‘Ironclad John’: the Irish engineer who taught the US Navy how to build a submarine
20 March 2018
In the 1860s, a young teacher sat reading about an extraordinary naval battle during the American Civil War. The Battle of the Ironclads was a unique battle between the ‘Monitor’ and the ‘Merrimac’. Both ships were ‘ironclads’, that is, ships covered completely with thick metal, unlike the wooden ships of the day. Blessed with a vibrant imagination, John saw the future and decided that day to learn more about this emerging technology and more importantly in his mind; how to defeat these ‘ironclads’.
“…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. The seed was planted, but it would be many years before it bore fruit.”
Aptitude and talent at engineering, maths and science
Born in Liscannor, Co Clare, Holland was the son of a coastguard growing up in an Irish speaking and republican home. He attended a Christian Brothers school and showed an aptitude and talent at engineering, maths and science. Recognising this prodigious talent, the brothers fast-tracked him into teacher training and he soon joined the order teaching in various schools around Ireland.
During his academic travels, he worked with Brother James Burke, who was a noted science teacher and who had conducted significant research into the use of electricity in underwater propulsion. Former students remember him fondly recalling how he was constantly engaging them by devising mechanical curiosities such as a mechanical duck that could walk, swim and dive, a windmill to pump water and a sundial.
It was during this time that his thoughts returned to the famous ‘Battle of the Ironclads’ and his question on how to defeat such vessels. Perhaps inspired by Jules Verne’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, he decided submarines would be the perfect weapon to do this and he developed his initial designs and concepts.
Due to illness, the Christian Brothers refused to let him take his full vows
It was obvious he enjoyed teaching, and inspired many a student with his enthusiasm for science and engineering. In 1873, he faced the prospect of a lifetime as a priest and teacher as he was due to take his full vows. Illness would intervene and he developed swollen glands. Based on this illness (or “evil” as they described it), the Christian Brothers refused to let him take his full vows.
Given this setback, Holland took stock of his life; his mother and brothers had just emigrated to Boston and he decided to join them. He quit teaching, left the order and departed for the United States.
In America, Holland returned to teaching (this time in a secular capacity) and his thoughts turned again to his submarine concept. Two years later, he submitted his first design to the US Navy. They rejected it as “a fantastic scheme of a civilian landsman”, but another group got wind of his research and gave him financial backing.
The Fenians saw the potential of this submarine concept against the might of the British navy
The Fenians were an Irish Republican group dedicated to removing the British occupation of Ireland and they saw the potential of this submarine concept against the might of the British navy. If used effectively, a submarine could effectively negate the vast naval power of their sworn enemy. They thus enthusiastically backed Holland and several years of research would follow.
Finally, in 1881, the 19-ton, 31ft ‘Fenian Ram’ was launched. It could travel at nine knots and was armed with a compressed air driven underwater canon. The Fenians plan was to use the ‘Ram’ as a stealth vessel, sneaking up on enemy ships so they could raid it or plant explosives. Alas, the cause of Irish freedom would have to wait as Holland refused to give it to the Fenians due to a financial dispute.
Undeterred by this setback, the Fenians devised a plot to steel the submarine. The plan worked and they soon possessed the vessel. It was on the cusp of this potentially world-changing moment that the whole plan fell apart. They soon realised that nobody could figure out how to operate the submarine. Defeated and unable to sell this stolen machine, they hid it in a shed and it lay there for several years rusting away along the ‘might-have-beens’ of Irish freedom.
For Holland however, all was not lost, before the ‘Fenian Ram’ had been stolen, it had been launched and trialled to much publicity from the press. This brought his work to the attention of the other more legitimate military manufacturers and soon Holland was developing more submarines, incrementally improving upon his design with each machine.
Holland grew frustrated at interference from the ship-orientated US Navy
Many years of research and development followed with multiple financial backers coming and going. Several prototype submarines were developed but Holland grew frustrated at interference from the ship-orientated US Navy. They insisted on ‘over-engineering’, as he called it, and the submarines which resulted were cumbersome and unusable.
Finally, in 1897, he got his way and everything came together with the launch of the Holland VI. It was a groundbreaking submarine that could travel submerged for a considerable distance utilising 45 horse power electric motors. It was 53ft long, had a crew of 15 and was armed with torpedoes. After three years of testing, the US Navy bought and commissioned it making it the the first submarine of the service.
They subsequently ordered six more and his financial backers formed the Electric Boat Company (now General Dynamics) to facilitate these orders. Soon other navies such as the British, Russian and Japanese were placing orders.
However, it was not all plain sailing; Holland’s relationship with both the US Navy and his employers was tempestuous at best and in 1904 he resigned in frustration after yet another dispute.
New submarine he envisaged was a technological leap, capable of a speed of 22 knots
Finally free of corporate interference, he set out designing a new submarine and the one he envisaged was a technological leap, capable of a speed of 22 knots; nearly four times faster than his previous crafts. Unfortunately, it was not to be; fearing potential competition for contracts, the Electric Boat Company sued him, getting a court order that forbid him from engaging as an inventor or designer of any type of submarine or working with any of their competitors.
In essence he was being prevented from using his intellect and inventive talent in building submarines for the rest of his life. This setback finally broke his spirit and he retired. He still continued designing in a private capacity, working on aircraft concepts and an apparatus to enable sailors to escape from damaged submarines, but the glory days were over.
On August 12, 1914, aged 73, John Holland succumbed to pneumonia. He is buried in Totowa, New Jersey, less than one mile from where he launched his first submarine. It is a sobering thought, that 40 days later, the first successful submarine attack of the First World War occurred when a German navy submarine sank three British ships in quick succession. John P Holland’s submarines changed the face of warfare and continue to do so.
Today, submarine fleets form a major part of most of the world’s top navies; the era of the ironclad battleship is long over but the submarine continues beneath the waves. The ‘Fenian Ram’ submarine was subsequently retrieved and can be seen at the Patterson Museum, New Jersey, USA.
Author: Kenneth Mitchell is a chartered engineer in the fields of chemical and environmental engineering