Wilhelm Bauer, a visionary ahead of his time, proposed powering submarines with internal combustion engines. All told, he spent 25 years developing (or at least proposing) submarines on behalf of six nations: Germany, Austria, France, England, Russia, and the United States. His plebeian origins and autocratic style, not to mention his lowly army rank, proved serious handicaps in dealing with the aristocratic brethren who ran most of the navies of the day. Essentially ignored by his native Germany in his lifetime, Bauer became a posthumous hero in the Nazi era.

English engineer Alfred Whitehead developed a self-propelled mine, which he called the "automobile torpedo." This was the true ancestor of the modern submarine-launched torpedo.

The U.S. Navy began manufacturing the Whitehead torpedo for use by both surface ships and a new class of vessel: the torpedo boat. This spawned the development of another new class, the torpedo-boat destroyer. Some navies flirted with yet another class, the destroyer of torpedo-boat destroyers. Whatever, surface-launched torpedoes had marginal military effectiveness and found their true home underwater.

French novelist Jules Verne brought submarines to full public consciousness with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, in which the despot Captain Nemo uses his submarine Nautilus to sink, among others, the then fictional USS Abraham Lincoln. Verne's research was impeccable: He even computed the compressibility of seawater -- '0' for most purposes -- to be a factor of .0000436 for each 32 feet of depth.

The German Frederich Otto Vogel built a submarine but it sank during trials.

Holland's first design
Holland's first design: a 15.5-foot-long, one-man boat with a foot-operated treadle to drive the propeller, control the one-cubic-foot ballast tank, and discharge 'used' air.


Recent Irish emigré and Patterson, New Jersey schoolteacher John Phillip Holland submitted a submarine design to the Secretary of the Navy, who passed the paperwork to a subordinate. No one would willingly go underwater in such a craft, that officer suggested, and, even if the idea had merit, he warned Holland, "to put anything through Washington was uphill work."

Finding sponsorship with the Fenians, a group of Irish revolutionaries seeking a way to harass the British Navy, Holland built a small prototype submarine, Holland No. 1, to test out his theories, including the use of a gasoline engine. The trial was successful enough to encourage building a larger, more warlike boat (see 1881).

Anglican Reverend George W. Garrett tested the steam-powered Resurgam, which relied on steam from a boiler for surface operations, steam stored in pressurized tanks for submerged operations. The boat passed initial trials but sank while under tow (it was rediscovered in 1996). Broke but not deterred, Garrett took his ideas to a wealthy Swedish arms manufacturer, Thorsten Nordenfeldt (see 1885).

Holland launched the Fenian Ram, 31 feet long and armed with a ram bow and an air-powered cannon. The craft reached speeds of nine knots, depths of 60 feet, and stayed down for as long as an hour during tests, which took up to two years to complete. The Fenians became increasingly frustrated with Holland's delays and, faced with internal legal squabbles, stole their own boat and hid it in a shed in New Haven, Connecticut, where it remained for 35 years. Holland had nothing more to do with the Fenians, and the boat was eventually donated to the city of Patterson, where it is now on display in West Side Park.

The Zalinski Boat.

Zalinski Boat

The Zalinski Boat.


Holland and several investors formed the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company, hoping to sell a submarine to the French, then at war in Indochina. The company launched its prototype, dubbed the Zalinski Boat, in 1885, but the vessel proved too heavy for the launching ways and smashed into some pilings. Her damage repaired, she made some token trial runs, but the war ended and the company went bankrupt.

Goubet II
The Goubet II.


French designer Claude Goubet built a battery-operated submarine that proved too awkward and unstable to meet with any success. He followed up in 1889 with Goubet II, also small, electric, and ineffective.

Josiah Tuck's Peacemaker.


American Josiah H.L. Tuck demonstrated Peacemaker. It was powered by a chemical (fireless) boiler, with 1,500 pounds of caustic soda providing five hours of endurance. Tuck's inventing days ended when relatives, angered that he had squandered most of a significant fortune, had him committed to an asylum for the insane.

Thorsten Nordenfeldt launched Nordenfeldt I - 64 feet long and armed with one external torpedo tube. It took as long as 12 hours to generate enough steam for submerged operations and about 30 minutes to dive. Plus, once underwater, sudden changes in speed or direction triggered, in the words of a U.S. Navy intelligence report, "dangerous and eccentric movements."

Good public relations overcame bad design, however. Nordenfeldt always demonstrated his boats before a stellar crowd of crowned heads, and many regarded his submarines as the world standard.

Nordenfeldt III
Nordenfeldt sold his 1887 Nordenfeldt III -- 123 feet long, rated to a depth of 100 feet, and boasting an advertised surface speed of 14 knots -- to Russia, but it ran aground en route. The Russians refused to accept delivery, and the boat was scrapped.

