Conflict Scientists: John Philip Holland

Patrick Boniface considers the influence of science on warfare.

John Philip Holland was a slight man with a thick Irish accent, who was often overlooked. But his contribution to modern warfare cannot be overstated. Born on 29 February 1840 in the small Irish community of Liscannor in County Clare, Holland only learnt to speak English, and not his native Irish tongue, when he attended the local National School and then, from 1858, the Christian Brothers School in Ennistyman.

John Philip Holland. Born: 29 February 1840, Liscannor, County Clare, Ireland. Died: 12 August 1914, Newark, New Jersey.
Known for: Inventing the first modern submarine.

In fact, such was their teaching at this Catholic school, that the young Holland joined the Irish Christian Brothers in Limerick, going on to teach in that city and in the North Monastery Christian Brothers School in Cork. Ill health forced him to leave the Brothers in 1873.

In the same year, Holland emigrated to the United States. His knowledge and understanding of mechanics got him work with a number of engineering firms, before he returned to teaching at St John’s Catholic School in Paterson, New Jersey.

Designing the future

Holland had been inspired by travel and adventure, and worked furiously hard on his designs for a workable submersible. Many previous designs had been submitted for undersea travel. Holland had already seen the work of Robert Fulton, whose Nautilus design featured a working ballast system that allowed it to dive to 25 feet.

The Nautilus was built between 1793 and 1797, but suffered from leaks, which was the principal reason that Fulton gave up on the project. Holland, however, had the advantage of over 100 years of progress since then in structural sciences, metallurgy, and advances in engine technology and air supply.

John Philip Holland stands in the hatch of a submarine.

I was a school-master in Cork, Ireland, when your Civil War was in progress.

John Philip Holland

The Fenian’s Skirmishing Fund financed Holland’s research to a level that allowed him to resign from teaching. In 1881, his Fenian Ram was launched at the Delamatar Iron Company in New York, but soon after the Fenians and Holland parted company acrimoniously over money.

Holland’s design was ground-breaking because it was modelled on the contemporary Whitehead torpedo. It took from the torpedo the cruciform control surfaces at the stern of the vessel, something that has been adopted on sub-marines ever since.

The Fenian Ram was also innovative in its approach to how it remained underwater: it maintained a slightly positive buoyancy, sufficient to keep her from sinking, but not enough for her to surface. The tilting of her horizontal planes while in forward motion forced the vessel to go deeper in the water. This was revolutionary thinking.

Mr Frost and his assistants, Cable and Brady, have produced a flotilla of submarine boats that will suit fairly well to impress those who know little about the sea and much less about tactics.

John Philip Holland

The submarine was armed with a single 9in pneumatic gun along her centreline, which introduced the world to the idea of the torpedo tube. This was an 11ft-long tube, sealed at either end to prevent water from coming into the submarine. Once loaded with a 6ft-long dynamite-filled projectile, the tube was pressurised to 400lbs per square inch (psi), which was sufficient to fire the weapon at an enemy vessel. The Fenian Ram is now preserved at Paterson Museum in New Jersey.

A sketch of Holland 1 in a dry dock.

Holland continued to refine the concept, and on 17 May 1897 launched the first privately built submarine. This boat had sufficient power to run submerged for a considerable distance, and was the first to use electric motors underwater and gasoline engines on the surface. Today’s submarines use essentially the same concept.

But, even with these innovations, his design of 1875 was at first turned down as unworkable by the US Navy. Persistence and gradual improvements meant that, by the turn of the century, Holland once again felt confident enough to approach the US Navy. On 11 April 1900, they bought the submarine, and commissioned it into the fleet on 12 October the same year as USS Holland. Six further boats were subsequently ordered from the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

Holland’s design led to the creation of the Electric Boat Company, founded on 7 February 1899. Holland, however, was not satisfied with just selling his submarine design to the US Navy – he would go on to see the type accepted by the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy. The first of the Royal Navy’s Holland class is on display at the Submarine Museum in Gosport.

After the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac it struck me very forcibly that the day of wooden walls for vessels of war had passed, and that ironclad ships had come to stay forever.

John Philip Holland

John Philip Holland died in Newark, New Jersey, on 12 August 1914. He was 74 years old. •

Father of the modern submarine

John Philip Holland was born into an era of internecine hatred and contempt. Born of Irish stock, he was staunchly republican when Ireland was controlled by Great Britain. And during his 57 years working on submersible weapons of war, Philip John Holland was to see his invention transform naval warfare.

The First World War saw both sides using submarines in unrestricted warfare that sank hundreds of thousands of tonnes of shipping. Indeed, the German submarine fleet came perilously close to starving Great Britain out of the war. They achieved a similar result in the Second World War.

Post-war submarines, descendants of John Holland’s original work, superseded battleships and increasingly the aircraft carrier, as navies came to rely on their stealthiness and endurance.