The Little Devils of the Deep – American Submarines in June 1900

In June of 1900, the American seagoing world was still adapting to the idea that a practical submarine machine had been brought into the family.

With the Spanish American War in the rear-view mirror, 1900 was exploding with changes of all kinds. The twentieth century would come to be known as the American Century since so many technological and innovational changes would be coming from there. The United States would also be the leading economic and military power in the world. American democracy became the model for political reform in countries around the world. American publishers, musicians, artists, film makers, and performers of all sorts participated in an outpouring of work that made American popular culture the popular culture of much of the Western world.

The race to produce a working submarine was the Holy Grail for both inventors and tacticians alike. Newer and better forms of technology were capable of producing the raw materials and engines that would be able to allow man to travel below the waves and in some cases deliver a weapon that was seemingly unstoppable.

Against this wave of technological advancement stood the hard-line traditionalists in the Navy. The ones who held the actual power and influence were well aware that the advent of steam had doomed the sail and the advent of advanced weapons threatened to cut off their supply of the most precious commodity of all: funding.

If Congress was convinced that a small shark like vessel could neutralize the largest behemoths afloat, why would they continue to pour untold millions form the public storehouse of treasure into ships that could not stay afloat? And without the large navy, how would America project its power visibly across the globe at exactly the moment it was rising to meet its destiny?

Submarine Boats (Written for the Evening Star)

In Uncle Sam’s school of new war fishes, which Congress has just directed Secretary Long to order from Inventor Holland, will be embodied extensive improvements upon the parent species lately added to our fast-growing naval fleet.

There will be five of the new monsters, and these added to our Plunger and Holland will give us second rank among the submarine navies of the world. Were all of these seven boats finished and awash in the high seas today they could challenge any foreign flotilla of their class at present in existence. France has just seven submarine boats completed, or nearly so, but the building program of the French minister of marine anticipates the early addition of twenty-six vessels of like kind. It is a fact worthy of some attention that, with the exception of our great sister republic in Europe, none of our foreign rivals, not even aggressive Japan–is giving serious attention to submarine navigation. The English have never taken the matter up. The Germans made an unsatisfactory experiment some years ago. The Russians commenced one boat but discontinued it. Turkey has two so-called submarine boats launched fourteen years ago, Italy has a little one five years old and Portugal has one dating back to 1892.

Improvements on Present Holland.

Each of the five new war fishes to be immediately built for us by Mr. Holland will measure 63 1/3 feet from snout to tall and 11 3/4 feet in greatest width. In other words, the improved type will be nine feet longer and eleven and three-fourths feet wider in beam than the present Holland. Sneaking about beneath the blue cover of the deep, each of these new vessels will be able to swim eight knots an hour instead of seven, the submerged speed of the Holland.

The new design represents a vessel large enough to allow men to move about on the floor of its cabin without stooping. This more generous interior will admit a crew of seven instead of five men, the complement of the Holland. The impossibility of walking erect in the cabin of the latter would make a long run well-nigh impossible. In the new boat the crew will have plenty of room for hanging their hammocks and for storing supplies sufficient for a long run of several days. The surface radius of action, 1,000 miles in the present vessel, will be increased to 1500 miles.

A new type of alternating gasoline engine for surface propulsion will give 180 horse power instead of the Holland’s fifty. For submerged runs will be employed a new improvement in waterproof motors driven by sixty storage battery cells beneath the cabin floor. This will have seventy electric horse power, as against the Holland’s fifty. By means of a new device, whenever one of the crew moves even a fraction of an inch sufficient water to compensate for the disturbance of the vessel’s trim will be admitted to or expelled from the roper compartment.

Another important improvement will he an automatic arrangement whereby each of the new vessels will operate at will in fresh water, salt water or a mixture of both, and by which it may pass freely from one such medium to the other. As any bather knows, it is much more difficult to sink in salt than in fresh water. While going out of a river into the sea the diving abilities of a submarine boat are constantly varying. This variation has caused some trouble on the original Holland boat. Another improvement in water ballast, by which 1400 pounds of water can be taken in or emitted within a few seconds will enable the new type of vessel to suddenly bob up and down again, only so far as to expose one-half of its turret.

The present Holland boat requires about ten seconds to refill its tank before dodging back under water after thus showing itself. But even in that time the chances of assault are slight. Before the projectile from a warship two miles away can leave its muzzle and arrive at one of the new submarine boats the latter will have disappeared and gone no one knows whither. Even at a distance of a few hundred yards, the sudden bobbing up and down of its utmost top will cover less time than would be required to make ready and aim a gun on shipboard.

Mere Bagatelle in Cost.

The five new submarine boats are to cost not more than $170,000 apiece. At this rate Uncle Sam can build a flotilla of forty such vessels for the total price of one finished sea-going battle ship of the first class. To take a cold-blooded, warlike view, the risk would be proportionately small, when there might be a reasonable chance that a submarine boat, with seven men on board, could destroy forty times its worth in property and sink several hundreds of active foemen. Built only as an experiment, any one of these little devils of the deep would not be an expensive luxury.

