This article was written by Captain Frank T. Cable as The Submarine Torpedo Boat Holland: First Submarine to Become a Part of the United States Navy for the February 1943 issue of Proceedings magazine.
My association with the inventor Holland dated from early in 1897. I was living in Philadelphia at the time as a technician connected with the Electro-Dynamic Company of that city. My first acquaintance with the submarine Holland was made through reading a graphic newspaper account of her remarkable features, as they were then regarded. It reminded me of Jules Verne’s Nautilus; one seemed as real as the other. I was asked if I would care to take an undersea trip in the Holland, and my answer was that not for anything would I be tempted to do so. Yet it fell out that in less than six months I found myself in command of this boat, and for twelve years afterward I spent more time under water than on top.
I became the skipper of the Holland through being the accidental means of reconditioning her electrical equipment after she had sunk, when near completion, at the Crescent Shipyard, Elizabethport, New Jersey, then owned by Lewis Nixon. One night, when the boat was lying alongside dock undergoing minor changes, a careless workman left a small valve open. In the night the boat filled and sank. She remained submerged for about eighteen hours, during which her electrical equipment and machinery were at the mercy of salt water. At that time motors and generators were not protected from the injurious effect of contact with salt water as they are today. The insulation was ruined and some means had to be found to restore it. To remove the electrical equipment and rebuild the boat meant a large outlay, as the entire upper part of the hull would have to be raised in order to take out the machinery. The Holland Company vainly tried every known method of drying out the motors and generators by applying heat externally. As a last resort the Electro-Dynamic Company was notified, and sent me to investigate. After an examination I decided that there was only one way of remedying the trouble, and if this course was adopted there was a chance of restoring the boat. The Holland Company assumed all responsibility, the work was started, and in four days completed and the job pronounced satisfactory.
The Holland was regarded as the most important contribution to naval science so far devised. The submarine problem, which had beset experts for a century, had at last come within the field of practical and successful application. We wonder at the perfection the submersible has reached today, but it was the result of the labors of inventors wrestling with the idea long before the time of Bushnell and Fulton. Holland picked up the threads which others had lost or could not grasp. Thus submarine navigation was no longer the ineffective pursuit of cranks who had not mastered its fundamentals.
No longer a fad or a toy, the submarine became, in the shape of the Holland, a “monster war fish,” a “devil of the deep,” a “hell diver,” as the vessel came to be called. Strictly speaking, the boat was a torpedo, but a torpedo controlled in all its workings by human agency inside the craft, instead of being automatic in its operations. The ordinary torpedo, by an arrangement of springs to counteract the water pressure, was made to go through the water at any depth. It had to follow a path fixed for it beforehand. When it had run its course it came to the surface or sank, in accordance with a predetermined plan. The men inside the Holland controlled her at will.
As Lieutenant Commander Kimball put it before the Society of Naval Architects, thousands of submarine boats were actually in use in all parts of the world in the shape of automobile torpedoes, which were nothing more or less than automobile submersibles. The only difference in principle was that an actual submarine had a controlling brain, while directing automata motivated the torpedo.
The Holland was 53 feet long, and at her widest part 101-feet in diameter. She had a displacement of 74 tons. Her frames were exact circles of steel set a little more than a foot apart. They diminished gradually in diameter from the center of the boat to the bow and stern. On top of the boat was a flat superstructure to afford a walking platform, and under this were spaces for exhaust pipes and for the external outfit of the boat, such as ropes and a small anchor. Her armament consisted of one 18-inch torpedo tube and two 8-inch dynamite guns.
A turret extended upward through the superstructure about 18 inches. It was only about 2 feet in diameter and afforded the only means of entrance. It was also the one place from which the boat could be operated. At the stern was an ordinary 3-bladed propeller and an ordinary rudder; in addition there were two horizontal rudders—”diving rudders” they were called—which looked like the feet of a duck spread out behind as it swam along.
The boat was propelled on the surface by a gasoline engine and under water by electricity. Holland encountered the usual difficulty in obtaining the right engine; he almost despaired of finding one. The internal-combustion gasoline engine giving large power with small space and weight had just been developed, and large storage batteries with corresponding electric motors were available. Chance took the inventor to an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden, where he noticed the exhibit of an electric-light plant designed for a country home. The generator was driven by a 50-hp. Otto gasoline engine. “That is what I want for my boat!” he exclaimed. He promptly bought the engine and installed it on the Holland. But for the development of the gasoline engine, the submarine might never have passed beyond the experimental stage.
