John Philip Holland: the Irish inventor who helped take the war underwater

A Clare scientist with no love for Britain designed the first commercially successful submarine

John Philip Holland: born beside the sea in Liscannor, Co Clare

John Philip Holland: born beside the sea in Liscannor, Co Clare


Ireland is famous for writers, yet we have also produced many ingenious scientists and engineers whose ideas and inventions have shaped the modern world. As we mark the centenary of the start of the first World War, it seems timely to remember John Philip Holland, an Irish inventor whose idea for an electric underwater boat transformed the war at sea. Coincidentally, Holland died 100 years ago this week, just as the war was starting.

Holland was born beside the sea in Liscannor, Co Clare, where his father was a coastguard. Some say his interest in submarines developed from this early life, and from the notion that Ireland’s only chance of taking on the mighty British Navy was to steal up on their ships underwater.

Holland didn’t invent the submarine; military engineers had been trying for centuries to build a submersible vessel to attack enemy ships unseen. But he designed the first commercially successful one. Building a successful submarine is an engineering challenge. It must be watertight and designed to withstand the increased pressure; must be able to dive and rise like an aircraft, with some way to control its buoyancy; be capable of travelling on the surface and underwater; and have an air supply.

Some way to navigate and see where the vessel is going would be a plus, although Holland’s initial designs lacked these, and had to surface frequently, dolphin-like, to see where they were going.

Finally, a military submarine needs some means of attack. Earlier designs, in the 1700s and during the Napoleonic Wars, ranged from simply ramming a ship and hoping to sink it to attempting to plant explosives on its hull. Comfort and privacy were generally sacrificed to the greater need for sleekness and speed.

Holland worked in Ireland as a science teacher before emigrating to the US in 1872, where he began to seriously develop his submarine.

His first design sank on its maiden voyage in 1878, however, prompting one wag to remark that “the professor has built a coffin for himself”.

Three years later, Holland was back. His next, cigar-shaped vessel was 10m long by 2m wide and 2m high, had a 15 horsepower engine, a toilet and a torpedo gun powered by compressed air – but no privacy, periscope or navigational aid. Funded from the Irish Fenian Brotherhood’s skirmishing fund, it cost $15,000 and was dubbed the “Fenian Ram”.

In 1883, however, the Fenians, alarmed at the escalating costs, stole the Ram, and Holland parted company with them. In their place he courted the US Navy, winning funding for a series of improved designs, each bigger and faster than the last and capable of diving deeper.


Key innovation

Holland’s key design innovation was to use electrical battery power rather than a petrol motor, which crucially didn’t consume any of the valuable air supply. This, along with his other innovations, ultimately made his designs faster and better than those of his competitors.

He set up the Torpedo Boat Company (later the Electric Boat Company, and now General Dynamics Electric Boat Company), and, in 1898, unveiled his seventh design, Holland VII. It cost $150,000 to build, was 20m long, with a 150 horsepower engine, and it could dive to 20m.

After successful trials, the US Navy bought it in 1900, and ordered six more, inaugurating the world’s first submarine fleet. Orders quickly flooded in from navies around the world, although it is said that Holland objected to the British Admiralty buying his crafts.

Holland’s many other inventions included a device to help sailors escape from a sinking submarine. His later years were spent in bitter disputes over patents.

In 1904 he split from the Electric Boat Company, but he continued to design submarines. He died at the outbreak of the first World War. Within weeks, a German submarine with a crew of just 26 sank three British cruisers, killing 1,400 men in less than an hour. Naval warfare had changed forever.

Unexpectedly, Holland’s Fenian Ram was eventually used against the British, albeit indirectly: it was exhibited in New York in 1916 to raise funds for Sinn Féin. Holland would presumably have approved. You can see the Fenian Ram in a museum at Holland’s adopted home, in Paterson, New Jersey.

Clare County Museum in Ennis also features an interactive display about Holland, the inventor from Liscannor whose idea changed the world.

Mary Mulvihill is a science writer with an interest in science heritage

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