Danger or not: The Navies Must Possess the Terror – Submarines in 1902

A little over two years into America’s experiment with the submarine, one of the early weaknesses was ending up becoming a newsworthy problem.


The use of gasoline engines for primary power on the surface was problematic to say the least. The fuel was very toxic and explosive and unfortunately unpredictable. Since the fumes were present long after the engines were turned off, the conditions were ripe for a disaster. Many early submarine sailors complained about a kind of gasoline induced psychosis from too much exposure to the fumes.

Since there was already concern about the diversion of resources away from other parts of the navy, this flaw continued to dog the interests of the fledgling submarine community. But the visionaries saw this as something that was just the cost of advancement. Her are some period articles that discuss the problems.

August 2, 1902 Washington Times article:


Do Not Like Holland Idea

Report on Explosion Aboard Vessel of New Type at Brooklyn Creates Discussion

The submarine torpedo boat type was again under discussion yesterday by the Board on Construction of the Navy when a report was read from Lieut. H. H. Caldwell regarding the explosion aboard the Holland in the New on Wednesday last

The Holland was lying at the cob dock In the yard when the explosion occurred An enlisted man was the only person aboard It Is supposed he went below to put In operation a fan to the gasoline fumes and that when he did so an electric spark at the switch caused the fumes to explode The man was seriously burned and the boat so badly Injured that It had to be conveyed to the League Island navy yard yesterday

The explosion is the second which has occurred on a submarine boat within four months the other having been on the Fulton off the Delaware Break water. It was never explained to the satisfaction of Rear Admirals Melville Bradford and others. The impression in the department is that the explosions were both caused by fumes of gasoline fuel and that this constitutes a standing menace to any crew which undertakes to operate the boats

Many officers claim the Holland boats will never be of any use to the Navy but the supreme confidence of the inventor and his backers and the uniqueness of the idea Involved has kept the boats on trial.

Eight additional boats are now in process of construction at the Nixon shipyard at Elizabeth N J and the Union Iron Works in San Francisco

The Evening Times. (Washington, D.C.), 02 Aug. 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84024441/1902-08-02/ed-1/seq-2/

In response to the attacks from some quarters, a response was soon to follow in the newspapers.


The Submarine, and What is Thought of it by Some of Our Heroes.


 Its Moral Effect a Consideration Not To Be Ignored France’ Recent Experiments.

Washington, Aug. 14.

It was thought that in the coming naval evolutions the superiority of United States marine boats over the French type would be demonstrated, but from present prospects, owing to the recent accident on the Holland, which prevents her from taking part in the maneuvers, such a test will not take place. Naval officers who believe in the sub marine boat as a formidable engine are greatly interested in the result of the sham battle last week of Hyeres, on the French Mediterranean coast, when the submarine boats Zedo and Gymnote were sent from the harbor to attack the fleet representing the enemy. Traveling ten feet below the surface they reached the fleet and “torpedoed” three battleships, the crews of which were unaware of the presence of the submarines until the “torpedoing” was done.

France Leads in submarines.

In the opinion of naval men favoring submarines this feat demonstrates the importance of considering them as valuable adjuncts to the sea power of any nation. France, the first country to maintain this stand, leads the navies of the world In the number of her submarine boats. M. de Lansessan, who was minister of marine to the Waldeck-Ronneau cabinet, regards the submarine boat is a more formidable Instrument of combat than the torpedo boat. Before resigning he declared that both from the military and the economic point of view the French naval forces should consist of two kinds of submarine boats a small size destined for defensive action within a limited distance of the shore, and a large size capable of carrying offensive operations even as far as the enemy’s boats.

John Bull is on the Alert.

He congratulated the French navy on being the only one possessing a considerable number of submarine craft. England, ever on the alert against her hereditary enemy across the channel, was not slow in reckoning with such a condition and now has a small number of submarines in commission, with ten additional ones in process of construction, all of the American type.


And Others, Who Think the Submarine Great for Harbor Defense.

Such men in the United States navy as Admiral Dewey, Captain Wainwright and Captain Sigsbee highly approve submarine boats for harbor defense. In discussing this subject yesterday Captain Sigsbee, who as chief intelligence officer of the navy and a member of the board of construction is well informed in such matters, declared himself, as in the past, in favor of submarine boats. He was disposed to dismiss the accident on the Holland as of little consequence, arguing that too great significance was given to the presence of gasoline on such boats as a constant source of menace to the safety of the crews.

“There is a certain danger in all engines of war,” argued the captain, “and antagonism to submarines based solely on the use of gasoline in the engines is too trivial to be discussed. Vessels of this kind have not reached a high state approaching perfection, but they have progressed sufficiently to make them exceedingly dangerous to an enemy. Assuredly they have passed the experimental stage. Naturally the submarine boat of say five years hence will greatly excel the one of today, but it must be considered that the latter represents the best type with which we are acquainted at present. There may be better boats invented, but they are on paper, and we can only deal with those in practical shape.”

That the effectiveness of submarine boats ever would reduce the number of battleships in the navy, was ridiculed by Captain Sigsbee. “First and always battleships,” he said. “They have the greatest offensive as well as to greatest defensive power. Nevertheless, submarines could relieve the larger vessels in a great measure as harbor defenses, for the effect on an enemy contemplating an attack on a port patrolled by submarines is tremendous. The moral effect of knowing that there is real danger which you cannot light effectively is immense, and such is the fear inspired by the presence of submarine boats.”

Admiral Dewey expressed his opinion on the question in 1900, when he said to the house committee on naval affairs, in speaking of submarine boats: “If they had had two submarine boats in Manila I never could have held it with my squadron. The moral effect, to my mind, 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 these in Galveston all the navies of the world could not blockade that place.”

Rock Island Argus. (Rock Island, Ill.), 14 Aug. 1902. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn92053934/1902-08-14/ed-1/seq-1/

It was obvious that the growing pains would continue until a solution could be found. But the lessons learned on the early boats would pave the way for the future when submarines would advance in technology and gain a new kind of motive power.

Mister Mac

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