'Mr. John P. Holland is Irish from the just apparent bald spot above his cerebellum to the tips of his sturdy shoes, and his intonation when he speaks is that of the educated Celt. He is an admirable talker, direct and to the point, and would be the delight of any stenographer on earth.'
- A description of Holland in the American newspaper, The Evening Star, January 1900
John Philip Holland: submarine pioneer
John Philip Holland, from Clare, was part of an elite group of Irish engineers and scientists who made momentous advances in the development of submarine technology. That group includes Howard Grubb who perfected the design of the submarine periscope and Louis Brennan who designed the first proper steerable torpedo. Holland not only shares his Irish birth with these inventors but he also shares an undeserved anonymity, for John Philip Holland was the most important pioneer in the development of the modern submarine. In 1862, while living in Cork City, Holland was transfixed by newspaper reports of the Battle of Hampton Roads, a naval engagement in the American Civil War. The accounts of the battle and its ironclad warships were to set Holland on a long and torturous journey of invention. It would end with Holland’s designs forming the basis for the US navy’s first submarine fleet and then for submarine navies throughout the world.
Courage and Conflicts details Holland’s time in Ireland and how, in 1873, he left for the US. From then onwards, Holland’s life would swing from glorious highs to dispiriting lows. The book tells of how he initially made his name by building a submarine for the Irish revolutionary group, the Fenians. It was from this relationship that the so-called ‘Fenian Ram’; a boat that the Fenians hoped would cripple the British Royal Navy. This period was an extraordinary time in his life, with Fenian intrigues, British spies and foreign diplomats all impinging upon Holland's work. His relationship with the Fenians would end rancorously but Holland had made a name for himself in naval circles. By the mid 1890’s Holland was involved in a project with the US navy and in 1897 he launched the submarine that was to make his name, the ‘Holland VI’. Great success, unfortunately, often attracts avarice and Holland would fall prey to his business partners. Ultimately, Holland would lose control of the patents on his designs. Nevertheless, he would continue to push back the technical boundaries of underwater technology and through a varied career would even create submarines for the Japanese government. The company he helped found, the Electric Boat Company, would flourish and eventually become General Dynamics Corporation.
Holland’s story is that of an emigrant who, through sheer ability and hard-work, made a profound difference in his chosen field. Yet, his aims were not entirely militaristic. He spoke at length of his belief that the submarine, by ending the naval dominance of the world’s great powers, would make the oceans safe for all.This was a theme that he would return to many times as when he told Thomas Edison that, in building submarines, he was ‘animated with the desire of helping to end naval warfare’. He was a fervent proponent of the use of submarines in commercial and public transport. He left detailed plans on how submarines would prove more comfortable and safer to travel in than surface shipping. We know that history did not transpire in such a manner but Holland was a true visionary and a great inventor.
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