Undersea Warfare The Official Publication of the Undersea Warfare Community.  Summer 2003 Issue.  U.S. Submarines… Because Stealth Matters Image of magazine cover
CNO N77 Web Site
Submit Feedback
On the Cover
Submit An Article
Washington Watch
Ships at Sea
Undersea Warfare 2002 CHINFO Merit Award

The Adders (later A-1 through A-7, designated SS-2 through SS-8)12 were essentially enlarged versions of Holland VI with a more powerful four-cylinder Otto-cycle gasoline engine – 64 feet long, 123 tons submerged displacement, and 180 horsepower. Their nominal submerged endurance was four hours, and they carried a single 18-inch torpedo tube forward with three torpedoes. Five were laid down at the Crescent Shipyard and two at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, and the last of them (Plunger and Shark) were commissioned in September 1903. These boats – and Holland – provided the Navy’s pioneer submariners their initial entrée into the world of undersea warfare.

The Congress appropriated no additional money for submarines until 1903 and 1904, but in the latter year, the Navy ordered four more from Electric Boat: the three members of the 170-ton B class and the first of the larger, 273-ton C class. Isaac Rice had lobbied vigorously in Washington for more submarines during the fiscal hiatus, but Electric Boat was forced to turn to foreign business to remain afloat, largely by licensing the right to build overseas variants of Holland’s Adder design. Britain’s Vickers Sons & Maxim, Ltd., which had purchased an interest in the Company, built five of these, including the Royal Navy’s first submarine, Holland I, launched in October 1901, only a few months after Adder herself. Similarly, the Russians built six Adder variants under license, and the Dutch, one – their first submarine O-1 – completed in 1906. Additionally, Japan ordered five prefabricated versions, built for Electric Boat at the Fore River (Massachusetts) Shipbuilding Company and assembled in Japan in 1905. Counting Fulton, this meant that within five years, fully 25 of Holland’s A-class submarines were serving worldwide.

Photo caption follows This marvelously evocative photograph shows USS Porpoise (later A-6, SS-7) running at speed on the surface. Of particular interest is the officer steering the boat with a horizontal wheel and the old 13-star ensign at the stern.

Although Holland and L.Y. Spear likely collaborated during the early phases of the B-class design, the ensuing C-class boats – and their successors – were entirely Spear’s. Thus, in the evolution of the A-, B-, and C-class configurations, one can trace the waning of John Holland’s influence and the increasing shift toward L.Y. Spear’s own technical vision. As a former officer of the Navy’s pre-1900 Construction Corps, Spear retained a strong surface-ship orientation. One of Rice’s key motivations in bringing him into Electric Boat was his recent Navy experience and his presumed familiarity with the service’s operational needs and its likes and dislikes. Thus, Spear was quick to retreat from Holland’s ideal concept of the “true” submarine – shaped like a fish and more at home underwater than on the surface. Rather, he – and the Navy – saw the submarine primarily as a submersible surface ship, to be optimized for operating above water.13 Consequently, to improve sea-keeping and to provide greater visibility, a larger, free-flooding superstructure with a sail-like conning tower was grafted onto the pressure hull, and surface buoyancy was significantly enhanced to decrease wetness. To Holland’s dismay, these changes inevitably diminished the boats’ inherent underwater maneuverability and lengthened the time it took them to submerge.

At this time, Holland was experimenting actively with the application of rudimentary automatic controls to submarines, beginning with a “steering vane” intended to facilitate navigating a straight course underwater. He also believed that the commander should be able to maneuver the boat single-handedly with all necessary controls at the conning station. This led to a long series of detailed and complex refinements to his basic design, which increasingly exasperated Electric Boat’s new management, particularly at a time when they were striving to market submarines in quantity. As Isaac Rice later put it, the Company needed ‘a naval constructor, not an inventor,’ and most of Holland’s “improvements” were thrown out.

