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Although Ireland is famous for writers, there are also quite a few engineers and inventors who made their mark on the world. 101 years ago this week marks the anniversary of the death of John Philip Holland, the Irish inventor of the first commercially successful submarine.

Let’s be clear: “Holland didn't invent the submarine; military engineers had been trying for centuries to build a submersible vessel to attack enemy ships unseen.... [And] a successful submarine is an engineering challenge. It must be watertight and designed to withstand the increased pressure; must be able to dive and rise like an aircraft, with some way to control its buoyancy; be capable of travelling on the surface and underwater; and have an air supply.”

His first attempt reflected this difficulty, as the design did not have navigation tools or even a window to see out of, so it “had to surface frequently, dolphin-like, to see where they were going....  his first design sank on its maiden voyage in 1878....”

By 1881, though, he had tweaked the design and developed a “cigar-shaped vessel… 10m long by 2m wide and 2m high, [with] a 15 horsepower engine, a toilet, and a torpedo gun powered by compressed air - but no privacy, periscope or navigational aid.... It cost $15,000." His financial backers, upset with his escalating engineering costs, eventually stole the prototype, which was nicknamed the ‘Fenian Ram.’ It is now on display at a museum in Paterson, New Jersey, Holland’s adopted home. 

“In their place, he courted the US Navy, winning funding for a series of improved designs, each bigger and faster than the last, and capable of diving deeper.” His main invention, using electric batteries in place of a gas motor for power, was vital because the electric power didn’t consume the important on-board air supply.

By 1898, he had formed his own company. Under that proprietorship, he developed what would be his commercial success, which he called the Holland VII, at a cost of $150,000. This design was twice as long, and had ten times the horsepower, as his very first. It could also dive to 20m. The US Navy bought it immediately, and ordered 6 more in 1900, “inaugurating the world's first submarine fleet. Orders quickly flooded in from navies around the world....”

Despite all of his success, the end of Holland’s life was “… spent in bitter disputes over patents.” He also died just as the first World War began, so he didn’t see how his invention changed naval warfare forever.

To learn more about important Irish contributions to the world, try one of these ProQuest resources:

Dissertations & Theses – UK & Ireland
Historical Newspapers: The Irish Times and The Weekly Irish Times
International Bibliography of Art
International Bibliography of the Social Sciences

[All quotes from: Mulvihill, M. (2014, Aug 14). An Irish man who helped take the war underwater. Irish Times.]

[Image at top: One of Holland’s prototypes was finally brought up to the surface in 1982. Image from: Cowley, M. (1982, Dec 02). Britain raises first submarine. The Irish Times (1921-Current File)].

17 Mar 2015

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