From the bow two-thirds of the way to the stern was a flooring, beneath which were the storage batteries, the tank for the gasoline, and the tanks filled with water to submerge the boat. Holland specially showed his genius in his ballast tanks. In later boats he greatly improved their operation. No submarine could be counted a success which did not follow the lines of tank construction that he later devised. In earlier submarines the tanks were constructed without subdivision, large enough to hold the required maximum of water, and consequently were rarely totally filled. Hence this water flowed freely from one end of the tank to the other as the boat’s angle changed. This prevented the boat from preserving a proper trim. Holland realized this defect, and laid down the rule that the main storage tanks should be of such a capacity that when entirely filled the boat would be brought to the awash condition only, and that the final adjusting of the buoyancy of the boat must be made by the use of a small tank with only a small free-water surface if not entirely filled. So the main ballast tanks were entirely empty or completely filled.
There were about a dozen openings in the boat, the chief of them three Kingston valves, by means of which the ballast tanks were filled or emptied. Others admitted water to pressure gauges, which regulated or showed the depth of the vessel under water. There were twelve headlights in the top and sides of the craft.
It could be steered to the surface by the diving rudders, or sent flying to the top by emptying the storage tanks. If it struck bottom or become stuck in the mud, it could blow itself loose by compressed air. It could not be sunk unless pierced above the flooring. It had a speed of 7 knots on the surface and 5 knots submerged.
It could go 1,500 miles on the surface without renewing its supply of gasoline, and fully 40 knots underwater without coming up. There was enough compressed air in the tanks to supply a crew with fresh air for 30 days, if the air was not used for any other purpose, such as emptying the submerging tanks. It could dive to a depth of 20 feet in 8 seconds.
There were no periscopes in those days. The ingenious French, who were to devise this valuable eye for the submarine, had not yet developed it from the sighting contrivance of prisms and lenses which Goubet used about this period. The Holland consequently had to be handled by porpoising. This was a simple resort to the movements of the porpoise, which the inventor took as his model for diving. In porpoising the boat ran a short distance submerged and then came to the surface far enough to expose the conning tower, thus getting a chance to look around, and then diving. This bobbing up and disappearing was swiftly effected; the boat would rise to the surface from a depth, say, of 30 feet, focus on an imaginary target, if such was the occasion for the maneuver, fire its torpedo, and be quickly under water again.
With the turret hatch clamped down before submerging, the operator looked through little plate-glass windows, about an inch wide and 3 inches long, which encircled the turret. These windows were valuable while the boat was running on the surface; they gave a complete view of the surroundings if the water was smooth. But once under water, the windows were useless; it was impossible to see through the water. Steering had to be done by compass. A tiny electric light in the turret showed the operator his direction and revealed the markings on the depth gauges. If the boat passed under an object, such as a ship, a perceptible shadow would be noticed through the headlights, but that was all. The ability to see fishes swimming about in the water is a pleasant fiction.
The only clear space in the body of the boat was directly in front of the bench on which stood the operator. It was where the 18-inch torpedo tube was loaded.
Along the sides of this open space were six compressed air tanks, containing 30 cubic feet of air, at a pressure of 2,000 pounds to the square inch. Near by was a smaller tank, containing 3 cubic feet of air, at a 50-pound pressure. A still smaller tank contained 2 cubic feet of air, at a 10-pound pressure.
The machinery was packed away closely behind the turret. Against the roof on the port side was the little engine which steered the vessel by compressed air. On the starboard side was the diving engine, fastened with disks that looked as large as dinner plates standing on edge at each end. These disks were diaphragms on which the water pressure exerted an influence, counteracting certain springs which were set to keep the diving rudders at a given pitch, thus insuring an immersion of an exact depth during a run.
At one side was a cubic steel box—the air compressor; and directly in the center of this part of the boat, a long pendulum, as in the ordinary torpedo, swung backward and forward as the boat dived or rose, checking a tendency to go too far down or come up at too sharp an angle. On the floor were the levers which, when raised and moved in certain directions, filled or emptied the ballast tanks.
There were also pumps in the boat, a ventilating apparatus, and a sounding contrivance, by means of which the channel was picked out when running under water. This sounding contrivance consisted of a heavy weight attached to a piano wire passing from a reel out through a stuffing box in the bottom of the boat. There were also valves which released fresh air to the crew when necessary in long runs.
This was the craft whose performances were to attract the eyes of the world and earn for her the credit of being the first submarine boat to achieve real success, to the extent to which practicable underwater navigation was then understood.
Before the boat was completed many of the stockholders were anxious to see a demonstration as they were more or less skeptical. On March 17, 1897, we made our first dive which ended in a mud bank at the lower end of Staten Island.