The Greek Navy took delivery of Nordenfeldt I in 1886 but seems to have done nothing with it. Its bitter rival, the Turkish Navy, ordered two of the larger Nordenfeldt II boats, each 100 feet long and bearing two torpedo tubes. When crew on the first boat fired a torpedo on a test dive, however, the boat tipped backwards and sank stern-first to the bottom. The second Turkish boat was left unfinished.

The U.S. Navy announced an open competition for a submarine torpedo boat, with a $2 million incentive. The Navy based specifications on presumed Nordenfeldt-level capabilities and a steam power plant packing 1,000 horsepower. Bidders included Nordenfeldt, Tuck, and Holland. Holland's design won, but because of contractor-related complications, the Navy withdrew the award.

The Navy reopened the competition a year later, and Holland won again. But a new Secretary of the Navy diverted the $2 million to surface ships. Nordenfeldt lost interest in submarines, Tuck went into the asylum, and Holland got a job as a draftsman, earning $4 a day.

Gustave Zede assembled Gymnote for the French Navy. A 60-foot, battery-powered boat capable of eight knots on the surface, the submarine was limited by the lack of any method for recharging the batteries while at sea. Her naval service was largely limited to experimentation.

Spaniard Isaac Peral's Peral successfully fired three Whitehead torpedoes during trials, but internal politics kept the Spanish Navy from pursuing the project.

With a new administration in office, the U.S. Congress appropriated $200,000 for an "experimental submarine," and the Navy announced a new competition. There were three bidders: Holland, George C. Baker, and Simon Lake.

Simon Lake's scheme
Simon Lake's scheme included a set of wheels by which the boat could run along the bottom. Lake tested this theory in 1894 with a small wooden "test vehicle" financed by relatives and dubbed Argonaut Jr. Public demonstrations subsequently brought in enough money to build a larger boat, Argonaut I (see 1898).

Holland and Lake submitted proposals, but the politically well-connected Baker already had a submarine, which he demonstrated on Lake Michigan. A novel feature: a clutch between the steam engine and an electric motor that allowed the motor to function as a dynamo to recharge the batteries for submerged running. A troubling feature: a pair of amidships-mounted propellers that swiveled up or forward through a clumsy period of transition. When Holland's design once again won, Baker complained to his friends in Washington, apparently causing the whole business to be put on hold.

Taking a leaf from the Nordenfeldt playbook -- in this case, good public relations to overcome political intransigence -- Holland let it be known that he was entertaining offers from foreign navies. His tactic may have succeeded, for on March 3, the U.S. Navy awarded the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company $200,000 to build an 85-foot, 15-knot, steam-powered submarine called Plunger.

Plunger, launched in 1897, failed before ever leaving the dock. The temperature in the fireroom reached 137°F at only two-thirds rated output. As one of Holland's employees later testified, "They forced us to put steam in the Plunger against Mr. Holland's advice. When we . . . put the steam on, we found it was so hot we could not live in her." In what must be an unwitting irony, the first U.S. Navy submarine with built-in air conditioning was the 1935 Plunger, SS-179.

Holland was only somewhat pleased. He didn't like the imposition of a steam engine as well some changes the Navy insisted upon. Congress was thrilled with the prospect, however, and immediately authorized two more submarines of the Plunger type at $175,000 apiece.

Even before Plunger had failed, Holland began construction of a smaller (54 feet), slower (7 knots), gasoline-powered boat, Holland VI. Armament: one dynamite gun (air-launched, 222-pound projectile with seven loads) and a Whitehead torpedo (three loads). Crew: six men. Habitability: included a toilet to support operations as long as 40 hours.

Holland began a series of public demonstrations. The New York Times, May 17, 1897: "The Holland, the little cigar-shaped vessel owned by her inventor, which may or may not play an important part in the navies of the world in the years to come, was launched from Nixon's shipyard this morning."

Argonaut I
Simon Lake's prominently wheeled Argonaut I, coincidentally under construction in the same dock as Holland's Plunger. This boat used a gasoline engine for both surface and submerged running, drawing air from the surface through breathing tubes.


The impending Spanish-American War intruded on Holland's efforts to sell his new boat to the Navy, although Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, told his boss, "I think that the Holland submarine boat should be purchased." The war begun, Holland offered to go to Cuba and sink the Spanish fleet -- on the condition, if he proved successful, that the Navy buy his boat. The Navy was properly horrified at the thought of a private citizen using a private warship to sink foreign ships; times had changed since Bushnell and Turtle and the days of the privateers.

In September, Simon Lake's 36-foot Argonaut I made an open-ocean passage from Norfolk, Virginia, to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, prompting Jules Verne to send Lake a cable: "The conspicuous success of submarine navigation in the United States will push on underwater navigation all over the world . . . . The next war may be largely a contest between submarine boats."

Holland VI
Holland VI, as pictured in the December 1898 issue of Scientific American.

By November, with the war ended, the Navy held an 'official' trial of Holland VI. Some problems existed, but Holland did not have enough money to fix them. So he joined forces with a wealthy industrialist to form the Electric Boat Company. He was designat