John Holland




NA/Mid-Atlantic region


Age of Steam and Steel (1866-1920)









Holland believed [in] a future in which submersible boats would provide a weapon against which there would be no defense� In February 1875 he submitted sketches of his submarine designs to the U.S. Navy Department, but naval officials thought the designs were impractical because of what they perceived to be inadequate navigational capabilities. Holland refused to give up and� made a connection with the Irish Republican Brotherhood (often referred to as the Fenians)� Holland convinced this revolutionary organization that his submarines might be a crucial element in combating the strong British navy� In 1876, upon receiving funding from the Fenians, Holland ended his eighteen-year teaching career and became a full-time inventor.

His first submarine, the Holland I, a one-person, cigar-shaped vessel, fourteen and a half feet long and two and a half feet in diameter, was completed in the spring of 1878. The Holland I made use of the new two-cylinder engine that had been patented by George Brayton four years earlier. In addition to the submarine's two main water tanks, it had two small tanks, one at the bow, the other at the stern, that provided a small reserve of positive buoyancy, a characteristic that Holland thought was critical and one that, along with a fixed center of gravity, was incorporated into all of the inventor's submarines. These innovations gave Holland submarines more stability and control than those designed by other inventors.

[His] second submarine, [nicknamed] the Fenian Ram� was much larger than his first submarine and measured thirty-one feet in length and six feet in diameter. Its body was constructed of eleven-sixteenths-inch thick iron and was powered by a Brayton engine that enabled it to achieve an underwater speed of approximately nine miles per hour. Thus, its ramming capabilities were believed to be great enough to smash the bottom of most single-hulled ships. The Fenian Ram was built for a crew of three: an operator, an engineer, and a gunner� His third submarine was almost an exact replica of the Fenian Ram, only half its size. After completing this boat in 1883, Holland was out of money�

In 1893, when it looked as if the U.S. Congress was committed to the idea of financing submarine construction, E. B. Frost, a lawyer associated with the Morris and Cummings Dredging Company where Holland was then working, provided the initial money for the incorporation of the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company. In 1895 this company received a $150,000 contract with the navy to construct a submarine, the Plunger. However, naval engineers largely controlled the design of the vessel, and Holland, although made manager, was excluded from many design decisions. Unlike Holland's other submarines, the Plunger had poor maneuverability, and thus the project was soon terminated by the navy.

Holland, backed by his company and no longer subject to the whims of naval engineers, then began construction of his sixth submarine, the Holland, which became the model for U.S. Navy submarines for decades. The Holland was built for a crew of six, including a commander, assistant commander, electrician, engineer, gunner, and machinist. The boat was 53.3 feet long with a diameter of 10.3 feet. It had five tanks along the bottom of the vessel including a 1,000-gallon fuel tank and was capable of remaining submerged continuously for forty hours. It ran on a 45 HP Otto gas engine that powered either the propeller or the dynamotor to charge the batteries. The vessel was fitted with a torpedo launcher and could carry two reserve torpedoes in addition to the one loaded in its Whitehead torpedo tube. Above this launcher was the Holland Pneumatic Dynamite Gun, which could fire a 222-pound projectile 1,000 yards in the air or thirty yards in water. While this was by far Holland's most impressive submarine, its success was due largely to elements present in his earlier submarines, including its positive reserve buoyancy, fixed center of gravity, rapid diving capability, and automatic compensation for displacement of torpedoes.

The Holland was successfully launched on 17 May 1897 out of Lewis Nixon's Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, New Jersey. The John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company was prepared to sell it to the highest bidder on the world market. On 11 April 1900 the U.S. Navy purchased the submarine for $150,000. The navy went on to construct other Holland vessels, but the inventor still had little control over the company he managed, and on 28 March 1904 he resigned. He spent the last ten years of his life designing a much faster submarine but was unsuccessful in his efforts to fund the endeavor. Although Holland's designs had become the model for the U.S. Navy and variations on his submarines were used by naval powers throughout the world, he had signed away rights to his designs and never earned more than $90 a week. John Philip Holland died at his home in Newark, New Jersey.

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Date: 1898
Image Id: 415

Record ID: 384