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by John J. Patrick

In France, government quickly took the lead. For two centuries, the French had tried and failed to match the naval power of Britain, their longstanding rival. Eventually, France’s weaker navy settled on a strategy that took superior British sea power for granted. Avoiding pitched battles with the Royal Navy, it would ambush British warships blockading French ports and would send out commerce raiders to decimate the merchant shipping that was the lifeblood of the British Empire.

French naval authorities eagerly embraced any new technology that might help circumvent British sea power. Recognizing the submarine’s potential for mounting surprise attacks on warships and merchant vessels, they not only acquired the new boats conceived by French inventors but also funded the inventors’ work and even joined them in developing submarine technology.

In America, the private sector drove submarine development. The U.S. Navy was more interested in rivaling British naval supremacy than getting around it. Steeped in Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theory of decisive fleet action and buoyed by America’s growing industrial might, the Navy wanted a state-of-the-art battle fleet to rival any in the world. It doubted the usefulness of submarines, and its technical bureaus saw no reason to provide funds for their development, much less to become actively involved.

The naval bureaus’ preoccupation with surface ships made them poor collaborators on submarine projects in any case. Recent success in building America’s first steel fleet left them with preconceptions that crippled their ability to deal with undersea craft. America’s leading submarine inventor, John Holland, learned this to his dismay when he attempted to fulfill a Navy contract to build the experimental submarine Plunger in 1895-97. Unrealistic specifications and insistence on inappropriate features like steam propulsion made it impossible to deliver a viable boat.

image caption follows
S-3, shown under construction at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in July 1918, was the first submarine designed by the U.S. Navy.
The smaller boat undergoing repairs on the left is
O-1, built earlier
by Portsmouth to an Electric Boat design. U.S. Navy photo.

Far-sighted officers like Adm. George Dewey eventually prevailed upon the Navy to acquire a few boats built to Holland’s own designs, beginning with the purchase of Holland VI (USS Holland) in 1900. However, the service showed little interest in gaining any technical knowledge beyond what was required to operate the new vessels. The expertise to develop, design and build them remained firmly in the private sector.

Holland and his great rival, Simon Lake, ran their submarine companies on a shoestring. Their principal assets were the patents they controlled and their expertise and experience. They had minimal facilities and little capital. In the yet-unstructured market for their product, they had to pursue every fleeting opportunity and wheel and deal to make sales. The fledgling submarine companies resembled many hi-tech startups a century later: knowledge-driven, lean, agile, highly entrepreneurial, undercapitalized, and often on the brink of financial ruin.

To build their boats, the companies contracted with whatever shipyard offered the best deal. At one point in the late 1890s, Holland’s ill-fated Plunger and Lake’s first submarine, Argonaut I, were both under construction in the same graving dock at the Columbian Iron Works and Dry Dock Company, in Baltimore, Md. Holland VI, the first submarine commissioned by the Navy, was built at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, N.J., which later built improved Holland boats. Finding it difficult to compete with Holland for U.S. Navy orders, Lake had the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company build boats for shipment to Russia.

In 1899, Isaac Rice, a successful entrepreneur, absorbed Holland’s original firm into the new Electric Boat Company. The new firm included the Electro-Dynamic Company, which produced electric motors and other electrical equipment, and the Electric Launch Company, an established builder of private yachts and other craft in Bayonne, N.J. This diversification helped make Electric Boat (EB) a bit less dependent on future submarine orders, particularly given the growing civilian market for Electro-Dynamic’s products.

Electro-Dynamic provided the electrical installations for Holland boats, and Holland himself had built submarine engines. Thus from the outset, Electric Boat was heavily involved in propulsion, the most complex and expensive aspect of the new boats. Rice might perhaps have envisioned Electric Launch someday expanding into submarine construction, but Electric Boat opted instead to keep the submarine staff focused on their core competencies of development, design and technical oversight. Not for a quarter century would the company build a submarine in a yard of its own. Until then, its boats were built mostly at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, Calif., or the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass.