With his influence diminishing and his ideas ignored, John Holland had become thoroughly disenchanted with Electric Boat within only a few years of its founding – particularly since the company seemed interested only in keeping him as a figurehead and capitalizing on his fame in advertising “Holland-type” boats. Thus, when his five-year contract with the young company expired in spring 1904, he hesitated little before submitting a two-sentence letter of resignation to Isaac Rice. It concluded, pointedly, “The success of your company can never be as great as what I ardently desired for it.”14

The Final Years

Photo caption follows
This is the last knownphotographic portrait of John Holland, taken in 1912 when he retired from public life. After leaving Electric Boat in 1904, Holland sought to establish a new submarine company of his own, but having signed away his patents to EB five years earlier, he was prevented from using them to establish himself as a competitor. Within afew years, “John P. Holland’s Torpedo Boat Company” went under, and Holland abandoned the submarine business. He died in August 1914, only two weeks after the outbreak of World War I.

It was John Holland’s intention in leaving Electric Boat to found a new submarine company of his own. During the relative idleness of his last several years, he had worked on a more powerfully-engined design that seemed to promise a surface speed in excess of 20 knots. With his Electric Boat stock worth only $50,000, Holland lacked sufficient capital for a major initiative, but with the encouragement of loyal friends like Charles Morris and William Kimball, he built a scale model of his new configuration and tested it in the Navy’s towing tank at the Washington Navy Yard. Despite promising experimental results, a special Naval Board declined to support his design, partly on the grounds that operating an underwater craft at speeds over six knots was considered too dangerous. However, in mid-1904, the Japanese government purchased a set of Holland’s plans and proceeded to build two local variants in Kobe, their sixth and seventh submarines.Presumably lacking the large engines originally intended for them, these boats were little faster than the A class that preceded them, and one was lost with all hands in an accident in 1910.

All of Holland’s subsequent attempts to sell submarines or submarine designs under the aegis of “John P. Holland’s Submarine Boat Company” were thwarted by a series of legal actions by Rice and Frost, who sought to deny the inventor not only the use of his patents for foreign business, but even the use of the name “Holland” for either his company or in marketing “Holland-type” boats. Although the Electric Boat lawsuits were later dismissed, they succeeded in discouraging both the start-up capital and overseas orders that Holland needed to get his company off the ground, and by 1907, the Submarine Boat Company had essentially folded. The next year, when Simon Lake’s political influence moved Congress to investigate the de facto Electric Boat monopoly on U.S. submarine building – amid charges of collusion and covert stock transfers to Navy officials – Holland supported Lake’s position.

Holland lived out the rest of his life in East Orange and Newark, New Jersey, where he enjoyed the company of his family and became quietly active in community affairs. He was slowed down considerably by increasing rheumatism and by a minor stroke and partial paralysis in 1909, but he continued to tinker with mechanical contrivances in a workshop behind his home. In November 1913, Holland suffered a major setback with the death of his 19-year old daughter, Julia, and after his longtime friend Charles Morris passed away a few months later, his own health deteriorated rapidly. He died of pneumonia in Newark on 12 August 1914, only two weeks after the outbreak of the First World War. Almost immediately, “Holland-type” submarines on both sides of the conflict began exacting the early losses of ships and men that showed undersea warfare coming into its own far more rapidly than even John Holland himself could have predicted.15,16


1 Holland’s Fenian craft was never intended to be operated as a “ram,” but its inventor admitted that with its pointed bow and ample displacement, it could have been very effective in that role.

2 The dynamite gun was a short-lived, late 19th-century projectile-firing weapon that used the relatively “soft” impulse of compressed air to launch powerful dynamite warheads that would likely be detonated prematurely by the shock of firing from a conventional powder gun.

3 The Fenian Ram, stripped of its engine, was stored in New Haven until 1916, when it was transported to New York as the centerpiece of a fund-raising event for Irish victims of the Easter Rebellion. After several more relocations, it eventually came to rest in the Paterson (New Jersey) Museum, where it is on display with Holland I, which was raised from the Passaic River in 1927. The 16-foot model still lies somewhere in New York’s East River.