Early in 1898 the Holland, virtually completed, was removed from her Elizabethport shipyard to Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The journey was merely a change of location to enable her to undergo preliminary dives by way of feeling out her mechanism. But the Navy Department attached a dark significance to her movements. The Holland was not a government boat and the department had had no hand in her construction. She was produced, as it were, beyond the pale of official recognition. Despite congressional provision for submarine construction, the department’s bureaucratic mind remained coldly skeptical as to the practical outcome of the projected outlay. The luckless Plunger had failed because of her enormous steam installation and her lack of stability. Why not the Holland, too, if not through these defects, at any rate from others she would be bound to reveal? Outwardly the Navy Department declined to admit that the Holland was a war vessel; it would not concede that the boat promised to be of service. Nevertheless, the department’s action belied its attitude; it nervously watched the Holland.
War with Spain was in immediate prospect. Foretokens of that brief conflict were manifest in a rising hostile sentiment against Spain because of the desperate repressive measures to which she had resorted in the hopeless attempts to subjugate the Cubans. The U.S.S. Maine was at Havana, whither she had been sent to safeguard American interests from supposed danger through military riots which broke out in that city. As an offset to the Maine’s presence off Havana, the Spanish warship Vizcaya had been sent to New York, and was now anchored in the harbor.
The Navy Department decided that the Holland had designs on the Vizcaya. It wired an order to the commandant of the New York Navy Yard, Admiral Bunce, to watch the vessel and, if necessary, seize her. The Holland had in her bow an 8-inch dynamite gun. Just before leaving Elizabethport several wooden projectiles were made to fit this gun, which, at a distance, resembled the real thing. These projectiles were on board. Several hours after we had left Elizabethport for Perth Amboy a tug from the navy yard appeared, looking for us. Some workmen in the shipyard informed the tug’s captain that we were loaded with dynamite shells and had gone down the river. This information, coming on top of the instructions from Washington, started the tug in pursuit.
Meantime we had reached Perth Amboy and had tied up out of sight in a basin behind an old canal boat. The Navy’s tug passed without a suspicion of our presence. After cruising all day in a blind search for us, the tug returned to the navy yard and reported its failure, also, no doubt, that the Vizcaya was unharmed. It was several days before we were located.
Numerous changes in the boat’s mechanism were found necessary before we made our next test.
In the early days of submarines the compass was one of our most troublesome instruments. Space in our conning tower was limited and we could not use a compass with a card of more than 2 inches in diameter. Even such an imperfect guide might have sufficed had it not been necessary to place it within a few inches of the steel hull. Owing to its close proximity to the steel, we were obliged to have it heavily compensated with permanent magnets. Accordingly, we had an instrument which was very sluggish and not at all accurate. The boat might take a sudden sheer and deviate a considerable distance off the course before the compass would register the change.
We took serious risks in cruising under lower New York Bay. Once the skipper of a lumber schooner called on Holland at his New York office. The inventor remembered that in diving the previous day he had almost collided with such a craft, but, seeing his danger, had dropped 15 or 20 feet to clear her.
“I am the captain of that lumber schooner,” his visitor announced. “Your boat dived under my craft as I came up the Narrows and struck her bottom, seriously damaging the copper sheathing, and I’ve come to collect damages.”
“If such a thing were so,” retorted Holland, “your copper bottom would have ripped off the top of my conning tower and I would not have been here to talk to you.”
The Navy Department took official cognizance of the Holland shortly after she was launched. The officer assigned to inspect her, Lieutenant Sargent, reported that the boat had “fully proved her ability to propel herself, to dive, come up, admit water to her ballast tanks, and to eject it again without difficulty.” The Holland, he added, appeared to him to be more efficient than he imagined her to be before making the inspection, and promised to be an ultimate success.
Trials followed in Prince’s Bay, Staten Island, before a special board appointed by the Secretary of the Navy to determine whether the government should take over the boat. These trials were very different from the stringent tests the Holland boats had to undergo later. They consisted only of a submerged run of 2 miles, during which we could come to the surface as often as we chose and stay as long as we wanted. In addition we fired a dummy torpedo from our only tube, and a dummy projectile from our dynamite gun.
The trials lasted about two hours. No time was taken by the board; it did not know whether the boat was making 4 knots or 24. Nor was any time taken for the loading of a torpedo; in fact, no member of the board was in the boat.
During our submerged trial run we came to the surface within a few feet of a fisherman who had evidently never seen a submarine. Just what passed through his mind when he saw this uncanny object come up, evidently from the bottom of the sea, we never knew, but the rapidity with which he hoisted anchor and set sail for home led us to believe that he would tell a remarkable story to his friends ashore. It turned out that he had an eye for business, as we received a bill from him for the breaking of one centerboard. The bill was paid, although we were not responsible.
