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Early Years in America – the Fenian Ram

The young Irishman joined his family in Boston in November 1873 and within a year had returned to teaching under the auspices of the Christian Brothers – this time as a lay teacher at St. John’s Parochial School in Paterson, New Jersey, a thriving manufacturing center north of Newark. Meanwhile, he had continued working on his design for a one-man submarine powered by foot-pedals, and in February 1875, he sent the plans to the Navy Department in Washington for consideration. Despite the Navy’s dismissal of the design as impractical, it was included in a “Lecture on Submarine Boats and Their Application to Torpedo Operations” delivered at the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, Rhode Island, later that year. This unauthorized disclosure of Holland’s ideas was only his first of a long series of annoyances with the government.

Among Irish-Americans, the 1870s saw increasing agitation for the independence of Ireland, centered in a secret society called the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood founded in 1858. Later known as “The Fenian Brotherhood,” this militantly anti-British organization waged a propaganda war in the United States for Irish independence and collected money in a “Skirmishing Fund” intended to support armed activities against British interests. In 1876, Holland’s submarine investigations came to the attention of the Fenian conspirators, probably through the offices of his brother Michael, who had been a member since 1869. Sympathizing with the Irish cause and seeing an opportunity for financial support for a working prototype of his evolving design, Holland offered to build the Fenians a small submarine that could eventually be used to attack British warships. After observing a 30-inch working model that Holland demonstrated at Coney Island early in 1877, the Fenian authorities agreed to fund the project by the end of that year.

Dtawing caption follows

(below) John Holland offered his first submersible design – powered by a foot treadle – to the Navy Department in February 1875. Although the Navy provided no financial encouragement, this drawing of his initial concept appeared later that year – without Holland’s permission – in a lecture given by LT Francis Barber at the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport. The inventor had intended to separate air and ballast water internally using flexible, oiled silk partitions.

(above) Holland Boat No. I was tested in the Passaic River in Paterson, New Jersey in May and June 1878. Although its gasoline-fueled, Brayton-cycle engine was unsuccessful, the 14-foot craft – propelled by an improvised external steam supply – worked just well enough to convince the anti-British Fenian Brotherhood to fund Holland’s next prototype. This is the original Holland I in the Paterson Museum, but the conning tower is a later reconstruction.

Thus, John Holland’s first submersible, subsequently known as Holland Boat No. I, was laid down in some secrecy at the Albany Iron Works in New York City. In the spring of 1878, the boat was moved to a second iron works in Paterson – more convenient for its inventor – and launched into the Passaic River there on 22 May. Holland I was 14 feet long, weighed 2-1/4 tons, and was intended to be powered by a 4-horsepower Brayton-cycle petroleum engine driving a single screw. Fitted with both ballast and compressed air tanks fore and aft, the boat had a crew of one – Holland himself. After some initial difficulty in trimming the craft – and failing entirely to get the Brayton-cycle engine to run on gasoline – Holland eventually connected the engine to a flexible hose from an accompanying launch and drove the boat with an external steam supply. For his Fenian backers, he succeeded on 6 June in demonstrating a surface run at approximately 3-1/2 knots, submergence, an underwater transit at a depth of 12 feet, and a return to the surface. In a second trial, Holland kept his boat on the bottom for an hour and returned safely, which so impressed the Fenians that they agreed to fund a larger version. Having satisfied himself of the need to ensure stability with a reserve of positive buoyancy and a fixed center of gravity, the relative inefficiency of amidships hydroplanes, and the eventual perfectibility of the petroleum engine, John Holland stripped the boat of usable equipment and scuttled it in the Passaic River.

After some internal bickering within the Fenian Brotherhood about further use of the Skirmishing Fund for building submersibles, work on Holland’s second boat was begun in May 1879 at the Delamater Iron Works in Manhattan, and it was launched into the Hudson River two years later. Despite continuing attempts at secrecy, the new submarine had already attracted the attention of both the press and a half-dozen foreign navies, and when it became generally suspected that the new craft had been paid for by the Brotherhood, the New York Sun dubbed it the Fenian Ram, and the name stuck.1 The full-sized Fenian Ram embodied most of the key features of the fully-evolved “Holland Boat” of 1900, and as Holland himself noted, “There is scarcely anything required of a good submarine boat that this one did not do well enough, or fairly well.” The Ram’s spindle-shaped hull was 31 feet long and roughly six feet in diameter, with a shallow conning turret on top. Powered by a two-cylinder, 17-horsepower Brayton-cycle engine and armed with a co-axial pneumatic “dynamite gun”2 in the bow, the 19-ton boat was intended to support a crew of three: a commander, an engineer, and a gunner.

Holland moved the Fenian Ram into the Morris Canal Basin on the New Jersey side of the Hudson and commenced two years of experimentation that began with a dockside submergence test in June 1881. By mid-1883, he was conducting regular experimental trials as far south as the Narrows of New York Harbor and along the Brooklyn shore, achieving a surface speed of nine knots and submerging as deep as 50 feet. Holland also staged several successful demonstrations of the pneumatic gun, projecting a dummy warhead both underwater and through the air to distances of several hundred yards. In parallel, he continued tinkering with his design, incrementally improving maneuverability, speed, and range, while simultaneously building a 16-foot, one-ton model with which he intended to perfect his more advanced ideas on submerged navigation.

However, Holland’s steady progress in improving the Fenian Ram came to an abrupt halt in November 1883 as a result of bitter internal dissension in the Fenian Brotherhood over the Ram’s actual potential for harming the British and a consequent lawsuit over the expenditures of the Skirmishing Fund. Late one night that month, fearful of seeing the submarine seized in the ongoing legal proceedings, one of the warring factions gained access to the pier where the boat was moored and towed it surreptitiously to New Haven, Connecticut. Holland’s 16-foot model was dragged away also, only to founder in the East River, swamped by unexpectedly choppy water. The Fenian Ram’s new custodians attempted to operate the submarine in New Haven Harbor, but their ineptitude led the harbor master to declare the boat a menace to navigation, and additional trials were forbidden. Consequently, the Ram was soon abandoned by its putative owners, and the Fenians offered no further backing for John Holland’s experiments on what they had called “the salt water enterprise.”3

Photo caption follows Holland incorporated all the key concepts he had deduced about submarine navigation and then confirmed in Holland I in the so-called Fenian Ram, built in New York City between 1879 and 1881. The 19-ton submersible was powered by a 17-horsepower Brayton engine and armed with a pneumatic “dynamite gun” for two years of increasingly successful tests in New York Harbor. At the time of this photograph, circa 1923, the Fenian Ram was on display at the former New York State Marine School in the South Bronx.