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Favourite DIB lives: John Philip Holland, submarine inventor

06 April 2020

Selected by the DIB's Dr Niav Gallagher, John Philip Holland was the inventor of the submarine, a vessel initially rejected by the US navy as ‘a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman’. Holland's biography is part of a series selected for your reading pleasure during this challenging time.

Introduction by Niav Gallagher

I seem to be reading a lot of advice on social media lately about how to survive social distancing and self-isolation. Some of the most valuable pieces of advice are offered up by submarine captains, who spend long periods of time beneath the waves in cramped and limited circumstances. All of which brought John Philip Holland to mind. I must admit that until recently I had no idea that the inventor of the submarine was an Irishman! His story is a fascinating one and his path to invention far from smooth. The US navy rejected his initial designs as 'the fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman', so he offered it to Clann na nGael, convinced it could help Ireland overcome British naval superiority. His first workable model was thirth-one feet long, held a crew of three and was nicknamed 'the Fenian ram'. Unfortunately it leaked when submerged for long periods of time, which is a rather serious flaw in a submarine! He achieved success in 1897 with the Holland VI. This model was bought by the US navy in 1890 for $150,000. It was named the USS Holland and became the prototype for the US Navy's submarine fleet and for other naval forces throughout the world.

John Philip Holland

by Aidan Breen and Owen McGee

Holland, John Philip (1841–1914), inventor of the submarine, was born 24 February 1841 at Castle St., Liscannor, Co. Clare, son of John Holland, a coast guard officer, and his second wife, Mary (née Scanlon). During his childhood a younger brother, two uncles and his father died. He blamed British misgovernment as the main cause of Ireland's ills. He was educated at St Macreehy's national school, Liscannor, and Limerick CBS, where the family moved after his father's death in 1853. A bright student, he particularly excelled in science subjects. In June 1858 he entered the Christian Brothers, and did most of his teacher training at North Monastery in Cork; he later taught at schools in Maryborough (Portlaoise), Enniscorthy, and Drogheda. Because of ill health, on 26 May 1873 he received a dispensation from the order releasing him from his initial vows, and afterwards set sail for the USA, where he remained the rest of his life. He settled in Boston with his younger brother Michael, a member of the American Fenian Brotherhood who had left for America a few years earlier, as had his mother, elder brother and sister. Soon after his arrival he moved to New Jersey and began teaching at a Christian Brothers’ school in Paterson. In Drogheda he had already made initial experiments on the concept of a submarine (a term apparently first coined by Holland himself), and in America he began to work more seriously at the project, suffering a broken leg and concussion in November 1873 while carrying out experiments. In February 1875 he offered his patent to the US Navy, but they at first rejected it as ‘a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman’.

Through his brother Michael's association with Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, Holland met John J. Breslin and John Devoy in 1876 and offered his invention to Clan na Gael. Devoy found Holland to be strongly anti-British, well informed about Irish affairs, and adamant that Britain's mastery of the seas was the greatest obstacle to Irish independence. He eventually persuaded the Clan leaders that his submarine could undermine Britain's naval superiority and they agreed to use their ‘skirmishing fund’ to finance his experiments. There is no evidence, however, that Holland ever joined the Clan or the Fenians. With the assistance of Breslin, he gave up teaching in 1876 and worked steadily on the project, mostly at Delamater Iron Works, West 14th Street, New York, producing in 1878 his first model, the Holland I, a one-man, fourteen-foot craft, powered by a two-cylinder engine. In summer 1881 he produced a more advanced model, which was thirty-one feet long and held a crew of three. This was nicknamed ‘The Fenian ram’ by Blakely Hall, a reporter for the New York Sun, who described it as a ‘wrecking boat’. It was successfully launched but defective riveting made it unseaworthy when submerged for long periods. Holland continually made improvements and refinements to his original plan, and launched a third vessel weighing 19 tons in 1882. This was capable of prolonged submersion but developed engine problems, and further testing was prevented by its failure to comply with the New York Harbour Board's shipping laws. The following year, this model was brought to New Haven, Connecticut, but its use was also prohibited there, and it was left in storage. (It was later exhibited by Clan na Gael at a bazaar at Madison Square Gardens to raise funds for the families of the 1916 rebels, and was then donated to the naval school at Fordham University, New York).

By 1883 the three models had cost nearly $60,000 in total and the Clan leaders were worried by the project's spiralling costs. They were also concerned that legal problems might lead to the seizure of the submarine and tried to take exclusive ownership of it, much to Holland's annoyance. After an acrimonious dispute the Clan and Holland parted company, and he began conducting his experiments privately. Helped by Edmund L. G. Zalinski, a military contact, he raised money and developed a fourth vessel, the Zalinski, which proved seaworthy but unattractive to investors. Lack of funds held up progress on the submarine and Holland was forced to work as an engineer to earn a living. In 1893, with the financial assistance of E. B. Frost, a wealthy lawyer, Holland founded the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company, which two years later was contracted by the US Navy to build a submarine, the Plunger. The project, however, was dominated by the navy's engineers who largely ignored Holland's advice, and the Plunger's poor manoeuvrability led to it being scrapped by the navy.

With the backing of his company, Holland worked on his own design and in 1897 launched the Holland VI. This model, fifty-three foot long and with a crew of six, performed well in tests, proving itself capable of reaching speeds of up to 9 knots, diving to a depth of 60 ft, and remaining submerged for forty hours; it was armed with a torpedo launcher and an underwater cannon fired by compressed air. In April 1900, the US Navy, after much prevarication, agreed to purchase it for $150,000. It was named the USS Holland and became the prototype for the US Navy's submarine fleet and for other naval forces throughout the world; the US Navy soon commissioned him to build six more. Despite Holland's protests, his company sold his plans to the British admiralty in 1901 to raise money for further research. Holland continued to work on improvements to his basic model and in 1910 was decorated by the emperor of Japan for his work on behalf of the Japanese navy.

Holland was a man of considerable versatility and ingenuity, and after his work on the submarine he put much effort into developing a viable motor-truck. Among other things, he was an experienced amateur astronomer and musician. He married (January 1887) Margaret Foley, daughter of an Irish immigrant; they had five children. His last years were blighted by the death of his daughter Julia in her nineteenth year in late 1911, and he himself died 12 August 1914 at 38 Newton St., Newark, New Jersey and was buried at the Holy Sepulchre cemetery, Paterson. His death coincided with the start of the first world war, during which the devastating military potential of the submarine was amply demonstrated.

Sources: Gaelic American, 9, 16 July 1927; D. J. Doyle, ‘The Holland submarine’, An Cosantóir, vii (June 1947), 297–302; William O'Brien and Desmond Ryan (ed.) Devoy's post bag (2 vols, 1948, 1953), i, 470–1, ii, 514–6, 189, 234, 306–7; Richard K. Morris, John P. Holland, inventor of the modern submarine: 1841–1914 (1966); id., ‘John P. Holland and the Fenians’, Galway Arch. Soc. Jn., xxxi, nos 1–2 (1964–5), 25–38 (further bibliog., 37–8); J. de Courcy Ireland, ‘John Philip Holland: pioneer in submarine navigation’, N. Munster Antiq. Jn., x, no. 2 (1967), 206–12; K. R. M. Short, The dynamite war (1979), 36–7, 168–70; ANB

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