Undersea Warfare The Official Publication of the Undersea Warfare Community.  Summer 2003 Issue.  U.S. Submarines… Because Stealth Matters Image of magazine cover
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John Holland Father of the Modern Submarine
by Edward C. Whitman
Now recognized as “the father of the modern submarine,” Irish-American inventor John Philip Holland (1841-1914) rose from relative obscurity as a New Jersey parochial school teacher to become the best-known and most influential submarine pioneer of the early 20th century. First interested in undersea craft as early as the 1860s, Holland systematically evolved a series of increasingly successful designs that by 1899 had reached the form that would determine the basic configuration of submarines worldwide for the next 50 years. And yet, within five years of selling the U.S. Navy its first submarine in 1900, Holland was essentially forced out of the business by his former associates, who then became wealthy exploiting the patents that embodied his fundamental ideas.

Beginnings in Ireland

John Holland was born in February 1841 – most likely on the 24th – in the small village of Liscannor in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. His father was a “riding officer” – essentially a roving coastal patrolman – for the British Coastguard Service, and John entered the world in a humble cottage – still standing there today – as the second of four sons from a second marriage. Little is known of Holland’s earliest education in Liscannor, but it is clear that he attended secondary school under the Christian Brothers, first in nearby Ennistymon, then in Limerick, where his family moved when he was 12. In school, Holland distinguished himself particularly in the physical sciences and contemplated a career at sea, but his poor eyesight and the necessity of helping to support the family after his father’s death – early in the Limerick years – diverted him to a teaching career with the Order of the Irish Christian Brothers.

After taking initial vows with the order in 1858, Holland studied at the North Monastery School in Cork while serving as an apprentice teacher. Within two years, however, his frail health forced him into a period of recuperation that lasted until 1861, when he was assigned to the first of a series of teaching positions that culminated at Dundalk, north of Dublin, where he taught – mostly music – until 1873. During his early teaching career, Holland became interested in the problems of both flight and submarine navigation, and in the latter area, he prepared a preliminary concept for a one-man submersible, which allegedly he was able to test as a clockwork-driven model. These studies and his familiarity with the efforts of such earlier submarine designers as Van Drebbel, Bushnell, Fulton, and the Hunley builders soon convinced him that underwater vehicles were entirely feasible.

At this same time, the struggle for Irish freedom from Britain had escalated to actual rebellion in Limerick and elsewhere, and two of Holland’s brothers joined the independence movement. Amid the resulting unrest, his younger brother Michael soon fled to the United States, and in 1872 both his older brother Alfred and his mother followed. (A third brother, Robert, had died of cholera in 1845.) Consequently, with no remaining family ties in Ireland and his health failing again, John Holland withdrew from the Christian Brothers a year later and booked passage – in steerage – for America. He was 32.