The U.S. Navy, especially after its unhappy experiences with first the Alligator and then the Intelligent Whale, expressed no interest in submarines, but that did not deter private inventors. The most successful and influential of them was John P. Holland, an Irish immigrant who single-mindedly pursued the creation of a practical submarine for 40 years from 1874, submitting in that year a design for a one-man submarine to the navy. It was rejected, but Holland found financial backing from the Fenian Brotherhood, an organization working for Irish independence that saw the potential for submarines in overturning the Royal Navy’s supremacy and forcing Britain to give up its rule of Ireland. He built a gasoline-engine-powered prototype (Holland I ) in 1878, followed by the larger Fenian Ram in 1881. After two years of meticulous trials in New York Harbor, the Fenian Brotherhood, frustrated by Holland’s perfectionism, seized the boat and moved it to New Haven, Connecticut. It eventually was exhibited in Holland’s hometown of Paterson, New Jersey, where it remains today. Holland, meanwhile, formed a new partnership, the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company, with a group led by Edmund L. Zalinsky, a U.S. Army artillery officer. Using additional data gleaned from a half-size boat (Holland III) he had built while the Fenian Ram was undergoing trials, Holland developed a new submarine armed with Zalinsky’s dynamite gun (Holland IV). A botched launching on 4 September 1885 sank the new boat, but it was raised, repaired, and tested. The partnership was unable to find a purchaser for its submarine, however, and the company folded by the winter of 1886.
An open U.S. Navy competition for submarine designs in 1888 revived Holland’s hopes. His design was judged the best, but his sponsoring shipbuilder—the William Cramp and Sons Ship and Engine Building Company at Philadelphia—declined to guarantee its performance and the contract was canceled. He won a second competition the following year, only to see that contract also canceled, when President Benjamin Harrison’s new secretary of the navy, Benjamin F. Tracy, transferred the funds to surface ship projects. Congress again funded a submarine in 1893 and Holland’s design once more won the competition, but it was not until 1895 that the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company received a contract to build the Plunger for the U.S. Navy. Official requirements included steam propulsion and a triple screw arrangement, both of which Holland correctly anticipated would cause problems.
While the Plunger was still being built, the company began construction of a private venture boat, the Holland VI, that more accurately reflected Holland’s concept of a submarine to meet the navy’s needs. This boat proved itself one of the most successful submarines yet built; it attracted much foreign attention and eventually was purchased by the U.S. Navy on 11 April 1900 and commissioned as the Holland. The costs of testing and perfecting it, however, forced Holland to seek additional capital, leading to the incorporation of his firm in 1899 into the Electric Boat Company as a subsidiary. He became the company’s general manager but soon was demoted to chief engineer and learned that ownership of his patents, both U.S. and international, had passed to the Electric Boat Company. He resigned from the firm on 28 March 1904, even as his improved Holland VII design became a spectacular success: 24 examples served with the U.S., British, Russian, Japanese, and Dutch fleets, and provided the starting point for further major development in those countries and Austria-Hungary. Only two further boats designed by Holland himself were constructed, for Japan, before he died on 12 August 1914. The Electric Boat Company, in the meantime, went on to dominate the design of submarines for the U.S. Navy until after the end of World War I and continued as a major exporter of both vessels and designs.