1906 – A very bad year for submarines

1906 – A very bad year for submarines

The submarine race around the globe was gaining steam as more and more of the major powers sought to join the growing list of naval powers that possessed the underwater craft. The recent war between Russia and Japan was an example of how important the threat of this new capability was. Just the thought that a smaller and non-European nation could square off and actually defeat the superior in number Russian navy sent shock waves throughout the west.

Battleships were expensive and hard to maintain but not having a battleship presence in the face of so many other western countries would place you in a position of inferiority. But this new threat combined with the swift and deadly torpedo boat destroyers was outside of the traditional thought process.

Japan had joined the industrial revolution later than most countries in the west but had learned her lessons well. Japan also recognized that the idea of spreading her influence out into many of her neighbors was not just about power. To Japan, it was about survival. The home islands were stretched to the limit for growing space and the natural resources need to compete in the industrial age were not readily available unless new territory was gained.

Japan also saw the imperialism of the west and felt that it was her right to compete in that arena as well. Her understanding was that if it was god for others, why not for them as well. After all, their Emperor was a god installed by a divine presence and they were a proud country.


But with any new technology comes danger. Fear of the unknown, fear of the sea itself, and fear that we might be rushing too quickly into the abyss certainly had to be on people’s minds in 1906. Since the American’s purchased their first submarine, other countries had moved forward and the results were predictable. Critics of the new technology had plenty of examples to point to in the way of tragedy around the globe. The entire submarine movement could have ground to a halt of enough additional pressure was placed on the various governments to heed the warnings of the dead.

It was no surprise then that one of the early leading voices in submarine development came forward to put the fears into a proper perspective. A former naval officer who had experience with their operation and building penned an article for a popular periodical. That article was shared across America in many papers.



Causes of the Accidents to the English, Russian and French Submarines.

Lawrence Y. Spear, In Harper’s Weekly

Man, being a land animal, cannot, without much mental readjustment, bring himself to consider dispassionately the dangers which may surround human life and activity under the sea. To the average man the dramatic quality of submarine navigation is its most striking feature, and it follows inevitably that he should exaggerate its dangers and have a more than usually keen feeling of horror when fatal accidents do occur.

Some dispassionate and non-technical discussion of this phase of the subject would therefore appear to be worth while, which, owing to limitations of space, must here be confined entirely to the dangers peculiar to under-water work, neglecting those, such as explosions, which a submarine shares equally with ordinary types of ships.

All modern submarines when under way submerged are lighter than the water they displace, that is, their tendency always is to return to the surface, so that in case of a failure of the diving apparatus, the mere stopping of the propellers will bring them up. Under normal conditions, then, with the hull intact, they cannot sink, except by expenditure of power through the propeller. This buoyancy, however, is very small, only about 800 pounds in a vessel being of 200 tons displacement. Therefore, if the weight is in any way increased, sinking can only be prevented by rapidly adding additional buoyancy. The principal method of securing this additional buoyancy is the rapid ejection of the water from the ballast tanks, for which purpose three systems are fitted: air, power-pumps and hand-pumps. Of these, the air system is not only the quickest but the most reliable and the least likely of disarrangement by the inflowing water. Therefore, the pumps are regarded as accessories, and the main reliance is placed on the air system, which in the best practice, is so arranged as to be efficient at a depth of over 200 feet. Another method sometimes used consists of fitting a drop weight, generally in the form of a loose keel, which may be released at will. Its advantages are that the buoyancy so obtained can be secured very quickly, and that it is entirely Independent of depth. Its disadvantages are as follows: First, It is Impracticable to test it every day since if it be dropped it is lost, unless buoyed, and in any case the vessel must go on dock to have it refitted. In the absence of frequent tests, failure of operation in emergencies is possible. Second, if sufficient weight is allowed to be of any material importance, the vessel ceases to be a submarine as soon as it is dropped, as it cannot again submerge after remedying the difficulty. Third, the weight cannot be very great without detracting from other vital features. These disadvantages have prevented its universal use. These means have under some circumstances proven adequate and under others inadequate. In any case, it may be safely said that the admission of water into the interior constitutes the only real and serious danger to a submarine, with one exception. It is conceivable that possible the whole crew through some abnormal cause might simultaneously be rendered unconscious or otherwise incapable of action. If this should occur at a time when the diving apparatus was set to dive, the vessel would or course proceed on a downward course until arrested by the bottom. Fortunately, this contingency can and has been met at least in the latest United States types by an entirely reliable automatic device, simple in its character, which may be tested without submerging the boat. So that this danger, even if remote in the first instance, is adequately provided for.

