John Philip Holland: The Father of the Modern Submarine

The father of the modern submarine, John Philip Holland's contributions to military history changed the course of naval warfare forever.
Christopher McFadden

John Philip Holland is the father of the modern submarine. His contribution to military history changed the course of naval warfare forever. The great-grandchildren of his brainchildren still stalk the depths to this very day.

John Philip Holland developed the first submarine to ever be formally commissioned by the U.S. Navy.

Although submarine technology had been in development for, arguably, many millennia, his contributions were most significant to what we know as submarines.

John Philip Holland's real breakthrough came by combining the lessons of the past and combining modern propulsion. Specifically, the electric motor, the electric battery, and the internal combustion engine. His machines would go on to evolve into the modern submarine and make a major contribution to naval warfare of our modern world.

John Philip Holland: The Father of the Modern Submarine

 [Image Source: WikimediaCommons]

Early Years

John Philip Holland was born in Liscannor, County Clare in Ireland on the February the 29th 1840. He was the second of four siblings all of whom were boys. His father, also John, was a member of the British Coastguard Service at the time.

John's mother Mary Scanlon was an Irish native speaker from Liscannor. She was John Junior's second wife. Sadly his father's first wife Anne Foley from Kilkee died in 1835.

Liscannon was a heavily Irish speaking area and Holland learned English properly when attending the local English-speaking St Macreehy's National School from 1858. This school was part of the Christian Brothers in Ennistymon.

The Christian Brothers, formally the Congregation of Christian Brothers is a worldwide religious community within the Catholic Church. They chiefly work for the evangelization and education of youth but are involved in many ministries, especially with the poor.

John has dreamed of being a sailor, but his destiny had other ideas.

Holland joined the Christian Brothers in Limerick and also taught there and many other centers across Ireland, including Cork. These included the North Monastery CBS in Cork City, St. Mary's CBS, Portlaoise, St Joseph's CBS (Drogheda) and he was the first Mathematics teacher in Colaiste Ris (also Dundalk).

It was during this time that he began to get into submersible vessels after reading some accounts of engagements between American Civil War ships.

John Philip Holland's American Dream

John Philip Holland left the Brotherhood in 1873 due to poor health. He emigrated to the U.S. in the same year to join his mother and brothers. John settled in Paterson, New Jersey.

John Philip Holland: The Father of the Modern Submarine

[Image Source: Brown Bros./WikimediaCommons]

His first occupation in the U.S. was working for an engineering firm. He returned to teaching for a further six years at St. John's Catholic School in Paterson, New Jersey until 1879.

Later, with some financial support from the Irish Fenian Society, he endeavored to build the Fenian Ram. This was a small submarine that proved a limited success during tests. The Irish Fenian Society was committed to using submarine technology against the British to help in their long-term goal for a free Ireland.

A brief history of submarines

Although John Philip Holland is known as the father of submarines, this is a little misleading.

The earliest possible reference is from 322BC. As legend has it, Alexander the Great happened to be lowered into the sea, possibly for military applications. If true, the history of submarines began around 1,700 years ago. Whether you consider this a submarine or not, of course, and believe the legend.

A later reference to the act of manipulating buoyancy to sink and rise a ship can be found in 1578. William Bourne, an English gunner turned innkeeper describes the principle of sinking and raising a boat by changing its volume in his work Inventions and Devices. In effect, he stated that if you contract the volume it will sink, do the opposite and it will rise.

He didn't exactly describe the exact process for doing so. These examples are probably more akin to diving bells than submarines, per se. But they are interesting nonetheless.

Most Popular

Given these historical references, the natural progression for any scholar of history would be to add some form of propulsion.

A Dutchman called Van Drebbel had successfully completed the first practical propelled submarine in 1620.

John Philip Holland: The Father of the Modern Submarine

An artist's impression of the Drebbel 1 as presented to James 1 of England  [Image Source: WikimediaCommons]

This was a fairly simple craft using oars as propulsion. The Drebbel 1 was essentially an enclosed rowboat manned by about 12 oarsmen. It may well have had a sloping foredeck too.

This design would have forced the boat underwater as it moved forward.

Submarines take the next step

It took the French to move things on a bit. In 1636, Marin Mersenne, a French Priest, added another piece to the jigsaw. Marin suggested that the hull should be made of metal, specifically copper, and have a cylindrical shape. He argued that this would better cope with the increasing pressure as you dive deeper.

Military applications were attempted after this time. The First Anglo-Dutch War of 1652-1654 saw an interesting weapon be born. Louis de Son built a 22 meter long "Rotterdam Boat" to help in the war effort. This was, in effect, a semi-submerged battering ram that was intended to be used to sink British ships. It was supposed to approach, unseen, and punch a hole in the victim's hull. Sadly, this basic principle proved futile. Once launched it couldn't be propelled.

It took more than 200 years for would be submariners to advance any further. The French Navy launched the first prototype of a "true" precursor to subs. Le Plongeur (meaning Diver, who'd've guessed) was launched in 1863-64. This boat was powered by engines run on compressed air. This became the first submarine vessel to move without human manpower.