The report of the board was such that the Navy Department recommended further trials. To prepare for another board’s inspection, we spent the entire summer making changes and testing improved devices, with our base at South Brooklyn. All our submerged work was done in New York Bay, between Governor’s Island and Fort Hamilton, the worst place we could have selected. When submerged we did not know whether we would come up under a mud scow or an ocean liner. Since this was before the days of periscopes, we had no means of observation except by bringing the boat to the surface.
In November of 1898 we conducted our second set of official trials. They yielded about the same result as the first. The board appointed this time by the Navy Department was headed by Captain Evans, the famous “Fighting Bob” who commanded the battleship Iowa in the Spanish-American War. They required us to fire a Whitehead torpedo. We had never before attempted to load the torpedo tube of the Holland with a real charge. A part of the boat’s structure interfered with the operation, and it was necessary to remove the obstacle before the torpedo tube could be loaded.
We did all we were asked to do, but it was not enough. The board reported that the boat steered erratically; this they believed was due to the inexperience of the skipper. As I happened to be the skipper and did not want the boat condemned, I accepted the verdict. I promised myself that the next set of trials would be run by a more experienced man, and I would be the man.
Up to this time Holland had built five boats. All but the Holland had gone into the discard. In each he had placed the rudders forward of the propeller. I have yet to see a boat with the rudder in this position that can be handled satisfactorily. He had always navigated the boats himself and claimed that their steering qualities were good. My first attempt at navigating the Holland was during a run made several weeks before the official trials, and I found that steering her was the most unsatisfactory task I had ever undertaken. The criticism annoyed Holland, but he encountered worse from a group of spectators who had been watching our maneuvers from the deck of a small tug. One of them compared the course of the Holland to that of a drunken washerwoman.
On all the earlier runs Holland’s method of trimming the boat for submerging, from the viewpoint of later submarine navigators, was exceedingly crude. We were always accompanied by a tug which carried several hundred pounds of pig iron, which was utilized as ballast. The boat was carefully ballasted before leaving the dock, but if Holland found that she was too light, when he got out into the bay, with all the tanks full, he would blowout some of the ballast, come alongside the tug, and take on a fresh supply of pig iron. If, on the other hand, he found her too heavy, with tanks all full, he would remove some of the iron. This process would sometimes consume two hours.
At length I suggested to Holland that he adjust this trim by putting in or leaving out water in the forward ballast tank, and put enough fixed ballast on board so that this tank would only be partially filled at any time. This method did not appeal to him, as he did not believe at that time—he did so later—in carrying any tanks only partially filled.
It took considerable argument to convince him that the change was practical, but a trial was made and the result proved fully satisfactory. It eliminated the necessity of carrying ballast on the tender. Later two trimming tanks were installed to adjust changes of trim due to variation in the specific gravity of the water or in the weight and number of persons carried from time to time.
So far, Holland himself always handled both steering and diving rudders. As we had never operated in water of great depth, the usual method followed was to put the diving rudder hard down until the boat was running along the bottom, and then leave it there. If the bottom was level, the boat would maintain an even depth; she could not go any deeper, and the down rudder would keep her from coming up, I suggested that I handle the diving rudder, while he steered. This change worked well and henceforth the diving rudder had a separate operator.
Our instruments were more or less crude. We had no regular gauges to tell us how deep we were submerged, nor accurate clinometers recording the boat’s angle when diving, both positions most important to ascertain. In handling the diving rudder I had to depend on an ordinary steam gauge 6 inches in diameter, calibrated to 100 pounds. This instrument would register only a small fraction of an inch for each foot in depth, and it was impossible to ascertain from it the actual depth we were submerged by several feet. For a clinometer I used the wooden stool I sat on in handling the diving rudder, and by the “feel” of this stool under me I could tell when the boat changed its angle. Even by this crude arrangement I was able to gauge the boat’s angle quite accurately.
The need of a highly sensitive instrument for this work led me in 1900 to invent and patent a clinometer, which was adopted in almost every submarine in the world.
Running a vessel under water varies greatly from operating on the surface. Above water a man, walking from amidships to the bow, will depress the bow, displacing a greater amount of water, but the bow will be able to sustain the increased weight. Once submerged, no change of displacement can occur, and therefore such shifting of weight would cause the boat to take a greater angle. As
C. H. Bedell explained it in discussing the later Holland boats,
A weight moved from amidships to one end of the boat would produce a leverage to swing this pendulum from the vertical-in other words, to cause the boat to take an angle by the bow or stern. As a submarine when submerged will go the way she is pointed, it will readily be seen that change of angle will cause her to change her depth. The man at the diving wheel nowadays not only has his wheel and depth gauge before him but also a clinometer, a sort of level by which he can tell the exact angle of the ship and therefore tell whether the boat will change her depth or not as she goes along. As a matter of fact the boat is swinging up or down a little most of the time, and it is the duty of the man at the diving wheel to check these motions and control the boat so that she will remain at the depth desired.
