John Phillip Holland - Inventor of the Submarine

Simply put, John P. Holland was a single-minded genius and a dreamer from Ireland. A schoolteacher and engineer, John immigrated to the United States in 1873 where his superior talents for machine design would revolutionize warfare. Sadly, he died a poor man with little notoriety after people with more business savvy used him and his ideas. But time has corrected this mistake, and today John is widely recognized and renowned as the inventor of the modern submarine.John Phillip Holland was born on February 29th, 1841 in Lascannor, County Claire, Ireland. His father, John Phillip Holland Sr., was a member of the Coast Guard and patrolled the western coast of Ireland by horseback, watching for French invasion attempts. John apparently gained a love of the sea during this time, but his father was soon to die during the 1840's.John attended St. Macreehy's National School during his youth and later perhaps the Christian Brothers School in Ennistymon. John's mother, Mary Scanlon, moved the family to Limerick in 1853 and here he came under the influence of Brother Dominic Burke, who was a science teacher and greatly encouraged John in his ideas. By the end of the 1850's, John had not only drawn out plans for an airplane but also his first plans for a submarine, which he never radically changed. During the 1850's John applied for the Merchant Marines but was turned down because of his eyesight. Afterwards he became a teacher, and taught in Limerick and many other areas of Ireland. In 1870, John read Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and was again greatly enthused with his dream of building a submersible. In 1873, John followed his family to Boston, where he quickly landed a job as an engineer. But the experience was short-lived, and he was soon teaching again in St. John's Catholic School in Patterson, New Jersey.It was in New Jersey that John would finally start to really experiment with his submarine ideas. He submitted his submarine plan to the United States Navy, but the Navy Secretary called it a "fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman". Undaunted, John continued his efforts and in the late 1870's his brother Michael introduced him to members of the Fenian Brotherhood, who were very interested in funding his designs. The Fenians were an Irish independence group who wanted to use John's submarines against British warships. John apparently had no problem with this, because their money would allow him to not only further his designs but also build and experiment. His first sub sank after someone forgot to install the screw plugs, but the Fenians were sufficiently impressed to vote further funding of a design "suitable for war".John quit his teaching job and went to work full time designing and constructing his ideas. He soon built the Fenian Ram, which launched in 1881 and could reach speeds of nine mph surfaced and seven mph underwater. Of note in the design was a compressed air cannon, which could fire underwater. But John and the Fenians soon had arguments over funding, and parted ways. In 1888, John participated in a Government competition for submarine design and won, but the funding was diverted to surface ships. In 1891, he wrote a paper called "The Practicality of Mechanical Flight" where he proposed an aircraft design. No one took him up on the matter, but the engineers of today think it actually might have flown, ten years before the Wright Brothers. John participated in another Government competition for submarine design in the early 1890's and won again.The Holland Motor Torpedo Boat Company was formed for the venture and John began to build the Plunger for the U. S. Navy. But the design was over managed by the Navy and soon became unpractical and complicated. John realized that to successfully build a practical submarine he would have to do it on his own and actively pursued private funding.John soon built his sixth design which was called the Holland. It was far superior to the fifth design funded by the Navy and carried many revolutionary principles. It had a gasoline engine for surface propulsion and batteries for underwater movement that allowed speeds similar to his Fenian Ram design. It also carried the first torpedo tube. Even though the then Navy Secretary, Theordore Roosevelt, recommended Holland's submarine, the Government still refused to buy the design. Near bankruptcy, Holland was forced to accept a buyout offer to continue his work, and the Holland Motor Torpedo Boat Company became the Electric Boat Company.By 1900, with a few modifications, the Holland was sold to the U. S. Navy for $150,000 dollars and became its first submarine. Within a few years, the Electric Boat Company was selling submarines and designs to Britain and Japan. But by 1904, the company owned most of John Holland's patents and he left the company in a dispute over developing the design. While John wanted to further refine his ideas, the company was only interested in sales. John tried to start his own submarine company but was frustrated in his efforts by Electric Boat and the U. S. Navy who prevented him from using many of his original ideas.John Phillip Holland died in August 1914, forty days before a German submarine sank a British Cruiser at the outset of World War I. He died a poor man, with no public recognition of the fact that he had designed and built the first modern submarines. His only reward was the Medal of the Rising Sun, which he received from Japan after its success over the Russian Fleet in 1904-5.

Many failed to recognize John's brilliance of design at the time, and it took fifty years for him to be well remembered. It was not until 1951 with the Albacore, that submarine design returned to the porpoise shape that John envisioned for his craft and then successfully managed to exceed the seven-knot underwater speed that the Holland and the Fenian Ram achieved over fifty years earlier.

Brian Workman, May 2000



John Holland

Irish Engineer and Inventor of the Submarine