4 Other early submarine pioneers, such as the Swede Thorsten Nordenfeldt and the American Simon Lake, opted for a “level diving” approach, in which their boats submerged on an even keel, largely by carefully establishing near-neutral buoyancy and controlling trim with amidships hydroplanes.

5 This island, formerly Fort Lafayette, is just south of today’s Verranzano Narrows bridge.

6 This same problem was experienced in the Royal Navy’s infamous K-class submarines of World War I, which were also steam-powered to achieve high surface speeds.

7 Holland’s five previous submersibles had been Holland I, the Fenian Ram, the Fenian model, the Zalinski Boat, and Plunger.

8 It appears that this was the first early submarine to combine an internal combustion engine for surface running with an electric motor for underwater operation.

9 Presumably, the requirement for a surface speed of 15 knots was relaxed.

10 In summary, Holland VI and the first of the “improved” boats were bought under the 1896 appropriation; five of the new boats were appropriated in 1900; and the seventh was funded largely with the 1895 appropriation. At the time, there was considerable criticism of the Navy for letting Holland and Electric Boat “off the hook” for Plunger so easily.

11 However, before the two submarines could go head-to-head in a comparative Navy trial scheduled for May 1904 – just after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War – Lake sold Protector to the Russian navy, and within months, Fulton had been sold to them too.

12 The seven boats of the Adder class (later the A class) were originally named Adder, Grampus, Moccasin, Pike, Porpoise, Shark, and Plunger. Confusingly, Plunger – not the earlier unsuccessful boat and actually laid down last – was later designated A-1 (SS-2), presumably because she replaced the earlier Plunger of the original (1895) appropriation. Adder became A-2 (SS-3), etc.

13 This position prompted Holland’s famous observation that “The Navy does not like
submarines because there is no deck to strut on.”

14 Isaac Rice died in 1915. Lawrence Spear and Frank Cable eventually rose to high management positions within Electric Boat after collaborating to establish the New London Ship and Engine Company (NELSECO) in 1910 to build diesel engines for U.S. D- and E-class submarines. Spear became president of Electric Boat in 1940 and then chairman of the board in 1947. He died in 1950, and the submarine tender USS Lawrence Y. Spear (AS-36, commissioned in 1970) was later named after him. Frank Cable served as General Manager of Electric Boat after it absorbed NELSECO in 1930. He died in 1945, and the tender USS Frank Cable (AS-40, commissioned in 1980) was subsequently named for him.

15 Holland is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in the Paterson suburb of Totowa, New Jersey, only a mile or so from the Passaic River, where he first tested Holland I in 1878. His gravestone bears a bas-relief of the famous photograph of him – with walrus mustache and bowler hat – emerging from the conning tower of Holland VI.

16 The U.S. Navy subsequently named two submarine tenders for John Holland: USS Holland (AS-3), which was commissioned in 1926, served as the COMSUBPAC flagship in late World War II, and was decommissioned in 1947; and a second USS Holland (AS-32), which was commissioned in 1963 specifically to tend the SSBN force and decommissioned in 1996.


Bowers, Paul, The Garrett Enigma and the Early Submarine Pioneers, Airlife Publishing, Ltd, 1999.

Friedman, Norman, U.S. Submarines Through 1945 – An Illustrated Design History, U.S. Naval Institute Press (1995)

Harris, Brayton, The Navy Times Baook of Submarines – A Social, Political, and Military History, Berkeley Publishing Group (2001)

Morris, Richard Knowles, John P. Holland – 1841-1914 – Inventor of the Modern Submarine, U. of South Carolina Press (1998)

The author has also found a wealth of useful information on Gary McCue’s comprehensive website devoted to the life and work of John P. Holland: www.geocities.com/gwmccue. Not only is there a detailed technical description of Holland VI but also a computer model that shows how the various subsystems were configured. There is also a large collection of photographs and a set of hyperlinks to all of John Holland’s original patents.