The father of the submarine was Liscannor man John Philip Holland who died 100 years ago on Tuesday, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh, who looks back at the life of one of Ireland’s greatest scientists.
TWENTY Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is a classic science fiction novel by French writer Jules Verne that tells the story of Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus.
It was published in 1870 and is said to have inspired John Philip Holland – this may be true, but by then the young Liscannor man, a young Christian Brother who had travelled much of the country with the religious order had already started working his first submarine design.
“I was a schoolmaster in Cork, Ireland, when your civil war was in progress,” Holland told an American audience years later, “and about two weeks after the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac [March 9, 1862], 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.
“I reflected that with her tremendous facilities England would apply them to the situation and become the chief naval power of the world; and I wondered how she could be retarded in her designs upon the other peoples of the world, and how they would protect themselves against those designs,” he added.
So he’d started as early as 1862 and before that even – a journey that would see Holland invent the submarine.
“During his early teaching career, Holland became interested in the problems of both flight and submarine navigation, and in the latter area, he prepared a preliminary concept for a one-man submersible, which allegedly he was able to test as a clockwork-driven model,” wrote Edward C. Whitman in Under Sea Warfare.
“These studies and his familiarity with the efforts of such earlier submarine designers as Van Drebbel, Bushnell, Fulton, and the Hunley builders soon convinced him that underwater vehicles were entirely feasible,” he added.
JOHN Holland Snr was a Corkman, but came to Clare to work with the British Coastguard Service and was assigned to Liscannor, where he married a local woman Máire Ní Scanláin.
John Holland Jnr was born in 1841 and educated in Ennistymon CBS before the family moved to Limerick in 1853 after the death of his father. It was while he was in Sexton Street CBS that Holland came under the influence of Brother Bernard O’Brien, who had a profound influence on him.
Brother O’Brien was a scientific man and an excellent mechanic who distinguished himself by building several telescopes complete with clockwork mechanism to track the movement of the stars and various apparatus to demonstrate electro-magnetism.
Holland then joined the Christian Brothers order and was assigned to the North Monastery school in Cork in 1858 where he met Brother James Dominic Burke, a noted science teacher and founder of vocational training in Ireland.
“Brother Burke was by now demonstrating the powers of electricity in underwater propulsion at the public exhibitions for the entertainment of the people,” recalled Holland years later.
So began Holland’s journey and by 1959, aged just 18, he had completed his first draft design for a submarine, but it wasn’t until he went to America 14 years later after leaving the Christian Brothers that he brought his ideas to the prototype stage. After arriving in the United States in November 1873, Holland slipped on an icy Boston street. He broke his leg and suffered a slight concussion. While recovering, his thoughts turned to submarines.
Two years later, John Holland submitted his submarine design to the Navy Department, only for it to be dismissed as “an absurd scheme of a civilian landsman”.
However, support came from the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), with the Fenian financing his first experimental craft, Holland I. It was planned in St John’s School, and built in Paterson NJ in 1877. It was 14 feet long, and was show to Fenians, who were impressed enough to fund him to develop a boat ‘suitable for war’.
Trials of the craft were conducted in the Passaic River from Lister’s Boathouse above the Great Falls. Finally, on June 6, 1878, Holland successfully completed two runs during which the boat was totally submerged at a depth of twelve feet and traveled at the speed of three and a half miles per hour. The maximum submergence time was about one hour.
“After having determined the correctness of my ideas regarding submarines, and adding a few points revealed by the experiments in the Passaic River, my financial supporters, the trustees of the Fenian Skirmishing Fund, determined to build a larger boat that could be employed for breaking blockades,” wrote Holland.
“Toward the end of May 1879, I started to design a new boat of about 19 tons displacement, one small and light enough to be carried on a ship’s deck and launched overboard whenever her services would be required. Only three men were required for her crew,” he added.
Holland II was launched in May 1881 and attracted considerable attention in the press. Blakely Hall, a reporter for the New York Sun, wrote a full account of the launching of Holland II. He named the boat Fenian Ram, a name well chosen to indicate Holland’s sponsors and intended use of the vessel.
The three-man Ram was thirty-one feet overall, six feet in beam, over seven feet high, and weighed nineteen tons. It was ruggedly constructed of eleven-sixteenths charcoal flange iron, and her ramming power, as estimated by Holland, was 50 tons. For power, the Ram used an improved Brayton petroleum engine rated at fifteen horsepower, which allowed the boat to achieve a speed of nine miles per hour on the surface.
“There is scarcely anything required of a good submarine boat that this one did not do well enough, or fairly well,” said Holland.
Thus the Fenian Ram became the prototype for what would later become the Holland VI that was launched on St Patrick’s Day, 1898.
That first successful trial of Holland VI occurred a month before the Spanish-American War would be formally declared. With war fever gripping the country, the Holland Torpedo Boat Company clearly hoped that the Navy would buy Holland VI outright, and Holland immediately invited the service to send representatives to see his boat perform.
The first Navy demonstration, including a firing of the dynamite gun, took place on 27 March and was sufficiently successful that on 10 April, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt recommended to Secretary John D. Long that the Navy buy the boat.
As Roosevelt noted, “Sometimes she doesn’t work perfectly, but often she does, and I don’t think in the present emergency we can afford to let her slip.”
The US Government did not immediately buy the Holland 6, despite the success of the launch. They wanted some design changes, and got them, and eventually they bought the Holland 6 in 1900 at a price of $150,000.
This became the first submarine ever commissioned by the US Navy and was called the USS HOLLAND on October 12, 1900.
Holland resigned from the Electric Boat Company in 1904 and attempted to establish a new firm. However, legal complications blocked the undertaking.
He quietly withdrew from public life and resumed work on an aircraft design.
Aviation experts have stated that his design would have worked, but he was beaten to the punch by the Wright brothers and abandoned his efforts.
As well as selling his designs to the British Navy, Holland built two submarines for Japan, which were used against Russian in the war of 1904-5. He received the Rising Sun from the Emperor of Japan for his contribution to the Japanese Naval victory.
On 12 August 1914, John Holland succumbed to pneumonia, only two weeks after the outbreak of the First World War. Almost immediately, “Holland-type” submarines on both sides of the conflict began exacting the early losses of ships and men that showed undersea warfare coming into its own far more rapidly than even John Holland himself could have predicted.
John Philip Holland is set to be remembered in Clare later this month, while the Central Bank of Ireland is to honour the inventor of hte modern submarine by striking a commemorative €15 coin in his honour. The Clare celebrations of Holland takes place on August 31 when the Liscannor Development Committee will host a day of events honouring the life and achievements of the local inventor as part of Heritage Week. The event at Liscannor Harbour will feature the unveiling of a commemorative stone and a talk on Holland’s life, a film of his achievements, music and songs of the sea, and a photography and children’s art exhibition. Meanwhile, at the Marine Institute in Oranmore the following day, September 1, the Central Bank commemorative coin will be launched.