“Cooped up in These Steel Cylinders, The Combatants Would Go to Their Graves beneath the waves, and the details of the Death Fight Never Be Known.” Submarines in 1898

1898 The Spanish Threat

I grew up during the Cold War. The threat of nuclear destruction was drilled into us from the time we hit grade school until sometime in the early seventies when people just realized that there would be no place to really hide if the bombs started going off. That was particularly true in places like Pittsburgh since we were considered prime target material for our various industries. It’s hard to imagine what it really would have been like in an uncontrolled exchange of thermos nuclear devices.

So, reading the story about the perceived threat submarines must have been to the country at large in 1898 brought back a lot of memories.

By 1898, many countries were in the final stages of developing a capable submarine threat. The United States in particular was only to years form accepting their first official operational boat. But the United States was not alone. All around the world, navies were recognizing that having a small underwater craft that could launch torpedoes was something that would neutralize the stronger naval presence of countries like Great Britain that still ruled the waves.

Spain was in its nascent years as a global power and the United States was being pushed and pulled into a conflict with her.

The idea that a rogue submarine could be unleashed on the nation’s fleet was pretty frightening. For one thing, the fleet of the United States had atrophied a great deal since its golden age during the War Between the States. The navy was not as important once the war was settled. During the war, it had ballooned to a large assortment of wooden and steel-clad ships. These ships were responsible for blockading the ports of the south as well as supporting the army in its inland thrusts up the Mississippi river.

The invention of ships like the Merrimac and Monitor were harbingers of future warfare as well. Strongly built metal ships capable of operating regardless of the effects of wind because of their internal steam engines spelled doom for the old ways.

But in 1898, the lessons of the war were all but lost. The fleet was smaller than it needed to be and the Spanish could meet the United States pound for pound in terms of tonnage and guns. At least on paper. The very thought that an actual submarine could be engaged in battle was frightening to say the least.

In early 1898, President McKinley had ordered the U.S.S. Maine to Cuba to bring back American citizens – on February 15 the ship exploded, killing 260 men. “Remember the Maine” became a calling symbol for the war that was to follow.

On April 20, 1898, the US declared war on Spain.

The first article comes from April of 1898 and the follow on article about the Russian submarine comes from June of the same year.


Report Says That the Dons Are Negotiating for the Russian Submarine Destroyer


This May Mean That Submarine Warfare Will Be Added To the Terrors of a Conflict With Spain

Appalling to Contemplate

Cooped up in These Steel Cylinders, The Combatants Would Go to Their Graves beneath the waves, and the details of the Death Fight Never Be Known.

Correspondence the St Paul Globe.

WASHINGTON. April 21. — “Those who talk so lightly of war,” remarked a sage veteran or” the United States navy, who had spent a good deal of his time cooped up in the narrow confines of a torpedo boat’s interior, “can know little of the terrors, expected and impossible to foresee, that await the naval man in a future war.” Probably this veteran had in mind the submarine terrors that are going to figure in the next naval contest. Certain it is that the experts of the European are fully alive to the fact that their boasted steel-protected, torpedo equipped floating forts are of little avail against the boat that steals up beneath the waves and while hidden out of sight, sends a bolt into the vitals of the battleship or cruiser, and sinks her without those aboard knowing the nature of the enemy before whose attack they go down.

Spain at least is concerned about the presence of the Holland and Plunger among the fighting vessels that she would have to grapple within the event of a war with this country, it is reported that Spain is seeking to acquire possession of the Russian Submarine destroyer invented by Sergius Rokosfpky, and now lying somewhere in the waters of the czar’s dominions. With the most particular care taken to guard her against the prying eyes of foreign spies, for fear that this trump card of the Russian navy be rendered less effective when the time comes for its use, by the fact that there are  others of a like nature in existence. Should Spain acquire this boat, the dream of Jules Verne will be improved upon in a terrible manner, for the next naval war may witness a fight beneath the waves. In which the combatants will be the submarine destroyers of the hostile nations. It would certainly be the strangest battle of the century, and almost impossible to invest with more terrors than the mere fact of the fighting being all carried on beneath the waves can give it.

Destructive Fighting Monsters.

The submarine boats will be the most destructive fighting monsters that ever invaded Father Neptune’s territory. The Russian boat that Spain is reported to be after has proved a successful traveler beneath the waves, and rather more is known about her by the naval experts of foreign nations than the Russian government would like to admit.