The American's had a crack at the whip during the Revolution with David Bushnell's, Turtle. Her basic principle was to pump water in and out to rise and sink. She was a one man boat that was driven by hand crank propellers. The Turtle actually became the first submarine vessel in history to be used in anger.

Her target was the HMS Eagle. The pilot, Ezra Lee, failed to attach the 150lb-keg of gunpowder to the ships hull.

The French get onboard

The Nautilus was developed in 1800 by another American. Robert Fulton even attracted the attention of Napolean Bonaparte. After a few test drives, this machine could reach a depth of just over 7.5 meters. It could achieve speeds of 4 knots under hand-cranked propulsion alone.

This craft would tow a bomb behind it, which was termed a torpedo. Interestingly, this term was coined after a fish that can kill its prey using electrocution.

It made several attacks on a number of Royal Navy ships but was easily noticed and avoided. This failure led to Fulton's dismissal and the Royal Navy were able to relax a little bit.

The Confederates also had an underwater craft, CSS Hunley. This was propelled by an eight-man oar crew and was "packed" with a long weapon spar at the bow. This was basically an explosive battering ram. The Hunley was used to great effect during the Civil War when it rammed its spar into the Union blockade ship the USS HousatonicThough the Hunley did not survive the attack, war beneath the waves had definitely begun.

In 1868, an English engineer, Robert Whitehead, developed just that. He devised a torpedo that was powered by compressed air. At long last, submarines had some real teeth for battle.

The Fenian Ram

The Fenian Ram was primarily designed for use against the Royal Navy. The entire project was backed by the Fenian Society, the American counterpart to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The design was partly based on the Whitehead Torpedo. Like its inspiration, it had cruciform control fins near the tail, sound familiar?

The Fenian Ram followed the basic principle of taking on ballast until she sank but maintained an overall slightly positive buoyancy. To maintain depth she would alter her horizontal planes.

This submersible vessel was armed with a nine-inch pneumatic gun around 3.3 meters long deployed on her center-line with a forward firing position.

This gun was designed to fire much like a modern torpedo tube. A watertight cap would remain closed until fired. This allowed for the projectiles to be loaded and primed. Each projectile was a dynamite-filled steel projectile. This was fired using around 400 psi of compressed air to launch the projectile. The entire mechanism was powered by an 11kw Brayton piston engine.

After some testing and dummy gun firing, the project hit some financial problems. The Fenian Society had begun to believe that the project was costing them far too much.

This dispute became so heated that the Fenian Society actually stole the Fenian Ram and moved it to New Haven, Connecticut.

They soon realized they couldn't operate the machine and Holland, understandably, refused to help them out. Unable to use or sell it, the Fenians stored her in a shed.

She would later be used to raise funds for the victims of the Easter Rising in 1916. After that, she was moved to the New York State Marine School in 1927. She was later purchased and moved to the Paterson Museum, where she now remains.

Holland's work on submarines

Whilst a teacher in Cork, John Philip Holland read an account of the battle between the Ironclads Monitor and Virginia (The rebuilt Merrimack) during the American Civil War. He quickly realized that the best way to attack and defeat these ships would likely be from below the waterline.

He noted that the reason for the Monitor's victory was its low freeboard. She was very difficult to hit. He wondered why they didn't go the whole hog and simply make her completely submerged. Seems fair enough, look at it!

From his initial thoughts, he scribbled a design for such a craft and attempted to get some interest from investors. Sadly he was met with refusal.

When he landed in the U.S. he slipped and fell on an icy Boston street and broke his leg. He used his recuperation time wisely to refine his design for submarines and was also encouraged in his labors by Isaac Whelan, a priest. During this time he carefully reviewed everything he had read about submersible craft and dwell deeply on the idea of them as practical weapons of war.

In 1875, Holland submitted his refined schematics to the US Navy for consideration. They were rejected as the Navy felt they were unworkable.

Some of his financial backers, the Fenians, continued to fund his research and development at a level that allowed him to resign from his teaching post and work on his designs exclusively.

Their faith in Holland paid off. In 1881 the Fenian Ram was launched. Soon after Holland and the Fenians parted company on bad terms over some issues with payment from the organization.

The submarine takes form

John Philip Holland continued to improve his designs and worked on several experimental vessels prior to his successful efforts with a privately built type that was launched on 17th May 1897.

This happened to be the first submarine able to actually operate submerged under its own power. It was also the first to use a combination of electric motors and gasoline engines for underwater and surface propulsion.

The US Navy's official position at the time was to give submarine development "no encouragement". A stance they couldn't hold forever.

This vessel was purchased by the US Navy in April of 1900. After extensive testing, the vessel was commissioned as the USS Holland. Six more of her type were ordered by the Navy to be built at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

These orders allowed Holland to create the Electric Boat Company, that was founded in 1899. Isaac Leopold Rice became the company's first President with Elihu B. Frost acting as Vice President and CFO. This company would ultimately evolve to become the major defense contractor General Dynamics.

Holland's designs were also adopted by others including the Royal Navy who developed their own Holland-class submarine.

