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Holland’s First Navy Contract – the Plunger

The Navy’s 1893 submarine competition attracted eight contenders, including Holland, Nordenfeldt, and – for the first time – Simon Lake, who would become America’s second commercial submarine builder a decade later. [Ed. Note: See “The Submarine Heritage of Simon Lake” in the Fall 2002 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.] Another entrant with influence in Washington was George C. Baker of Chicago, who had already demonstrated his own submarine on Lake Michigan the previous year. When word got out that the review board again preferred Holland’s design, Baker was able to delay the outcome by noting that Holland’s entry existed only on paper and coercing the Navy into witnessing a demonstration of his “real” boat. The result of that trial – which went badly – served only to justify a “final” recommendation to the Secretary of the Navy in favor of Holland in September.

But in the face of another protest from Baker, the Secretary still procrastinated, and it wasn’t until March 1895 – Baker having meanwhile died of appendicitis and with Elihu Frost enthusiastically marketing Holland’s design to foreign governments – that he yielded to intense lobbying by Frost and others and agreed to award a construction contract for $200,000. The new submarine was laid down at the Columbian Iron Works and Dry Dock Company in Baltimore, coincidentally in the same graving dock where Simon Lake’s Argonaut I was being built at the same time. To meet the letter of the Navy’s requirements, which required a surface speed of 15 knots and a correspondingly large propulsion plant, the new boat – named Plunger – emerged as a real behemoth: 85 feet long and nearly 12 feet in diameter, with submerged displacement of 168 tons. Powered on the surface by two triple-expansion steam engines with a total of 1,625 horsepower, Plunger used storage batteries and a 70-horsepower electric motor underwater, with the former charged by a smaller compound steam engine. Steam at 200 pounds per square inch was supplied by an enormous boiler amidships directly below the conning tower – through which a retractable smokestack protruded – and the boat was fitted with three propellers, one for each main engine, and a third for the electric motor. Two torpedo tubes were to be carried in the bow.

Photo caption follows As a result of its third submarine design competition in 1893, the Navy awarded the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company a contract to build the submersible Plunger, shown here dockside at the Columbian Iron Works in Baltimore circa 1897. 85 feet long, 168 tons, and steam powered in the forlorn hope of achieving 15 knots on the surface, Plunger was doomed to failure from the outset. The
Navy’s insistence on tinkering with Holland’s design only exacerbated the problems that led to her abandonment – without ever submerging – in 1900.
The formal requirement for high surface speed had already forced Holland to compromise his design principles with a triple-screw configuration, and as construction progressed, his difficulties were compounded by numerous other Navy-demanded modifications, including vertical thrusters fore and aft to facilitate “level diving.” As he supervised the work on Plunger in Baltimore during 1895 and 1896, it became increasingly clear to Holland that the constantly changing design would never satisfy the Navy specification. Then, after the ship was launched in August 1897, dockside power-plant trials revealed – not surprisingly – that the unshielded boiler made the fire room uninhabitable on the surface and that its residual heat precluded submerged operation by the crew even with the boiler shut down.6 All told, Plunger was shaping up as an embarrassing failure.

The Genesis of Holland VI

While Plunger’s problems remained unsuspected, the U.S. Senate held a series of hearings on submarine warfare in early 1896 at which William Kimball – now a lieutenant commander, naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan, and several other authorities testified expansively about the valuable role that submersibles might play in the future U.S. Navy. As a direct result, Congress acted in June of that year to authorize the purchase of two more submarines of the Plunger type and appropriated $350,000 for the purpose. Gratified by this new evidence of support – but with growing certainty that the original Plunger was a dead end – Holland subsequently convinced his colleagues at the Holland Torpedo Boat Company to build a new submarine prototype as a private venture, independent of Navy requirements and in strict accordance with his own conception. Thus, in late 1896, while construction continued doggedly on Plunger in Baltimore, Holland VI 7 was laid down at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, New Jersey, with Charles Morris as superintending engineer.

Photo caption follows With an Electric Boat crew in control, Holland VI is shown on the surface off what is probably Long Island in mid-1899. Fully incorporating the submarine design principles John Holland had validated in the Fenian Ram twenty years before, Holland VI became the prototype for virtually all modern submarines. Purchased by the government a year later and renamed USS Holland (SS-1), the 53-foot long submersible became the Navy’s first submarine, commissioned in October 1900.

