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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 designated Chief Engineer.
The French fielded the 148-foot, 266-ton Gustav Zede, named for the recently deceased designer. On maneuvers, the submarine 'torpedoed' an anchored battleship to the consternation of some, and pride among other, French naval officers. The boat's success prompted an international competition for a submarine with a surface range of 100 miles and a submerged range of 10 miles. The winner (out of 29 entries) was Maxime Laubeuf's 188-foot, 136-ton Narval, which began life with a steam engine but soon switched to a diesel engine.
After a modified Holland VI passed the Navy trials, the company made a formal offer to sell the boat to the Navy and moved it down from New York to Washington, D.C. to enhance the PR effort with some demonstrations for members of Congress. Meanwhile, Simon Lake's Argonaut I was enlarged, improved, and redesignated Argonaut II.