When the great submarine contest of 1893 began, John P. Holland was already a who’s who amongst Washington bureaucracy. The Irish born schoolteacher had already submitted two designs to the US Navy that had been rejected before construction could begin. A month before the competition, a lawyer provided Holland with the capital needed to form his own company, giving him a leg up once the competition began. Holland, as we all know, would go on to win the submarine contest and the Holland submarine would become the first official U.S. Navy submarine. However, who was John P. Holland and how did he become the favorite of those running the competition.

John P. Holland

Holland was born in Ireland in 1840. He would become a schoolteacher and taught in Ireland until his emigration to the United States in 1873. While teaching in Ireland, Holland studied the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac during the American civil war. Holland realized that the best way to take down such ironclads would be from underneath the vessels, and so Holland’s interests in submarines began. Once he moved to New Jersey, Holland began to design his version of a submarine. The project was funded by the Irish Fenian Brotherhood.  The Irish Fenian Brotherhood was a group in the United States that brought together Irish immigrants to fight for Ireland’s independence from Britain. It was there hope, that Holland could design a submarine that would help win that independence for Ireland. His first design was a one man-operated vessel and was 14 feet, 8 inches long and three feet wide. It could displace 2.5 tons. While Holland considered his first attempt a failure, the brotherhood found it promising enough to fund a second design. The new submarine, nicknamed the Fenian Ram was launched in 1881.

The Fenian Ram in New York sometime between 1916 and 1927

It was 31 feet long, nine feet wide and displaced 19 tons. During its first dive, the vessel reached 14 feet. On the second day, the submarine remained submerged for 2.5 hours. What made Holland’s designs unique was the use of water ballasts to submerge the vessel and horizontal rudders to dive with. During further tests, the submarine reached depths of 45 feet. The submarine was propelled by a 20-horseoiwer gasoline engine and used an electric motor that was used to recharge the vessels battery. By 1883, the Fenians, upset over escalating costs stole the design forcing Holland to break ties with the Brotherhood. Once the brotherhood had possession of the vessel, they realized they knew nothing about its operation. Of course, Holland refused to help. The Fenian Ram would never be used in battle and would sit in New Haven Connecticut until its engine was removed to a brass foundry. Eventually the craft ended up back in Holland’s adopted hometown of Patterson, NJ were it can still be visited today.

Not wanting to be defeated, Holland brought his design to the US Navy. At this time, the Navy was still unsure about the place of submarines within its force. As the US Navy debated the topic, Holland would design a submarine for France called the Zalinski Boat in 1883. The key to Holland’s design was the use of electrical battery power rather than a petrol motor, which would not use up valuable air supply. When the 1893 contest came around, Washington believed that Holland was there best bet, despite previously being unsure about his designs. It was his previous discussions with the US Navy that led many to believe that he would be the clear-cut winner of the contest. George C. Baker’s protest over unfairness delayed the contest decision. Baker’s submission was testable, while Holland’s design was only on paper. This was in part because his model had been taken the Fenian Brotherhood. However, Baker’s plan backfired with a poor performance, leaving the judges to give the recommendation in favor of Holland. Baker protested the decision yet again, forcing the secretary of the Navy to delay his decision. One was finally made in 1895, after Baker’s death. During this period of indecision, Holland’s design was still being marketed to foreign governments. Finally, the Navy awarded the contract and construction could begin. To meet with naval guidelines, the boat was 84 feet long and 12 feet in diameter with a displacement of 168 tons. The requirements for surface speeds (15 knots) forced Holland to compromise his design. As requirements changed throughout construction, such as vertical thrusters and triple-screw configuration, it became clear that the design would never satisfy Navy requirements. During its launch in 1897, the submarine, named Plunger, the unshielded broiler made the fire room uninhabitable while on the surface.

Design sketch for the experimental submarine Plunger

While work on the Plunger seemed to stall, Holland began a private venture at his Torpedo Boat Company (what became Electric Boat). This vessel reverted to his design for the Fenian Ram. This new design was 52 feet long and had a maximum diameter of just over 10 feet. Submerged she displaced 75 tons. Holland returned to internal combustion to power the boat with a 45-horsepower Otto gasoline engine. In February of 1898, Holland took his new vessel to sea. After some trial and error, the submarine had successful test runs off the coast of Staten Island, NY on March 17, 1898. It was only fitting that it was St. Patrick’s Day. By 1900, the US Navy was onboard with Holland’s new design and had scrapped the Plunger project. USS Holland was officially commissions on October 12, 1900.

USS Holland in dry dock

For the end of Holland’s career, his merger with the Electric Boat Company left him with a number of disputes and the inability to successfully run his own company. He would die in Newark New Jersey in 1914, a month before the first submarine victory of WWI changed naval battles forever. Stay tuned for the last installment of the Great Submarine Contest of 1893.