In operating the Holland great care had to be exercised to obviate a shifting of weight when the boat was running submerged. Nowadays, with much larger boats, a man’s weight bears such a small ratio to the total weight that a crew’s ordinary movements are negligible.
As Holland’s plans now engaged his entire attention, the conduct of further trials was delegated to me. Reconstruction work, necessary to improve the Holland‘s efficiency, occupied us for some months. These changes included cutting part off the stern, putting the propeller forward and the rudders aft. The after dynamite gun was useless and we removed it.
Up to that time no provision had been made for torpedo compensation. In a submarine boat of this size compensation for weights was very important. In other words, when the boat was once trimmed for diving, no additional weight could be taken in or expelled without affecting the boat’s trim. When a torpedo was fired the tube instantly filled with water. To maintain the trim this water had to be kept in the same relative position. Hence it was necessary to install compensation tanks, in which the water from the tube could be blown or pumped in order to load another torpedo. Each compensating tank held a weight of water corresponding to the weight of the torpedo. The steering gear had also to be rebuilt and rearranged.
These changes were completed about April, 1899, and we were again ready to begin our underwater work. While we were passing through this period of rebuilding, many of the people who were financing the enterprise became dissatisfied; they could not understand why a submarine boat, once finished, required improvements. They were told that if they desired the project to proceed to a successful end they must leave the engineering staff alone. This advice was taken.
No satisfactory experiments could be undertaken anywhere around New York, owing to traffic, shoal water, and other obstacles. Searching for a good practice ground, we decided that Peconic Bay, a few miles above Greenport, Long Island, was an ideal spot, with New Suffolk as our location. There, early in June, we removed our entire outfit on a steam lighter with the little Holland in tow.
Our first shop, which we built ourselves, was a one-story building 7 by 9 feet, and cost, when completed, about $35. Before the season was over, we outgrew it and rented another building close by, for which we paid $4.00 a month rent, an excessive sum, but we needed the building.
Our program embraced putting the Holland through her paces to fit her for undergoing a series of further trials the Navy Department had mapped out. The tests were much more elaborate and difficult than any she had so far endured. Between times we would give public exhibitions for the benefit of representatives of foreign navies, newspaper men, and some of our friends. Some of these runs were more or less exciting.
On one of these trips we had Clara Barton, founder of the Red Cross, on board as a guest. Perhaps she was the first woman to venture in a submarine. We ran the Holland for several miles on the surface, then submerged her and Miss Barton to a depth of 15 feet on a run of 2 miles. Holland explained to her the boat’s mechanism, particularly the operation and effect of the torpedo. If he looked for congratulations on his ingenuity, he did not get them. On the contrary, she expressed her great surprise that any American citizen should be guilty of inventing such a deadly instrument of war. Holland, with his usual Irish good nature, assured her that to take life was not the purpose of the boat, but rather the contrary. He believed that if all the nations of the world were equipped with submarines there would be no war. The World War proved that he erred.
Had Miss Barton been on board on another occasion, her disapproval of the submarine as a deadly weapon even in peace times would have been sustained by experience. We had arranged to give an exhibition for the benefit of U. S. Senator William M. Stewart of Nevada, and Major General M. C. Butler, of South Carolina, together with several representatives of foreign governments. The program provided for a surface run of several miles, a submerged run of 2 miles, a torpedo attack on an imaginary enemy, and a flight under sea. The exhibition was intended to prove that if the unsuspecting vessel was anchored she would have gone to the bottom as the Maine did in Havana Harbor.
During the summer of 1899 we made many changes in the operating mechanism of the boat. At the same time we gave a number of exhibition runs to prove that submarines would be a valuable addition to any Navy.
On November 6, 1898, we made our third and last official run of the Holland before a Board appointed by the Navy. As a result of these trials the United States Government purchased the boat and she became the first submarine to be a part of the United States Navy. I had the pleasure of delivering her in April, 1900. Her first Captain, Lieutenant Harry Caldwell, had been Aide to Admiral Dewey. The Admiral recognized the potentialities of the type and his testimony before the -House Naval Committee was mainly responsible for the appropriation under which the 7 “A” Class Submarines were built.