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By the end of 1886 the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company was no more, and the salvageable remnants of the Zalinski Boat were sold to reimburse the disappointed investors. Holland was out of luck again.

A Disappointing Hiatus

Having quit his teaching position five years earlier, Holland was left high and dry. The performance of the Fenian Ram had convinced him of the basic soundness of his principles of submarine design and underwater performance: (1) maintaining stability with a fixed, amidships center of gravity by completely filling the main ballast tanks to avoid free-surface effects; (2) operating underwater with small net positive buoyancy and using the hydrodynamic forces generated by stern planes to dive the submarine and keep it down4; and (3) maneuvering with “porpoise-like” movements facilitated by a fish-shaped hull, relatively free of external protuberances. And yet, just when further progress seemed assured, he lost the financial support he needed to continue his work.

At this low point in his fortunes, two new supporters provided Holland the encouragement that kept him going. The first of these was Charles A. Morris, a young engineer and son of the owner of the Morris and Cummings Dredging Company, at whose dock the Fenian Ram had been hosted in New Jersey. Morris had also assisted Holland in building the 16-foot model and became a strong believer in Holland’s submarine vision. Potentially more influential was LT William W. Kimball, USN, who had read news accounts of Holland I and from his posting at the Brooklyn Navy Yard followed closely the development and testing of the Fenian Ram. In late 1883, Kimball – intrigued by the military potential of submarines – invited Holland to dinner and a discussion of mutual interests. The young officer was immediately impressed by the cogency of Holland’s submarine design principles and suggested securing him a position in the Navy Department, where – with official support – he could develop his ideas for the Navy’s benefit. But before Kimball’s initiative could come to fruition, he was sent off on a lengthy foreign cruise, leaving Holland with his hopes aroused but no better off materially.

Before his departure to sea, however, Kimball had introduced John Holland to LT Edmund L. Zalinski, USA, an artillery officer and weapons designer also stationed in Brooklyn. In addition to his Army duties, Zalinski owned and operated the Pneumatic Gun Company, which marketed his own version of the “dynamite gun” that had armed the Fenian Ram. As a business-development ploy, Zalinski hoped to finance the building of a new submarine that would feature his pneumatic gun as its main armament. He offered Holland a position with the Pneumatic Gun Company, and Holland – despairing of the hoped-for Navy job – quickly accepted. Together, the two men founded the “Nautilus Submarine Boat Company,” and Holland began supervising the construction of what became known as the Zalinski Boat in mid-1884 on a small island off Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn.5 The new, cigar-shaped submarine was 50 feet long with a maximum beam of eight feet. To save money, the hull was largely of wood, framed with iron hoops, and again, a Brayton-cycle engine provided motive power. The dynamite gun was mounted horizontally in the bow and required the boat to pierce the surface at an up-angle to launch a projectile through the air. Targets were first spotted through a periscope-like device called a camera lucida, and the superior maneuverability of Holland’s design was then supposed to facilitate a quick dash to the surface and rapid disappearance after the gun was fired. Zalinski predicted that he could achieve ranges of nearly a half-mile with high-explosive charges of several hundred pounds.

By the time that the Zalinski Boat was ready for launching in September 1885, Holland had lost much of his enthusiasm for the project. Operating on a shoestring budget and forced to subordinate his own ideas for improving the submarine to Zalinski’s interest in little more than a vehicle for the dynamite gun, Holland had already revealed significant doubts about the boat’s concept of operations and likely performance to his friend, LT Kimball. Then, during the launching itself, a section of the ways collapsed under the weight of the boat, dashing the hull against some pilings and staving in the bottom. Although the submarine was repaired and eventually carried out several trial runs in lower New York Harbor, by the end of 1886 the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company was no more, and the salvageable remnants of the Zalinski Boat were sold to reimburse the disappointed investors. Holland was out of luck again.