The Imperial Japanese Navy also employed his designs and made some minor refinements for their first five submarines. These Japanese versions were at least 3 meters longer than the Holland at around 19.5 meters total length.

The Japanese submarines were developed at Fore River Ship and Engine Company in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Holland also went on to design the Holland II and Holland III prototypes.

The submarine at war

The Royal Navy Admiralty's thoughts on submarines and warfare were that they were "underhand, unfair and damned un-English". One Admiral "Jacky" Fisher managing to champion these new machines of war when he watched five existing Holland's decimate four warships in an exercise at Portsmouth Harbour.

He realized that the naval warfare had now changed forever. When he became the First Lord of the Sea in 1904 he diverted 5% of the Navy's budget to the construction of the undersea killers. He received heavy resistance from his colleagues but pursued the program nonetheless.

From the start of Fisher's tenure right up to the outbreak of World War 1, there was a continual development of submarines. These ranged from the Holland's through to A to D class submarines. The D-Class was one of the first to have decking and a deck gun. These represented a major change from the porpoise shape of earlier submarines. They also introduced the concept of the submarine we are all familiar with during the World Wars and beyond.

Holland's subs

The following is a list of submarines that were designed by John Philip Holland.

Holland 1 - This was a small unarmed submersible. It is now on display at the Paterson Museum.

Holland 2 - Also called the Fenian Ram, was built for those naughty Irish Revolutionaries, steady. This is also on display at the Paterson Museum.

Holland 3 - This was a scaled-down version of the Holland 2 that was used for navigation testing

Holland 4 - AKA the Zalinski Boat was an experimental submarine financed by the US Navy.

Holland 5 - Also dubbed The Plunger, nice name, was a prototype used to demonstrate the potential for this technology in naval warfare. She was launched in 1897 and used for experiments by the US Navy. The Plunger was returned to Holland's company in 1903 and scrapped in 1917.

Holland 6 - This was the first modern submarine in the US Navy. She was launched in 1897. This was the boat that would finally be named the USS Holland. She was acquired by the Navy in 1900 and later decommissioned in 1905.

HMS Holland 1 - This was the first modern submarine to be utilized by the Royal Navy.

Holland's Patents

Holland made many patents during his time working on submersibles vessels.

These included:

The screw propeller

The Submergible

The submarine machine gun

Submarine steering apparatus

Visual indicators

Auto Dive mechanisms

Firing valves

And for various submarines, of course.

Death and final years

Holland's final years were marked by litigation with his financial backers. One of his last inventions was an apparatus designed to let sailors escape from submarines.

John Philip Holland: The Father of the Modern Submarine

[Image Source: WikimediaCommons]

After spending, no less than, 56 years working on submersible vessels John passed away. He died on the 12th August 1914 in Newark, New Jersey.

His body is interred in the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Totowa, New Jersey.

A monument to the father of submarines stands at the gates of the Scholars Townhouse, Drogheda. This is the former building of the Christian Brothers school where Holland taught earlier in his life. It was laid in commemoration of his work.

The monument was unveiled on the 14th June 2014 as part of the Irish Maritime Festival. The unveiling ceremony was attended by Drogheda Town Council as well as representatives of the US, British and Japanese governments.

Notable contributions

In May of 1897, he oversaw the first test run of his proto-type submarine. It had a combination of electric and gasoline engines and succeeded in running submerged for a considerable distance.

In March of the following year, John Philip Holland successfully completed test runs of the first modern submarine off Staten Island.

Just over two years later, the US Navy officially purchased his designs. Several months later the very first US Navy submarine, the USS Holland was officially commissioned. It was named in honor of its designer John Philip Holland.

The final word

The history of submarines is a long one, stretching from Alexander the Great to the Father of Submarines, John Philip Holland himself. Early designs were little more than sealed boxes for observation with later improvements adding propulsion from oars. Other improvements were made by adding armaments and developing the idea of sinking ships by punching holes under the water line. With the advent of the self-propelled torpedo, submarines suddenly became a very potent weapon of war at sea.


From humble beginnings in Ireland, John Philip Holland would go on to become one of the most important military engineers of all time. From a spark of inspiration whilst reading a newspaper, he self-taught himself about the world of submersibles. Using a little lateral thinking he managed to design and build the earliest examples of one of the world's most powerful weapons at sea. Not bad at all.

Though funding was initially provided by Irish Separatists to use against the British, his creations would ultimately provide the Royal Navy with a very potent addition to their arsenal. Whether that could be called ironic or not, we'll let you decide.

Now, all John Philip Holland needed to do was review previous successes and failures and add his own ideas. Standing on the shoulders of giants he refined the concept to produce the modern submarine. For better or worse, they were set to change the way we fought at sea forever.

The addition of electric and gasoline engines truly propelled the submarine into the modern naval world. Although initially resisted by authorities, they are now an invaluable addition to any self-respecting fleet.

Little could John Philip Holland have known just how far his concept would have come. We wonder what he would think of modern Nuclear submarines.

Sources: OnThisDayBritannicaYouTubeMilitaryHistoryMilitaryFactory