1907 – Sunken, Silent Stilettos of the Deep to Deal Deadliest Blows in Future Warfare on the Sea

1907 was an important time for the American Navy.

The building program championed by President Theodore Roosevelt following the Spanish-American War had yet to fully bear fruit. The Navy in 1907 was still growing, still challenging Germany for second place among the world’s naval powers. The organization of the Navy at this time also reflects the political realities of the day. Most of the ships and the bulk of the shore establishment are centered in the Atlantic Ocean, facing the perceived threats of Britain and Germany. Relatively few ships, and even fewer shore facilities, can be found in the Pacific to meet any Japanese threat.

The submarines of the world

In the 1907 book titled “Submarine warfare: past and present” / by Herbert C. Fyfe; with an introduction by Sir Edmund Fremantle, the history of submarines up until that year was captured. One of the chapters towards the end gives a snapshot of where the world was in relation to submarine programs around the globe.


“It was in 1899 that Lord Goschen spoke of the submarine as the weapon of Powers that were comparatively poor and weak. No doubt in these words there was a certain amount of truth, although it is now recognized that the submarine, or rather the submersible, may be the arm of the stronger Powers. France has afloat or under construction 39 submarines and 45 submersibles, Great Britain 52 vessels which are really submersibles, Russia 27 submarines or submersibles, the United States 12, Italy 8 and Japan 13. Up to the present time the secondary Powers, though some of them have experimented with submarine boats, have been mostly content to observe the attitude of the greater Powers, and to await the results attained. Holland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Turkey, Roumania, and Bulgaria cannot think of building the huge battleships which have been laid down by the great Powers, and there are many who think that they would be well advised to devote more attention to the possibilities of submarine warfare. Sweden has already one submarine boat, and the Netherlands also; while other Powers, like Norway and Brazil seem to purpose a policy of submarine shipbuilding. It appears not unlikely that within a dozen years all the secondary Powers will have entered upon the building of flotillas of submarines or submersibles.”

Interestingly enough, the author did not make any mention of the German government’s submarine program.

The recent war between Russia and Japan had revealed many new aspects to warfare that were disturbing to many people around the world. At the 1907 Hague convention, these concerns were addressed in great detail.

The second conference was called at the suggestion of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, but it was postponed because of the war between Russia and Japan. The Second Peace Conference was held from 15 June to 18 October 1907. The intent of the conference was to expand upon the 1899 Hague Convention by modifying some parts and adding new topics; in particular, the 1907 conference had an increased focus on naval warfare. The British attempted to secure the limitation of armaments, but these efforts were defeated by the other powers, led by Germany, which feared a British attempt to stop the growth of the German fleet. As Britain had the world’s largest navy, limits on naval expansion would preserve that dominant position. Germany also rejected proposals for compulsory arbitration. However, the conference did enlarge the machinery for voluntary arbitration and established conventions regulating the collection of debts, rules of war, and the rights and obligations of neutrals.

The treaties, declarations, and final act of the Second Conference were signed on 18 October 1907; they entered into force on 26 January 1910. The 1907 Convention consists of thirteen treaties—of which twelve were ratified and entered into force—and one declaration.

Meanwhile, in the United States, submarine development and growth were moving forward.

A large competition between the two potential builders was underway and the prize was the opportunity to build the boats that would pull the navy even with the rest of the world.

Sunken, Silent Stilettos of the Deep to Deal Deadliest Blows in Future Warfare on the Sea

Even as the great American army of the not far distant future promises to be equipped to do its most disastrous work enemy in the air by of the dirigible balloon or aeroplane, so will the great American navy of the near future be equipped to do its greatest damage to a hostile enemy beneath the seas by moans of the torpedo submarine craft – the hidden stiletto of the deep Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was a wonderful imaginative romance of experiences that scoffed at as impossible until within recent years but if experiments which art to be conducted soon by the Navy Department to test the practicability of the submarine torpedo boat prove to be as successful as the officials who have carefully studied the subject claim to have reason to hope then the revolution of methods of naval warfare and of water navigation will be such as no one but Verne ever dreamed except whose Fulton whose first boat sailed underwater and Fulton who invented the turbine. Upon the success or those tests the future methods of warfare to be employed by the American navy, as well as the navies of many other Powers, some of which have progressed even further than ours in submarine navigation and war engines.

The Washington times. [volume] (Washington [D.C.]), 28 April 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1907-04-28/ed-1/seq-46/


Uncle Sam Will Build Eighteen New Boats at a Cost of $3,000,000.

