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The Man Who Invented The Submarine

With a little help from the IRA

Issac Rice
Issac Rice

He was a trailblazer for what would become known as the American Century: Isaac Rice was a law professor, magazine publisher, industrial entrepreneur and a hell of a salesman and exactly 100 years ago he sailed to England and pulled off another big deal. He sold the Royal Navy its first submarine.

It cost ó5,000 and came with four torpedoes, three white mice - the warning system for toxic engine fumes - and a dark reputation. The notion of stealthy, submerged warfare was just emerging as a realistic option, but to the Navy's starchy traditionalists it was an unsporting and ungentlemanly development, and over pink gin in wardrooms across the empire these new submarine 'thingies' were being derided as a contemptible foreign idea, dismissed in the words of one gold-braided Corinthian as

underwater, under-hand and damned unEnglish

But Rice was a persuasive man. President of a new age enterprise called the Electric Boat Company, he had just built the United States Navy's first sub, and in London in the summer of 1900 he finally convinced the Admiralty that in the future, ruling the waves might have to be done from below.

Britain's first submarine, one of an initial order of five built under licence from Electric Boat at Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, was launched in 1901, and the Silent Service and its heroic 100 year aniversary will be celebrated in 2001. But possibly overlooked at the festivities will be the improbable story of how our first submarine was developed by a former monk financed by Irish revolutionaries.

For the Royal Navy submarine flotilla largely owes its birth to money from political radicals who wanted to use these devious new craft in the struggle to drive the British out of Ireland. Like another of the group's projects they tried to invade Canada it didn't quite work out as planned.

The notion of an underwater ship had tantalised for centuries. Leonardo da Vinci designed a submarine and in 1620 a boat enclosed in greased leather and equipped with air tubes to the surface was rowed about a dozen feet under the Thames by 12 oarsmen. An egg-shaped, one-man craft called the Turtle, powered by a pedal operated propeller, made an unsuccessful underwater attack on a British ship in New York harbour during the American War of Independence and in the American Civil War a Confederate sub fashioned from an old steam boiler blew up a Union sloop off Charleston in 1864.

At the time the man who would become father of the modern submarine was at his devotions in Ireland. John Holland was 23 and had been a monk for six years. But at the Christian Brothers monastery in Cork he was being increasingly distracted from the spiritual by the submersible. Implausibly, behind the monastery walls, the submarine had invaded Holland's imagination and mesmerised him and in 1873 he left the order and joining the exodus provoked by the great famine took his fixation to America.

Two years later, working as a teacher in New Jersey, he submitted a submarine design - the operator wore a diving suit and flooded the boat to submerge - to the American government. It wasn't impressed but Holland and his obsession came to the attention of an alternative sponsor: the Irish Republican Navy.

The Fenian Brotherhood, a clandestine organisation started in New York by veterans of the 1848 Irish uprising, was intended to recruit and train exiles to fight against the British for Irish independence, although it was mostly known for a couple of quixotic attacks on Canada, in one of them successfully capturing the flag from an undefended customs post.

To the Irish underground the idea of deploying a submarine for the cause was irresistible, and the group (motto: Never retreat from clashing swords) agreed to fund Holland's development costs out of its 'skirmishing fund'.

They had financed three prototypes over seven years before the growing Fenian submarine fleet became a divisive issue among the brotherhood. Some described as 'those who want their ten cents' worth of revolution every week were outraged to discover the skirmishing fund had been pilfered for purposes for which it was not intended. Controversy raged, and one dark November night in 1883 the dissidents stole the two surviving subs - Holland had scuttled the first - from their New Jersey mooring.

One sank under tow after the brothers forgot to close the hatch but the other was safely hauled to a hiding place on a Connecticut river. Called the Fenian Ram, it was more than 31ft long, weighed 19 tons, carried a crew of three and was armed with a pneumatic gun. In trials it had dived as deep as 45ft but the hijackers discovered that nobody but Holland could operate the boat, so there it sat, a mouldering monument to a distant conflict and an audacious plot.

Holland however, a slight, rather comic figure behind wire spectacles and a large walrus moustache, pushed on with his mission to validate Jules Verne and Captain Nemo, obtaining money where he could. Eventually Rice, an astute businessman who had established a monopoly in the American storage battery industry, bought into the Holland Torpedo Boat Company and provided the funding for Holland's newest sub, the sixth design in a 25 year evolution.

More than 53ft long, it had a graceful, hydrodynamic shape and a sophisticated ballast system, and was powered by a petrol engine on the surface and an electric motor when submerged. It was a compelling advance in submarine thinking and despite the entrenched opposition of the surface navy - 'They don't like submarines because there's no deck to strut on,' said a contemptuous Holland, the United States government finally took notice.

It bought the prototype for $165,000 in April 1900 from what was now the Electric Boat Company, and commissioned it as the USS Holland. When it successfully 'sank' the flagship of the opposing force in war games, the battleship's rueful commander reported: "It is clear that the Holland type will play a very serious part in future naval warfare."

Isaac Rice made the same case in London 100 years ago this summer and convinced the Admiralty to buy five improved Holland's, 104 tonners able to carry a crew of seven and withstand pressure down to 100ft. However, because of the anti-submarine prejudice in the Navy - epaulettes aquiver, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson said captured foreign submariners ought to be 'treated as pirates and hanged' construction of the first started in deep secrecy.

Holland 1 Launch?
Holland 1 Launch?

When Lieutenant F.D. Arnold Foster, chosen to command HM Torpedo Boat No-1, arrived at the Barrow yard of Vickers Sons and Maxim, he was unable to find anybody who would admit a submarine was being built there and eventually tracked it down to a building labelled 'yacht shed'. Progress was slowed by inconsistencies in Electric Boat's blueprints, and when Holland died 13 years later, an obituary in the New York Gaelic American claimed he had been opposed to the sale of his boats to the British Navy and overruled by Rice, had sabotaged his drawings. However, historians think it is more likely that he had added modifications to some drawings but overlooked them on others.

No 1 was launched at Barrow in October 1901, and at her trials delighted the assembled admirals. She proceeded at a slow pace along the dock, and was seen to sink at the bow and then suddenly disappear from sight, a few inches of periscope only being visible, according to one contemporary account. The sinking was executed in the space of a few seconds. The vessel was submerged for over two hours the crew feeling not the slightest inconvenience. This preliminary test gave the greatest satisfaction.

Holland 1 brought to the surface
Holland 1 brought to the surface

The submarine was no longer just a concept. In America, one stayed down for 15 hours and President Teddy Roosevelt took an impromptu dive in one during a storm on Long Island Sound. "Never in my life have I had such a diverting day," he reported and ordered an immediate pay rise for all submariners.

Other navies - German, French, Dutch, Russian, and Japanese - were embracing the submarine, and by the end of 1903 the British Navy had built eight more, the biggest more than 100ft long and capable of 15 knots on the surface.

In 1913, Britain's original sub was sold to the breakers but sank under tow off the Eddystone Light. After nearly 70 years on the bottom of Plymouth Sound, she was raised and now has pride of place in the Royal Navy Submarine Museum at Gosport, Hampshire.

John Holland died a year later from pneumonia, aged 73, just 40 days before his belief in the lethal efficiency of the submarine was appallingly confirmed. A German U-boat, the U-9, torpedoed three British cruisers off the Dutch coast, and a disbelieving nation learned that a 450-ton submarine, with a crew of 26 had sunk 36,000 tons of shipping and killed 1,400 men in the waters of the North Sea.

A new era of warfare had begun.



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