At first, American submarines used readily available gasoline engines, but gasoline fumes could be dangerous and debilitating in the close quarters of a submerged boat. In 1904, the French navy introduced a submarine powered by the recently invented diesel engine, which used less volatile fuel. Electric Boat began making diesel engines in 1909 at the Fore River Shipyard, but it soon opened a dedicated diesel engine factory in Groton, Conn., run by a subsidiary called the New London Ship and Engine Company (NELSECO).

Avoiding the financial burden of a submarine yard proved wise. Although Electric Boat dominated the U.S. submarine market, business was scarce. The company built only 25 boats for the Navy prior to the World War I build-up. When orders lagged, EB’s carefully nurtured political influence sometimes persuaded Congress to fund boats the Navy did not request.

Like Lake, Electric Boat also scrambled for foreign orders. It sold submarines to both Russia and Japan in the Russo-Japanese War and helped both countries establish their own submarine industries. The company licensed Vickers to build the first submarines for the Royal Navy, and Vickers in turn provided financing that saved EB from bankruptcy.

Simon Lake was so dependent on orders from overseas that he moved to Europe, where he built submarines for Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Finally, in 1908, he got his first U.S. Navy contract, followed by another in FY 09 and a third in FY 10. Returning to America, Lake decided to become a shipbuilder. Newport News built his first two U.S. Navy boats, but the third, Turbot (G-3, later SS-31), was laid down on Oct. 20, 1909, at the Lake Torpedo Boat Company’s new shipyard in Bridgeport, Conn.

After establishing America’s first dedicated submarine yard, Lake’s company went bankrupt in November 1913. Fortunately, the Navy had placed three additional orders with his firm before it failed, and the arms race leading up to World War I promised even more, so Lake was able to get the company and its new yard back in business in a few months.

War broke out in Europe in August 1914. The United States would remain neutral until April 1917, but the U.S. fleet was already expanding. For the first time, funding for submarines became plentiful. The Navy acquired 131 new boats in the World War I era (H through S classes), including 92 designed by EB, 22 by Lake, and, eventually, 19 designed by the Navy itself.

Most of the business went to the usual shipyards. Fore River built 56 subs; San Francisco’s Union Iron Works, 23. The Lake Torpedo Boat Company built 20 and subcontracted another five to builders in Los Angeles, Calif., with no prior submarine experience. Five EB boats went to novice submarine builders in Seattle, Wash. In an unusual move, the Navy acquired the components for six EB boats and assembled them at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (which also built one other boat to an EB design). The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Me., built one boat designed by Lake, then one by EB, and, finally, 11 boats to a Navy design.

For the world’s largest industrial base, 131 submarines was not impressive—even adding 40 that Electric Boat delivered to foreign countries. Britain’s much smaller industrial base produced a comparable number of submarines (E through R classes, less 20 boats from EB). Germany turned out over 400.

One reason for the modest building program was the lack of a compelling mission. The Allies’ oceanic supply lines and massive naval operations gave German U-boats plenty to do. In contrast, the warships and remaining merchant ships of Germany and her allies seldom ventured out of protected waters. Some daring British submariners managed to do damage in restricted enemy waters like the Baltic Sea and the Dardanelles, and British submarines also interdicted German U-boats on their way to prey on Allied shipping, but the Royal Navy had plenty of submarines for these limited missions.

Thus, although funding for U.S. submarines increased notably after 1914 and dramatically after 1917, they never had top priority for materials and labor. In fact, the Navy seemed unable to set any consistent priority. In a November 1917 comment on construction delays, the General Board, which advised the Navy leadership on policy, asserted that submarines had a priority just below the destroyers desperately needed to escort convoys. Yet in the fall of 1918, Electric Boat protested that the government had informed one of its associated shipyards that even cargo ships had a higher priority.

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