Problems Solved

All of the real dangers under are included in the above consideration summary, and space here forbids any long discussion of imaginary dangers. It is sufficient to state here that years of practical experience and thousands upon thousands of submerged runs made all over the world, under all conditions of weather and sea, have conclusively demonstrated that all the problems in connection with the normal control of the boat have been generally solved. The danger, therefore, of uncontrolled dives reaching enormous or fatal depths is in fact imaginary. This becomes further apparent when it is remembered that a depth of 50 or sixty feet is the greatest for which there is any ordinary tactical use, while the boats themselves are able to withstand a depth of 300 feet. There is thus a large margin of safety. Fears have sometimes been expressed that operation in shallow water is dangerous on account of the likelihood of grounding and knocking a hole in the bottom of a submarine, since she weighs less than nothing when submerged, and no great crushing effect can be produced by striking the bottom. This has been demonstrated in practice a great many times and is not open to dispute. However, the case does not rest there, for assuming that the bottom could be ruptured, it is unlikely that any serious results would occur since tanks already filled with water extend the greater part of the length, and a rupture of the outer skin would merely serve to transfer pressure to the inner skin. No water would be admitted to the interior of the boat, nor would the weight of the boat change at all.

Causes of Disasters.

Having thus outlined the general conditions, let us now examine briefly the unfortunate accidents of recent years, for if we find that the cause of these Is inherent in submarine boats and without remedy, then there is indeed justification for looking askance at the whole system, but if we find there can be no excuse for the timid proposals sometimes heard looking toward the abandonment of this valuable weapon.  The list covers the English boats “A-l” and “A-8,” the French boats Farfadet and Lutin and the Russian boat Delphin, all of which have been sunk in recent years with serious loss of life.

In the case of the Delphin an unusual number of men were in the boat and the ballast tanks were flooded with the hatch open. Very naturally the boat filled through the hatch and sink. Comment on such gross and almost unbelievable and folly is unnecessary. No incompetence of design can ever forestall such provision an accident, and as the cause was obviously not inherent in the boat. It may be dismissed without further discussion.

The case of the Farfadet was somewhat similar. The boat was apparently prepared to dive or diving, when it was discovered that a hatch had been improperly shut and was leaking. In some unexplained manner, the crew, while attempting to close it, fully opened it instead and the vessel partially filled and sank. This was a very distressing case, as it appears the crew lived for many hours after the occurrence, having succeeded in limiting the flow of water. The amount taken in however, was sufficient to overcome the buoyancy due to the drop weights and of the ballast tanks, which in this particular vessel were of smaller capacity than is now considered good practice. This particular instance, then, was primarily due to a combination of possible carelessness with a badly designed hatch, and as a matter of proper hatch design is a simple matter there would appear to be no reason to fear the repetition of such an accident.

In the case of the English “A-8,” the boat, while running at a high speed under abnormal conditions, was driven under with an open hatch, which the crew did not succeed in closing in time to prevent the catastrophe. The evidence before the court of Inquiry shows clearly that the boat was in an abnormal condition with regard to her buoyancy, and indicates, moreover, that this was even less than the commanding officer thought. Under the circumstances, with this particular design of hatch, prudence should have suggested the closing of the hatch which need not necessarily have been open, in which cast the catastrophe would not have happened. Remembering this and remembering also that the condition was an abnormal and unnecessary one and not contemplated in the design. It is certain that this case does not reveal any usual and necessary danger, and the accident must therefore be classed with the preceding ones.


