John Philip Holland: Father of the Modern Submarine

In this installment of ‘Profiles in History,’ we meet an Irish immigrant with an affinity for naval inventions.
John Philip Holland: Father of the Modern Submarine
The USS Holland under construction, 1900. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. (Public Domain)
Dustin Bass
John Holland endured the Irish Potato Famine as a child and witnessed Ireland’s fight for independence. His keen mind and love of the ocean would lead to an invention that would change the course of naval warfare.

Overcoming Tragedies

John Philip Holland (1841–1914) was born the son of a coast guardsman in the village of Liscannor on the west coast of what is now the Republic of Ireland. As a boy, he was taught at St. Macreehy’s National School. According to legend, St. Macreehy killed a giant eel that had slipped from Liscannor Bay into a local cemetery to feed on corpses. Undoubtedly, Holland’s proximity to the sea inspired his life’s work.

Early in Holland’s childhood, Ireland experienced the Potato Famine, followed by a cholera outbreak. Before he reached his teenage years, Holland lost two uncles, a younger brother, and his father. Along with these personal and regional tragedies, he grew up witnessing the struggle for Irish nationhood.

Like many other Irishmen, Holland grew up with an animosity toward Great Britain, which proved to be another element that fostered his maritime innovations.

Despite his ill health and poor eyesight (both a result of the famine), Holland proved an intelligent pupil with an affinity for science and mechanics. After graduating, he became a teacher for the Order of the Irish Christian Brothers in 1858. His first teaching assignment was at the North Monastery in Cork, located near the southern coast. A science teacher by the name of Brother Dominic Burke encouraged the young man to pursue his scientific ideas, especially concerning naval vessels.

Moving to America

In 1873, Holland decided to immigrate to America. He was late in joining the more than 1.5 million fellow Irish who fled the famine from 1845 to 1855. His mother, as well as two brothers and a sister had already immigrated to the United States.

He first joined his brother Michael in Boston, before moving to New Jersey to return teaching for a Christian Brothers school. While teaching, Holland continued studying, sketching, and experimenting with mechanical inventions. He had already begun work on an idea for an airplane and a submarine prior to emigrating. It was the submarine, however, that garnered most of his time and effort.

Shortly after arriving in America and while working on his submarine experiments, he suffered several injuries, including a broken leg and a concussion. Holland, however, was undeterred. Soon, he obtained a patent for his submarine design. In February 1875, he presented his idea to the U.S. Navy, but it was rejected as “a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman.” Again, Holland pressed on with his idea, and he was soon presented with an opportunity to build his submarine and to assist the Irish independence movement.

A Submarine for the Irish

Michael had become a member of the American Fenian Brotherhood, a group composed of Irish Americans intent on helping Ireland achieve independence. When the leaders of the Brotherhood (which by this time had reformed as Clan na Gael) heard that Holland could assist in developing a naval weapon, they showed enthusiasm. The group agreed to finance the development of a prototype. Holland quit teaching and resolved to spend all of his time and effort building his submarine.

After approximately two years, Holland completed his prototype and named the submarine Holland I. It was a 14-foot, two-cylinder engine, one-man submarine. His demonstration before the Clan na Gael leaders in the Passaic River was successful. With increased enthusiasm, the leaders agreed to further finance Holland, providing him with $23,000 (more than $700,000 today) to build a large submarine that could be used against the British.

A schematic of one of John Philip Holland's submarines. (Joaquin DaDog/<a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow noopener">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>)
A schematic of one of John Philip Holland's submarines. (Joaquin DaDog/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Holland began work at the DeLamater Iron Works in New York City, where the engines for the Ironclad USS Monitor had been built. By May 1881, he was ready to conduct another demonstration. When interviewed by the press, Holland was hesitant to provide any information about the vessel. He was concerned that members of the press could be spies for the British government.

Blakely Hall, a journalist for the New York Sun, struggled to get much information from Holland about his new development though he knew the Fenians financed the inventor’s work. He therefore labeled the submarine the “Fenian Ram.”

The Fenian Ram was a 31-foot long, three-man submarine with a 15-horsepower engine. At 20 tons of displacement, it was capable of above-water and below-water speeds of 9 mph and 7 mph, respectively. Most importantly, the submarine was also capable of discharging an underwater cannon via compressed air.

Over the following year, the Fenian leaders grew impatient and wary of the rising costs of the venture. Several members, led by Fenian leader John Breslin, took possession of the Fenian Ram, but their incompetence with the submarine resulted in accidentally sinking it in the East River. The submarine was pulled from the river and stowed in a shed in New Haven. After this, Holland severed ties with the Fenians.

Hired by the U.S. Navy

Holland’s submarine research and development continued. A decade after the Fenian incident, and with the financial backing of a wealthy attorney, Holland launched his own company, the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company. Two years after starting his business, he obtained a contract with the U.S. Navy.
John Philip Holland, Irish-American inventor and engineer, stands in the hatch of one of his submarine creations. (Public Domain)
John Philip Holland, Irish-American inventor and engineer, stands in the hatch of one of his submarine creations. (Public Domain)

The first submarine he built for the Navy, however, followed Navy engineer specifications for the most part. Holland’s advice was often ignored, and the submarine, the Plunger, ultimately lived up to its name and eventually was scrapped.

The Irish inventor believed he could improve on the submarine if he could build according to his specifications. What resulted was a 63-ton, 53-foot, six-man submarine called the Holland VI. The submarine almost never made it to its demonstration. A worker had left a valve open and the submarine sank to the bottom of the river at dockside. It took 18 hours to raise it back up. The main fear was that the electric dynamo motor would need to be replaced, which would require dismantling the hull. A representative of the Electro-Dynamic Company of Philadelphia arrived and confirmed the motor could dry itself by reversing the flow of its electric currents. It took four days, but the decision ultimately saved an immense amount of time.

Success and Irony

Fittingly, the Holland VI conducted its first dive on St. Patrick’s Day, 1898. The submarine proved a rousing success as it could remain underwater for 40 hours. In 1900, the United States purchased the submarine for $150,000 ($5.5 million today), making it the first U.S. submarine. As author and professor emeritus at Trinity College, Richard Knowles Morris, put it, “The story of SS-1 Holland is the story of the birth of the submarine fleet of the United States Navy.”

The Holland became the prototype for all U.S. submarines of the modern age. Its design was sold to Japan and, much to Holland’s chagrin, Great Britain. Holland died in August of 1914 at the start of World War I when the submarine found its greatest and most deadly use.

The Fenian Ram, however, was salvaged in 1916 and displayed at Madison Square Garden as an attraction to raise funds for dependents of those killed during Ireland’s Easter Rising. It now resides at Paterson Museum in New Jersey. A monument to Holland’s efforts was dedicated in New Suffolk, New York in 2000.

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Dustin Bass is an author and co-host of The Sons of History podcast. He also writes two weekly series for The Epoch Times: Profiles in History and This Week in History.
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