Holland’s “ideal” submarine reverted back to the Fenian Ram in several important ways. Essentially a football-shaped paraboloid of revolution with a small superstructure on top, Holland VI was 53 feet long with a maximum diameter of just over ten feet. Her draft on the surface was 8-1/2 feet, where she displaced 63 tons; submerged displacement was 75 tons. Although he abandoned the Brayton-cycle engine, Holland returned to internal combustion to power the boat, with a 45-horsepower Otto gasoline engine, which also drove a “dynamotor” for charging a battery of 60 wet cells with a capacity of 1,500 ampere-hours.8 In submerged operation with the battery powering the dynamotor, endurance was eight hours at five knots. Holland VI’s single screw was mounted just above the centerline, with depth planes and rudder at the stern. The U-shaped main ballast tank, matched to the cross-section of the hull, was located amidships and rose outboard of the battery compartment. Even when completely ballasted, the boat was positively buoyant, and again, dynamic forces generated by the stern planes held it down, while small trim tanks fore and aft facilitated minor adjustments. Originally, the armament consisted of two pneumatic guns, bow and stern, and a torpedo tube forward.

Compared to the pace on Plunger, work proceeded rapidly on Holland VI, and she was launched on 17 May 1897. During her fitting out in mid-October, however, a careless workman left open one of her sea-valves, and she sank at the pier, immersing the entire electrical plant in salt water for 18 hours. Desperate to refurbish the ruined electrical equipment in place instead of dismantling the hull to replace it entirely, Holland called in expert opinion – a young technician named Frank Cable – from the firm that manufactured the dynamos. Cable devised a method for driving electric current backward through the armatures to develop internal heat, and after a week, they were dry enough to repair. Cable returned to his home organization in Philadelphia, but only a few months later, his interest piqued by what he had seen of Holland VI, he came back to Elizabethport to become Holland’s chief electrician – and to begin a life-long career in submarine building.

In late February 1898, repairs completed, John Holland took his new submarine to sea for the first time under her own power, and on 11 March, he successfully conducted an initial pier-side submergence test. Although subsequently it took several trial-and-error attempts to optimize the weight of the boat’s fixed ballast before he succeeded in diving and surfacing while underway in a full-fledged trial, Holland achieved that long-awaited milestone in several test runs off Staten Island on 17 March 1898. It was St. Patrick’s Day.

That first successful trial of Holland VI occurred only a month after a mysterious explosion sank USS Maine at her moorings in the harbor of Havana, Cuba and a month before the Spanish-American War would be formally declared. With war fever gripping the country, the Holland Torpedo Boat Company clearly hoped that the Navy would buy Holland VI outright, and Holland immediately invited the service to send representatives to see his boat perform. The first Navy demonstration, including a firing of the dynamite gun, took place on 27 March and was sufficiently successful that on 10 April, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt recommended to Secretary John D. Long that the Navy buy the boat. As Roosevelt noted, “Sometimes she doesn’t work perfectly, but often she does, and I don’t think in the present emergency we can afford to let her slip.”

Several days after Roosevelt’s recommendation, a second and more elaborate demonstration was staged in nearby Raritan Bay for a formal Navy Board of Inspection. Although Holland VI’s performance exceeded anything that could possibly have been expected from Plunger, the government drew back from making a purchase commitment. In late May, after war had been declared, Holland attempted to force a decision by proposing publicly to demonstrate the effectiveness of Holland VI by single-handedly sinking the Spanish fleet holed up in Santiago de Cuba, if the Navy would only transport his boat to the Caribbean. Unfazed by the government’s refusal of his offer, Holland commenced a summer-long series of test runs in Lower New York Bay from a new base of operations in Brooklyn, while incrementally improving his design. Another official Navy trial took place in mid-November, and while Holland VI performed reasonably well and even fired a Whitehead torpedo successfully, the Board of Inspection reported difficulties in controlling the boat and steering a straight course while submerged. Perhaps also somewhat wary of Holland’s bona fides because of Plunger’s uncertain prospects, the Navy still refused to move.

Drawing caption follows
This inboard profile of USS Holland shows the boat essentially in the form that was accepted by the Navy – with the after dynamite gun eliminated and the rudders moved abaft the propeller for greater hydrodynamic efficiency. The U-shaped main ballast tank was located amidships beneath and outboard of the 60-cell storage battery. Lacking a periscope, the commanding officer had only several small windows in the minimal conning turret to maintain “situational awareness” when submerged.