To the tiny submarine torpedo boats has been delegated a lion’s share of the work of protecting Uncle Sam’s great seacoast from attack.

Somewhat slow at first to adopt the newest and most radical of devices for combat on water, the United States has suddenly developed into an enthusiast, and no measure passed by the recent congress was more important than that which placed three millions aside for use in building of submarines.

Lewis Nixon, the well-known naval constructor, who has figured very largely in the building of American underwater fighters, calls the submarine a steel fish, with human brains and incalculable power to inflict damage. Navy officials were taught a lesson of appreciation by the purchase of American built submarines by both Japan and Russia in the recent war.

The department has now ruled that which was good enough for the other war-like powers, ought to be of value at home, hence the important movement toward assembling the world’s most powerful fleet of these mysterious protectors for the United States.

Many congressmen fought against authorizing two new twenty-thousand ton battleships, each superior to the British “Dreadnaught,” but not a word of protest greeted the plan to put Uncle Sam in the forefront of the submarine owning navies. This is a straw which shows how legislators have been educated to the value of the submarine.

As a lover of peace, the United States has ever been opposed to any naval and military plan that involved a large outlay of public money with the idea of provoking conflict with any nation. But that policy which meant only protection was ever heartily supported and will continue to be.

Here rests the value of the submarine. It is pre-eminently defensive in its purpose. The wonderful little fighters of the Lake and Holland type, now in Uncle Sam’s navy, could not cross the Atlantic to levy war against England or France. The furthest distance the best of them can .travel is 500 miles—250 coming and going. Under water, they can only go about fifteen miles each way. This limits their sphere of action to the home coasts and ports.

The new fleet, to amass which $3,000,000 is to be expended, will supplement the monitors and shore batteries that now would have to bear the brunt of defense against attack.

The United States now has one dozen submarines, and with the ones just authorized, will soon boast of a fleet of thirty, a respectable force that ought to make it possible to take ample care of the principal ports of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as those on the Gulf of Mexico and at the mouth of the Mississippi.

In providing for the purchase of the submarine, the lawmakers specified that they must be equal to the best class of that kind of boat now in the United States navy, which is another way of prescribing that the new underwater warriors will be not less than 64 feet in length and 12 feet in width, displacing, when submerged, about 125 tons of water

There are many problems to be grappled with, not the least of which is the difficulty of devising a method of under-water navigation, which shall enable the captain of the craft, when submerged, to know to a certainty what is happening on the surface

True, he always has the power to come to the top and find out, but by doing this he locates himself to the fire of the enemy, a danger made greater in view of the increasing power of the modern torpedo boat destroyer, a fighting engine born of the necessity of finding a means to circumvent the submarine.

There is no such thing as seeing ahead under the water.

Thus far the best means of taking observations has been found to be in the use of the “periscope.” a funnel shaped arrangement, which projects eight feet above the water, when the body of the boat is submerged fifteen feet. By looking up into this the navigator sees surrounding objects much as the photographer locates scenes and people on the “finder” of his camera.

But the periscope will not avail when it comes to a final test, the launching of a torpedo boat at the bottom of the enemy’s battleship. With the ship stationary, the- periscope might give definite information, but with both the submarine and battleship under way, the movement would be too rapid to permit effective aim, without coming to the surface.

In all the models of submarine boats which Uncle Sam has under consideration the torpedo is so placed that at the moment of firing it is directly in line with the enemy’s keel. Supposing it hits, if only a glancing blow, nothing can save the mighty craft. It is the story of David and Goliath all over again. The ship is just as helpless before the torpedo of the little boat as the giant of the Bible was before the stone from the sling of the Jew.

Perhaps the prime advantage of the torpedo boat is that she needs only great offensive power. A battleship must combine both. She must be able to deal death blows, and to resist the shells of the enemy.

But the submarine is ever immune from danger of being hit, or nearly so. When under water the sea compasses her around as a perfect shield. The shell that hits within five feet bounds and skips from the water, harmlessly as the stone a boy sends skimming over a millpond.

The periscope is placed in a tiny column, which can only be seen from a short distance, and then is a target so small as to be very hard to hit. One noted expert has said that a small fleet of torpedo boats could have thwarted Farragut’s achievements at New Orleans and Mobile bay.