Photo caption follows Essentially a scaled-up Fenian Ram, the Zalinski Boat resulted from a shoestring venture by Holland and Army LT Edmund Zalinski to develop an underwater vehicle for the latter’s proprietary dynamite gun. The 50-foot, wooden-hulled submarine, shown here under construction in Brooklyn, was damaged in a launching accident and although repaired and demonstrated with some success in 1886, was broken up when financial backing ran out.

First U.S. Navy Interest – Ups and Downs

Notwithstanding his precarious financial circumstances, John Holland married Margaret Foley, a younger woman from his old neighborhood in Paterson, in January 1887, and they set up housekeeping in Newark while he continued to pursue support for his work in submarine design. Fortuitously, just at this time, the U.S. Navy – noting sporadic progress in developing submersibles in Europe and likely swayed by the persuasiveness of LT William Kimball – became interested in a submarine initiative of its own. Thus, the Navy Department announced an open competition for designing a submarine torpedo boat in November 1887 and published a circular of requirements – written by Kimball himself – that called for a speed of 15 knots surfaced and eight knots submerged, with underwater endurance of two hours. The boat was to be armed with torpedoes and capable of descending to a depth of 150 feet.

Primed by LT Kimball, Holland was ready. He submitted a design – the details of which remain uncertain – in partnership with the Philadelphia shipbuilders, William Cramp & Sons, and joined a field of four competitors, including the Swede, Thorsten Nordenfeldt, who was also allied with Cramp. After due deliberation, which lasted into the next year, the Navy reviewers eventually announced that Holland’s design had prevailed. But again, the appearance of success was short-lived. When the Cramp shipyard refused to agree to a performance guarantee for what was in reality an experimental prototype, the Navy Board withdrew their approval and recommended another competition.

Accordingly, the requirements circular was re-promulgated in August 1888, much the same designs were submitted for consideration, and once again John Holland was declared the winner. How-ever, after Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland in the presidential election of that year, the new Secretary of the Navy, General Benjamin Tracy, decided to divert the money that had been allocated to the submarine project to complete several surface ships already on the ways. The new program was postponed indefinitely.

This latest setback left Holland both discouraged and dangerously close to penury, particularly since after losing a first son in infancy, he and his wife had a second child on the way. But having collaborated several years earlier with George Brayton himself on refining the latter’s petroleum engine, Holland approached his friend Charles Morris for support in implementing his own improved version as a financial stopgap. Morris was unable to attract significant investment in a new Brayton-cycle engine, nor was he successful in interesting any backers in a series of renewed investigations undertaken by Holland on the problems of heavier-than-air flight. But finally, he offered his friend a low-paying position as a draftsman with the Morris and Cummings Dredging Company, and in desperation, Holland accepted the job in May 1890, a month after the birth of his first surviving child, John P. Holland, Jr.

Holland stayed with Charles Morris for nearly three years, even after Morris was forced out of Morris and Cummings in 1891 and took on other dredging work. Although primarily engaged in the design of dredging equipment, Holland – with Morris’ encouragement – continued his speculative investigations on submarines, manned flight, and oil engines and eventually sent another unsolicited, patent-pending submersible design to the Navy Department. When the Navy failed to acknowledge Holland’s submission, Charles Morris prevailed on a young New York lawyer, Elihu B. Frost – well-connected in Washington – to make inquiries on Holland’s behalf, and Frost was quick to perceive the business opportunities inherent in Holland’s ideas.

Holland’s new submarine design was patented in 1892, an election year that returned Grover Cleveland to the presidency and re-energized support for submarines within the Navy Department. Thus, in March 1893, Congress appropriated $200,000 to reopen the submarine competition, and a month later, the Navy called again for designs and reissued the same requirements circular that had been used in 1887 and 1888. Riding this gathering tide of enthusiasm – to which his political influence had likely contributed – Elihu Frost had already approached Morris with the idea of forming a company to back John Holland in developing a new boat. Consequently, in the spring of 1893, the “John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company” was incorporated in the state of New York with Holland as manager and Frost as secretary-treasurer. In return for a substantial – but not controlling – amount of stock in the new enterprise, Holland later agreed to assign his prior submarine patents and all rights to future inventions to the company.