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Morris view of Holland more widely accepted in our era
Irishman deserves to be called ‘Inventor of the Modern Sub’

By Robert A. Hamilton
Day Staff Writer

Century old photographs of John P. Holland inevitably show him in a bowler hat, with wire-rim spectacles and a walrus mustache, with a forced pose and a look that seem to signal aggravation.

Perhaps the look stemmed from a fear that the time needed to make a photographic plate would mean less time for inventing a working submarine.

“He was incredibly single-minded,” says Richard K. Morris, whose files on the Irish inventor still fill three drawers in the library of his Deep River home, despite his extensive donations to the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and other collections. 

When Morris published his 1966 book, “John P. Holland: Inventor of the Modern Submarine,” the title was seen as an overstatement by many, but today it is coming into wide acceptance. A former director of the British submarine museum at Gosport, England, told him in a recent letter that he might even have underestimated Holland’s contributions.

“I think now, others are finally starting to understand that Holland is responsible for many of the finer mechanical aspects of a submarine,” Morris says. Holland, after all, proposed the speedy porpoise-shaped hull that the Navy would not rediscover for more than half a century.

“The Holland VI could get to six or seven knots, submerged,” Morris said. “No other submarine until the Albacore, in 1951 (which brought back the shape of the Holland VI’s hull), would exceed that speed.”

His boats were unique: they had a fixed center of gravity that let them submerge more quickly; two means of propulsion, a gasoline engine for surface operations, and battery power for submerged operations; and even the first, albeit primitive, missile-firing system.

In fact, many of Holland’s best ideas, such as placing the propeller aft of the rudder to give it greater maneuverability, became vitally important when nuclear-powered submarines took to sea, with the power that allowed them to achieve speeds that would make lesser designs dangerous.

“It took more than half a century for the technology to catch up with Holland’s ideas,” Morris says.

But it took almost twice that long for credit to catch up with Holland, in part because of the efforts of his business partners in that era, Morris adds.

Holland helped found Electric Boat, with the help of key figures such as financier Isaac L. Rice, lawyer Elihu B. Frost, and engineers Frank Cable and Lawrence Y. Spear.

EB had control of all the patents by the time Holland left the company in 1904, and Holland was warned he could not even use his own name to start another submarine yard. Morris notes that Cable’s 1924 book, “The Birth and Development of the American Submarine,” downplayed Holland’s role, and never mentions key people such as Arthur L. Busch, chief constructor at the Crescent Shipyard where the early Holland submarines were built, who worked closely with Holland for almost two decades.

“One of the reasons it took so long for Holland to get the recognition he deserved is the kind of thing Cable did in his book,” Morris says. He ignores, in fact he denigrates, Holland. He mentions at one point that Holland was an elementary school teacher and never got above elementary level. Unbelievable stuff.”

One newspaper editorial cartoon of the time showed a little man labeled “Holland” being swallowed alive by a giant whale designated “Electric Boat.”

“They were really tough on Holland - they left him in poverty,” Morris said. “Holland wasn’t a good businessman. He was a dreamer.”

Born in County Clare

Holland was born on Feb. 24, 1842, in Loscannor, County Clare, Ireland, and grew up within view of the North Atlantic. His father was a member of the coastal guard, hired to ride the western cliffs looking out for invasions by France or, later, Germany. He tried to get into the Merchant Marines, but was so nearsighted he was rejected, and instead became a teacher.

A noted science teacher of the day, Edmund Burke, recognized his mechanical abilities and encouraged them. By 17, he already had plans for a submersible boat. He emigrated to this country when he was 30, and among his earliest backers were the Fenians, a political group that wanted Ireland to overthrow British rule.

In 1878, Holland launched a 14-foot iron craft he and a friend tested by sitting on the bottom of the Passaic River in New Jersey for 24 hours. Unsatisfied with the ballast system and diving planes, he later built the “Fenian Ram,” 30 feet long and 6 feet in diameter, at a cost of some $13,000. In 1895, his Holland Torpedo Boat Co. won $150,000 in Navy funding to build the “Plunger,” a 140-foot, 420-ton submarine that ran on compressed air but was almost uncontrollable on the surface and was later scuttled for use in diver training.

But in 1896, at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, N.J., he laid the keel for the “Holland,” 54 feet in length and 75 tons of boat powered by a 50-horsepower gasoline engine with a 60-cell storage battery for submerged operations. 

After the submarine sank at the dock, Holland worried that some of its electrical systems might be damaged. He asked his supplier, Electro-Dynamic Co. of Philadelphia, to help with repairs, and they sent him Cable, the engineer, who made the repairs and suggested improvements such as new rudders and a two-man control station.

Near bankruptcy, Holland accepted a capital infusion from Rice and Frost, and in 1899 saw his Holland Torpedo Boat Co. absorbed into the newly formed Electric Boat. A year later, the company made its first sale to the Navy, garnering $150,000 for the newly refurbished Holland VI, and getting contracts for several more boats.

But in 1904, Holland left the company, disillusioned that his partners seemed more interested in submarine sales than development of the technology, and bitter that Navy officers seemed more interested in having a deck to strut upon than exploring the potential impact of submarines on warfare. 

Little interest at first

“It was the small countries that were interested in submarines right from the start, not the major naval powers. Greece, Turkey, Italy, Peru - they all wanted submarines. The one exception was Russia, which seemed to realize the potential very early.”

After he left EB in 1904, Holland worked on some mechanical problems that intrigued him, but he never achieved any great success in his subsequent ventures. In a letter to a Japanese naval officer in May 1909, he mentioned that he had suffered a stroke and was partially paralyzed. The same year, he developed serious arthritis. 

Holland died in August 1914, 40 days before a German U-boat torpedoed and sank a British cruiser at the outset of World War I.

Morris’ interest in Holland began when he was in high school, and stumbled across a 16-volume diary of sorts kept by his grandfather, Charles A. Morris, Holland’s superintending engineer. The diaries contained dates, observations on some of the people in the shipyard, and details on the boats.

His grandfather wrote how, at a time when Holland was out of money, he hired him as a draftsman at Morris-Cummings Dredging Co., where he worked for three years, and introduced him to Frost, who was impressed that Holland knew to the penny ($312.19) how much money he would need to complete the design of the Holland VI.

And the senior Morris saved two handwritten copies of an 1891 treatise by Holland, 34 pages with drawings and calculations, “The Practicality of Mechanical Flight.”

“I showed it to an aviation engineer I know, who said he thinks it could have flown,” Morris said. “If he hadn’t developed this focus on the submarine, he might have beaten the Wright brothers.” Wilbur and Orville Wright first flew Dec. 17, 1903.

After 15 years of work, including several years poring over the company archives, EB librarian Frank Anderson finally told him to stop researching and start writing. Initially published by the Naval Institute Press, his book was later reprinted by Arno Press in 1980, and a second edition was brought out last year by the University of South Carolina Press.

His book, and articles he wrote for prestigious maritime journals such as the Naval Institute Proceedings and the Submarine Review, have brought a considerable amount of overdue fame to the little inventor. Last summer, Dundalk, Ireland, where Holland taught briefly, mounted a major exhibit on Holland’s work in submarines. Loscannnor now has a permanent display of Holland photographs in its community center. RTV-3 in Dublin is going to produce a television documentary on Holland and his inventions. And Morris has just been made a life member of the Maritime Institute of Ireland for his contributions to Irish maritime history.

“I feel like I’ve always known him,” Morris said. “He’s a part of me now, just like my grandfather.”

© 1998-99 The Day Publishing Co.

Reprinted with the permission of The Day Publishing Co.

 
 
 
 
   
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