It is known that the Russian boat is about fifty feet long and that the interior is taken up almost entirely with the operating mechanism. The only portion of the boat above the water when she travels will be the small conning tower, in which the commander stands. The means of propulsion is a naptha or gasoline engine, operating an ordinary small screw propeller. When in motion vertical rudders will affect the lateral direction of the craft. On each side of the center line and forward of the propeller are two horizontal rudders. These rudders are pivoted and regulate the depth of the rising and diving of the boat. When it is desired that the vessel shall dive, the rear edges of the rudders are pushed downward. This causes the stern to move upward and the bow downward, and the diving follows.

It is understood that the armament of the submarine boat is as follows: One torpedo boat, which will eject Whitehead torpedoes by means of’ either compressed air or gunpowder; two submarine projectile tubes or guns, 1 each of which carries a projectile in the form of a thin shell charged with guncotton to the extent of eighty pounds. This latter is a new method of offence and meat things are expected of it in action.

How the naval war of the future, fought with such strange craft as these submarine boats, will be managed, and what the outcome will be, are questions that the men who make a study of such matters find it difficult to come to a conclusion upon. The more they study this problem, the more the naval experts are convinced that the submarine boats will bring the millennium nearer, for they cannot see how it will be possible to wage war under such remarkable conditions as will obtain when battles are fought under the water instead of in the water.

Location a Hard Nut.

The first difficulty encountered by those who study the subject is how on earth, or rather on sea, it will be possible to locate a boat that travels under water. Even though the vessel that seeks to find her with hostile intent, is able herself to sink beneath the waves, how can the great depth of the ocean be searched successfully for such a tiny thing as a fifty-foot boat that may be fathoms deep, or may be with- in a few feet of the one that seeks her without either knowing of the close proximity. Warfare under such a state of things would seem to be almost an impossibility, but some think the days of ocean fighting will not die with the construction of submarine navies. According to the builder of the Holland submarine boat, John P. Holland, it is possible by the use of a water telescope, an instrument devised to correct the refracting power of water that prevents the human eye from seeing anything except ln a very limited range, for the occupants of the submarine boats to make out an enemy when so far away as to leave a chance for them to find each other when the crews of these boats are groping for a fight. If it is possible to do this it makes submarine fighting a probability, and it is in order to discuss the outcome of a battle that would be fought under these conditions. The thought is sufficiently appalling to make the nerviest hesitate before embarking on such a trip.

When Encounters Are Fatal.

One features of such encounters, awful to contemplate, is that no inkling of the fate that befell the boats would ever come to the surface in the event of an encounter proving fatal. Beneath the surface of the water the hostile submarine craft would fight it out with only the fishes as witnesses of the duel, and should both be blown up, as will be not unlikely where the weapons are so destructive and so easily used, the boats will sink to the bottom without a ripple having appeared above to inform the world of the fate of the fighters. A submarine boat’s crew will say good bye to friends with the knowledge that they may never be heard of again after they dive beneath the waves on a hostile errand. It is difficult to imagine a more terrible encounter than this one. There will be none of the noise and grandeur of a battle under the conditions of a naval fight on the surface of the ocean. The crews of the submarine boats, shut in a hermitically sealed case, will hear nothing and probably see little of the effect of their onslaught on the enemy. There will be no cheers of victory to make dying less bitter to the fatally wounded. War will be robbed of all the pomp and ceremony with which romance clothes it to the disgust of those who have experienced its realities. Beneath the waves the submarine duel will be a silent, swift and terrible encounter with escape from death depending on hairbreadth chances for all engaged In the fight. If Spain does acquire the Russian submarine boat, there will be plenty of heroes among the United States naval heroes who will be willing to sacrifice their lives in either the Holland or the Plunger in tackling Spain’s new craft in a fight beneath the waves.

The Destroyer Holland.

In the submarine torpedo boat Holland the United States possesses, it is probable, the mast dangerous craft of the sort in existence. What she really can accomplish In the way of damage only actual warfare will demonstrate.

Sufficient is known, however, to make the statement worthy of consideration that she has created more in the nature of genuine consternation among the naval powers of Europe than anything of the sort that has come into existence. Then there is the Plunger, which was completed at Baltimore “not so long ago. She will, her inventor promises, perform wonders when she is given a chance to show what she can really do. Theory is not the best basis in the world on which to determine the usefulness of a craft, but that is what the makers of the Holland and the Plunger have to be content with in the main. One thing is certain: So far as any one has been able to ascertain, no one has a submarine craft which is in the same class as those owned by the United States.

