again.

A year later the New Englanders, ever of an inventive turn, took a hand in the game. One Bushnell of Connecticut built a vessel to be propelled by screws, very much like those now in use. At the end of the century Fulton, the famous steamboat inventor, developed the idea still further. He used compressed air and with its aid was enabled to contrive a boat which actually remained four hours beneath the water, at a depth of twenty-five feet. The boat could be propelled in any direction, and during a series of experiments in Brest Harbor he anticipated modern warfare by attaching a torpedo to the bottom of a vessel

Still, the time was not ripe for use of a torpedo. For more than half a century the old wooden walls and smooth-bore guns were to prevail. Now and again during this long period some rash inventor would make tentative experiments, but nothing came of it, until, as we have seen, the Confederates produced their David’s. The attention of the scientific world was aroused.

Nordonfelt was the first to produce a really modern vessel of this character. In 1886 he built at Stockholm a submarine boat which proved capable of descending to a depth of thirty feet, and steaming sixteen miles at a speed of five knots. Next year he built a still larger one at Southampton, capable of steaming fifteen knots an hour and developing 1000 horsepower. Though the experiments with these boats gave apparently satisfactory results, it was felt that they could hardly be depended upon for work in actual warfare. The chief defect lay in the motive power, which was steam. Thus, when the boat went below the surface, all draught had to be shut off and the engines driven by the supply of heated steam which remained in the boilers. Of course this became rapidly exhausted, and in order to get up steam it was necessary for the boat to come on top again. In action such a defect as this might easily prove fatal, for the boat might be compelled to show herself at a time when the enemy’s guns could bear upon her with destructive effect.

The San Francisco Call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 24 April 1898. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1898-04-24/ed-1/seq-18/

April is Submarine Month

I will spend quite a bit of the month writing about the stories of American Submarine Warfare as a tribute to the brave men and women who “go down into the waters in these boats must take their lives in their hands.”

Mister Mac


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