In the case of the English “A-l,” the top of the conning tower was struck by a steamer, the collision resulting in leakage through the hatch, which was sprung open, but otherwise in no serious damage to the structure. However, after the collision, the boat traveled the whole length under the ship, during which time sufficient water had leaked in to sink her, though it is by no means certain that the leak was of sufficient water had leaked in to sink her, though it is by no means certain that the leak was of sufficient dimensions to sink the vessel in case all of her water ballast had been immediately ejected. This apparently was not done, and the cause still remains a mystery.

The generally accepted theory that the whole crew were rendered momentarily unconscious by the shock of collision hardly seems tenable. At any rate, this sad accident clearly indicated the necessity for the automatic appliances previously referred to. It also pointed out the desirability of a second modification now generally carried out. viz., the fitting of a watertight hatch between the tower and the body of the boat. So far as it is possible to tell now, “A-l” would not have been sunk had she been provided with these two features. Therefore, it is legitimate to say that, as things now stand, this particular case does not reveal any inherent and unavoidable danger. Nevertheless, the broad cause of this disaster, viz. collision involving the upper part of the submarine, is the most serious danger to be avoided in practice.

In the last case, the Lutin, detailed information is lacking to enable any mature opinion to be expressed. Press dispatches indicate that the vessel, having previously made two successful dives, plunged for the third time, after which no sight of her was had except a momentary glimpse of her bow. The divers’ reports show that she sank in about 118 feet of water, and that the conning tower hatch was open further and the interior full of water, and all of the drop weights in place except one, which had been detached. It is stated that the official commission reports the disaster as being due to a large leak in the stern. This explanation is hardly tenable, as there is no evidence of collision, and no adequate cause can be imagined which would produce a leak of such dimensions as to overcome the ability of the air system and pumps. At present little more can be said about the sad case than that it illustrates very well one or the objections to drop weights – that is, their unreliability – and that the fact that the conning tower was found open is very significant.

November 14 1906

The author of this article was L. Y. Spear

Lawrence York (L.Y.) Spear was active in the submarine community as a naval officer and civilian industrialist for more than half a century. Born in Warren, Ohio, Spear graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland in 1890.

Lieutenant Spear went to Scotland to attend the University of Glasgow. After returning, he was asked to inspect and oversee the projects that were taking place at several shipyards across America. One of those shipyards was the Crescent Shipyard of Elizabeth, New Jersey, where the United States Navy’s first submarines were built by John P. Holland’s Holland Torpedo Boat Company. Later on, this company changed its name when Isaac Rice merged his other holdings (Electric Storage and Electro-Dynamic) with Holland’s to create the Electric Boat Company.

John Holland’s earliest submarines were being constructing for the Navy during this period. In late 1902 Spear resigned his commission and went to work as a naval architect for the Electric Boat Company, the successor to the Holland Torpedo Boat Company. Spear argued with John Holland about design variations. This began the slide of Holland’s influence at Electric Boat and was a significant influence on his decision to resign from the company. Spear called for designs that were optimized for surface performance and ocean cruising, rather than the pure submarines that John Holland favored.

He was appointed vice-president when Holland resigned in April 1904. Spear served as president from 1942 to 1947, running the company during World War II, when it was a leading producer of submarines. He served as chairman of the board from 1947 until his death on 9 September 1950. Electric Boat changed its name to General Dynamics in 1952 under the company’s new chairman and CEO, John Jay Hopkins.

As President of Electric Boat from 1942 to 1947, Spear ran the company during World War II, when the company was a leading producer of submarines.

Fortunately, cooler heads did prevail. Training on American and other submarines became much more intense. The growth spurt that was about to begin would lead the way to higher levels of training both inside the boats and in formal schools. The forward progress of submarines was not going to be stopped now or anytime in the future.

Mister Mac

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