As to the practical value of submarine boats there has been much discussion by government engineers. Lieutenant Commander Kimball says, taking into consideration their peculiar qualities as fighting machines, it would seem that they would prove most effective in: 1.Holding the first line of coast defenses. 2. In harassing and sinking blockading ships. 3. in holding channels and narrow waters against a fleet attempting to enter. 4. in carrying communications through hostile lines. 5. in fleet operations. 6. in the clearing away of torpedo mines and other marine obstructions. 7. In the reducing of a place defended by armored ships, torpedoes, mines, torpedo boats, etc.



Part 2: The Russian Torpedo Boat Destroyer

VLADIVOSTOCK, June 26.—The Russian government is about to build a submarine boat destroyer which will be the Best craft of its kind ever constructed. It is the invention of a Russian marine architect, and this secret of his brain is guarded by the czar’s officials as a miser hoards his gold. The czar feels now that he has a craft which will place the submarine boats of the United States and French governments at his mercy. It is at these boats that the new invention is aimed.

In the first place, the submarine torpedo boats of the navies mentioned have been looked upon with something approaching awe by naval officers everywhere. There has seemed to be something uncanny about them, darting about under the surface of the waves, and apparently the great warships of the world’s navies were practically helpless against the attacks of these artificial marine monsters.

The completion, a few months ago, of a submarine torpedo boat for the United States at Baltimore, in that country, excited the liveliest interest among naval officers here. Following this, the success of the Holland submarine torpedo boat, news of which was immediately cabled here, set the wits of every one to work and resulted in the presentation of the plans of the strange craft that is now being constructed.

The inventor’s name is Sergius Rokosfpky, and he is a member of the corps of marine architects the Russian government employs, with the rank of lieutenant. He has long studied the problem of submarine navigation, his calculations being based, strange as it may seem, upon some of the principles laid down by Jules Verne, the novelist, in his description of that famous vessel known as the Nautilus. Lieut. Rokosfpky told no one but an intimate friend of his plans and his ideas, until the news of the success achieved by the submarine invention in America and France excited such marked alarm. Then, upon advice of his friend, he laid the whole matter before the czar’s ministers of marine, and within forty-eight hours his idea was indorsed, and an order given for the construction of a submarine vessel according to his plans.

Thus Russia proposes to make its own position superior to that of other governments by placing in commission as soon as possible an engine of destruction that will cause the objects of its attacks to sink to the bottom of the ocean just as the submarine torpedo boat now seeks to blow up warships that lie helpless and unaware of its attack. To be sure, it has not the consolation of being altogether unseen in its warfare upon the submarine torpedo boats, but it has one tremendous advantage, and that is that it has no defensive armor to contend against as the submarine torpedo boat is made to destroy ships and not armed to defend itself.

The strictest secrecy is maintained in naval circles concerning the precise method of attack which will be adopted by the new craft. Itis said that this Russian terror of the seas will ram its antagonist and then dart away, leaving the crew of the shattered submarine craft to perish in their coffin of steel. The one important detail of the construction and operation of the Russian boat, which it is believed is not definitely settled, is the discharge of the torpedo at short range. This torpedo is so constructed and its explosive force so nicely calculated that the explosion will not injure the Russian boat in the least, even though it be in close engagement. The task of locating a submarine torpedo boat which the officers of the proposed destroyer will have to face, seems as difficult as that of locating the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Science, however, has contribute quota to the makeup of this enemy of navies, and an apparatus has been invented, the delicate electrical attraction needle of which, superlatively sensitive to the medium of steel, will at once impel the Russian craft towards the submarine victim which it seeks.

The new boat represents, as a whole, the most modern thought relative to submarine warfare and all that can possibly apply thereto. This much is known definitely. Every apparatus that can possibly aid the accomplishment of the purpose of the boat has been utilized. Even now the keenest minds are at work striving to improve, just as the most skilled workmen attainable are constructing the craft, all the appurtenances thereof. The present calculation is that the boat will carry a crew of four seamen and two officers, in addition to a torpedo expert. Oddly enough, in many details, the submarine wonder will be very like that United States marvel known as the Holland, and the accompanying illustration shows its possibilities of terrible execution.

Primarily, it will be an artificial fish modeled in longitudinal sections very much like a whale about fifty feel tons. The interior is to be almost entirely taken up with the operating mechanism, very little room being provided for living quarters. While simply moving about from place to place, its deck and small conning tower, in which the commander stands, will be above water. Above that is to be, perhaps, a foot of deck, turtle-back in fashion, and about thirty inches of the conning tower above that. While a portion of the craft will thus be visible to vessels on the surface, the means of propulsion are to be a naptha or gasoline engine, operating an ordinary small screw propeller. When it is desired to sink the boat for submarine operations water is to be let into trimming or ballast tanks in the bottom in sufficient amount to reduce the buoyancy to a few hundred pounds. That is to say, when submerged, its weight, when weighed in the water, would be within about 500 pounds of its actual weight on land. It can be maneuvered up to 1,000 pounds buoyancy, but not much above that.