But Admiral Hichborn, chief of the navy’s bureau of construction and repair, regards the finished Holland boat as in the practical rather than the experimental stage. He is of the opinion that we should immediately avail ourselves of at least twenty of the improved vessels; but Congress cut the number down to five. Six months will be required for the building of each of the five boats, all of them will not be begun at the same time. They will be completed probably a month or six weeks apart, that any defects in one may be remedied in those of later construction. At this rate the whole five can be complete within the next year.

If they prove successful on final trial, their construction will probably be continued at the rate of five or six a year, and thus all improvements suggested by the continuous series of experiments will be gradually embodied in the little vessels as fast as they are launched. Admiral Hichborn is in favor of giving us a first-class submarine navy, superior even to that of France.

“I do not think they have any comparison with the Holland in any other navy.” is his tribute to the boat already purchased by Uncle Sam. Our authorities have taken due precaution against adopting any submarine boats inferior to the French craft. Our naval attaché at Paris has cautiously followed the progress of the French experiments and has submitted to the Navy Department confidential reports perused by our naval experts.

The manufacture of our new boats will be guarded with the utmost secrecy. Contractors engaged upon their construction will he under heavy penalty against disclosing their details, while superintendents and guards will be delegated by the Navy Department to prevent Intruders from taking notes, making sketches or even going aboard of them.

New Problems in Store.

With the transition of our submarine boat construction from the experimental to the practical stage arise distinctly new problems as to the definite functions of these vessels in future warfare, their proper distribution among our seaports, their possibilities of operation far out at sea and the uniform tactics by which they can be maneuvered. It is believed that they will serve every function of the ordinary surface torpedo boat, besides having the additional ability to disappear under water and escape when discovered by a threatened foe. Admiral Hichborn does not regard the “Holland” boat to be so delicate as the torpedo boat proper.

“I haven’t much faith in the torpedo boat operating with a fleet at sea.” said he. “The fictitious speed disappears at once when the sea is on.” Still, it is not believed by the admiral that the death knell of the surface torpedo boat has been sounded now that the submarine craft has proven its efficiency. He is of the opinion that our navy will need both species of these ocean hornets. The torpedo boat proper, with her high speed, can attract the attention of the enemy and worry him, while the submarine boat, hiding beneath the waves, carries out the actual program of slaughter.

In active coast defense operations the latter will probably have the task of holding the line just outside the range at which hostile vessels might begin to bombard our seaports. It would probably be depended upon to protect harbors against blockades. It would have the additional task of holding channels and rivers like the Potomac against a fleet trying to enter for the bombardment of an inland city like Washington. It might be employed in the delicate operation of carrying communications through or, rather, under hostile lines.

Were Uncle Sam to become an enemy of Great Britain, for instance, one of these steel battle fishes might swim up the Atlantic coast to Halifax, and, if needs be, clear away mine fields or other obstructions placed in the way of a possible invasion by our fleet.

To Be Carried on Transports.

The problem as to how our new submarine boats might be carried long distances for employment against hostile fleets is another which is just now looming up. With their 1,500 miles radius of action, the little daredevils of the deep will not be allowed to stray far out to sea without substantial chaperonage. Weighing more than a hundred tons apiece, they would be awkward and cumbersome freight for battle ships.

Admiral Dewey is of the opinion that large steamships can be equipped with derricks and made capable of hoisting a half dozen submarine boats on board of each. These large vessels might carry them from point to point, wherever needed, and launch them into the sea with case. They might travel in the non-fighting category with colliers, hospital and ammunition ships, and accompanying large fleets. One of Russia’s armored cruisers is equipped with a compartment from which she can launch a torpedo boat with the ease at which one of these little vessels might slip off the stocks of a shore shipyard.

Admiral Dewey is skeptical as to the practicability of extending the functions of submarine boats to fleet formations on the high seas. They should, in his opinion, be confined to harbor and coast defense, but even during these uses they can be carried in special transport vessels from point to point along a threatened coastline.


Evening Star. (Washington, D.C.), 09 June 1900. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

The Admirals were aware that other countries around the world were also experimenting with submarine technology.

The French and other European nations were making strides in developing their own underwater monsters. So not advancing in the field was not an option. Just the fact that they existed was considered a deterrent in itself. But in 1900, old thinking was not yet ready to give way to the new technology. The submarine would enter the field as a minor player with leadership imposed imitations.

The wild card was the companion technology of flight and mobility that was about to explode on the scene. In the end, the proponents of the status quo would be overwhelmed by a symphony of innovative changes that would nullify even the hardiest battleship.

That would become painfully obvious to the world on a bright sun shining morning in a faraway pace called Pearl Harbor.

Mister Mac

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