The Appeal. [volume] (Saint Paul, Minn. ;), 08 June 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016810/1907-06-08/ed-1/seq-1/

GENERAL NEWS, New York, April 20.

A race under “‘water for a prize of $4,000,000. That’s that unique contest scheduled to be held underneath the surface of Narragansett Bay next week. The race is to between two submarine boats, and on the result depends the decision of the United States government as to which type shall be adopted in the construction of the proposed new submarine war ships.

The Octopus, of the John P, Holland type, and the Lake, designed by Simon Lake, are the contestants. In addition to the two chief performers, the first submarine flotilla, in command of Lieutenant Charles P. Nelson, consisting of the Porpoise, which Lieutenant Nelson commands; the Shark, Lieutenant Lloyd S. Shapley, and the Plunger, Lieutenant Guy W. Castle, will be on hand to “police the course.”

It has been the ambition of Simon Lake for years to beat Holland, and now that he is given a chance under the most favorable auspices the Lake is being groomed with the utmost care. In a preliminary canter on the surface the other day the Lake made eight and one-half miles an hour against a strong head wind. The admirers of the Lake think that this is good enough jockeying to win the decision of the naval referees and decide to predict that the Octopus ought to defeat the Lake. The Octopus is the biggest submarine ever turned out in this country. She was built under the direction of the navy from the Holland Company’s designs, is over 100 feet long and is able to fire four torpedoes simultaneously.

Inventor Lake has been in legal and other controversy with the Holland Company for some years, and on one occasion when he thought that favoritism was being shown he said that, like Maxim and Hotchkiss, he might be driven out of the country and be obliged to sell his invention to Japan or some other sea power.

The Lake, which he is to pit against the Octopus, is famous for her ability to travel long distances either below or above water. Last June she arrived here from Norfolk, making the trip of 226 miles unaccompanied, without mishap and with her engines stopped only once on which occasion her crew brought her to the top of the water to watch some whales that were frisking near at hand.

Durango semi-weekly herald. (Durango, Colo.), 22 April 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn91052313/1907-04-22/ed-1/seq-1/

From a 1907 article in the Pensacola Journal:

“The test of submarines which began at Newport in the last week of April was authorized by the naval appropriation act of June 29, 1906 and amended by the naval act of the last congress, extending the time for the test to May 29 of the present year and increasing the limit of the boats to be bought to $3,000,000. There was an appropriation of $1,000.000 for immediate use in purchasing boats of the successful type.

Notwithstanding the serious accidents and the appalling loss of life that have attended the experiments made with them, the interest in submarines has never been so great as it is at the present moment. It has long been the opinion of every man of importance belonging to the American navy that this type of war machine was destined to supersede the vast armored battery which is so uncertain in its possibilities and so costly.

The Pensacola journal. (Pensacola, Fla.), 30 June 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

So how did the competition end?

The outcome was a decisive defeat. Lake’s candidate was bested by Octopus in virtually every performance category. The Electric Boat Company would continue to have a lead on submarine building for generations to come.

Lake’s company was quick to object and tried to get the decision overturned. The administration reviewed the process of selection and decided to ignore the protestations that were being raised. That would lead to one of the first of the major scandals surrounding both the Lake Company and Electric Boat company in the coming year. Congressional hearing would lead to a surprising conclusion and the ultimate settlement of this question in the halls of Congress.

(Story about the congressional hearings and result will be published on April 7)

Postscript: A Global Presence (Minus submarines)

In 1907, President Teddy Roosevelt, for reasons of national prestige and to test the ability of the American Navy to respond to potential crises in the Pacific, decided to dispatch the battleships of the Atlantic Fleet on what became an around-the-world cruise. This force, the largest concentration of American naval power sent to the Pacific to that time, was known as the Great White Fleet, due to the soon to be discarded practice of painting American warships white.

Commanded by RADM Robley Evans, the last Civil War veteran on active naval duty, the fleet of battleships, along with a torpedo flotilla and some auxiliaries, sailed from Hampton Roads in December 1907, arriving in San Francisco the next May after travelling around South America. In San Francisco Evans, in reality too ill to have even sailed with the fleet, turned over command, first to RADM Charles Thomas for a week, then to RADM Charles Sperry.

Under Sperry the Great White Fleet sailed to New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, China, and, most notably, Japan before returning to the US in February 1909 via Ceylon, the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean.

But the submarine fleet was still huddled next to the coast.

Despite their advances, they were not ready to join the fleet in its open sea movement.

Mister Mac


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