When in motion, vertical rudders will effect the lateral direction of the craft. On each side of the center line, and forward of the propeller, are two horizontal rudders. These rudders are pivoted and regulate the depth of the rising and diving of the boat. When it is desired that the vessel shall dive, the rear edges of the rudders are pushed downward. This causes the stern to move upward and the bow downward and the diving follows. To obtain a reverse motion, the action should be reversed.

It is possible to use the gasoline engine in the water but it is not considered advisable, because the air supply of the interior of the boat is limited, and the demand for air resulting from the combustion of gasoline is 30 great that if the engine were operated any length of time, the air supply of the interior of the vessel would be completely exhausted.

To the uninitiated it would seem a very difficult problem for the submarine navigators to tell the exact depth at which their craft was located. This information is gained, however, by means of a gage which registers inside the vessel the pressure of the water upon the outside. From this pressure is calculated the distance of the vessel from the surface of the water. The basis of the calculation referred to is the fact that the pressure of water upon the vessel is at the rate of half a pound to the foot thus the calculation is simple and the navigator of the torpedo-boat destroyer knows at all times just where he is. There is the pressure gauge which shows him his exact distance from the water’s surface.

Next comes the apparatus which determines the course of the boat. This is entirely independent of the compass, which does not act the same beneath the surface of the water as it does above it. In front of the navigator is a speed indicator which shows him exactly the time he is making, just as the steam gauge in the cab of an engine tells the engineer exactly the amount of steam that is at his service. With all these facts in his possession, the navigator is able to perform his duties almost as intelligently as if he were laying the course of an ordinary cruiser. Should it be desired to return to the surface quickly, the water which has been taken in as ballast is blown out by a tremendous blast from the compressed air tanks. This air once gives the vessel its full buoyancy and a rise to the surface follows.

While nothing absolutely definite is known concerning the armament of the destroyer, it is understood that it will be as follows: One torpedo boat, which will eject Whitehead torpedoes by means of either compressed air or gunpowder; two submarine projectile tubes or guns, each of which carries a projectile in the form of a thin shell charged with gun cotton to the extent of eighty pounds. The first time this shell is tried will be a matter of great interest to all ordnance people. The experiment will be, entirely new, and those who believe or disbelieve in the success of the projectile will have a chance to see which is right. The longest voyage made by one of the new submarine torpedo beats was that of the French craft, nearly six miles being under water all the time a distance of twenty feet. The Russian inventor claims that his creation will travel twice as fast as any other at a distance of forty feet from the surface of the water.


The War lasted 15 weeks and was called “splendid little war” by Secretary of State John Hay.

As part of the Terms of the treaty, Cuba was freed, the U.S. got Guam in the Pacific and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and Spain sold the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million.

No Russian submarine every appeared to menace the victorious American Fleets. The Spanish fleet was decimated in both oceans and they have never regained anything resembling a global presence since that time.

According to Janes Pocket Book on Submarine Development, the Russians did build two experimental sixty ton submarines in 1899. Only one was completed but failed to live up to the inventors expectations. By the early 1900’s, the Russians purchased five submarines from the American Simon Lake.

The impact on American submarine development was significant. The genie had been let out of the bottle and the 20th century was about to unleash the real power of submarine warfare in a way that dwarfed the predictions of the 19th century writers.

Before the century was halfway through,a new kind of power source would be create that made Jules Verne’s vision of a true submersible a reality.

Mister Mac

2 thoughts on ““Cooped up in These Steel Cylinders, The Combatants Would Go to Their Graves beneath the waves, and the details of the Death Fight Never Be Known.” Submarines in 1898

  1. I like this statement: “War will be robbed of all the pomp and ceremony with which romance clothes it to the disgust of those who have experienced its realities.” Or as the Duke of Wellington said, “Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won…” (from wikiquote.org). And, of course, there’s always Kipling.

    I was fortunate in many ways not to have to deal personally with the reality of war, but I know some who have. To say they are disgusted with romantic descriptions of it is an understatement. As though killing each other were glamorous…

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I always try to remember that the writers lived in a different age. Frankly, this article was written before either of the horrors of the world wars, so the writer probably had no exposure to the mass destruction and inhumanity man is capable of. When I post these stories from that period, I do my best to be true to the text as it was written.
      Thanks for the note

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