Setbacks and strange bedfellows are par for the course for many inventions, but few stories are quite as quirky as that of John Philip Holland, the Irish engineer who developed the first modern submarine.
Holland, who was born in Ireland in 1841, chiefly spoke Irish until he attended St. Macreehy’s National School in Liscannor, Co. Clare, where he learned standard English in 1858 at the age of 17. He continued his studies at the Christian Brothers secondary school in Ennistymon — walking 11 miles roundtrip daily — presumably because they offered a course in navigation. Holland joined the Christian Brothers and taught at various schools across Ireland, ultimately becoming the first mathematics teacher in the Dundalk school.
Holland left the Christian Brothers in 1873, due to ill health, and emigrated to the United States. He originally worked at an engineering firm, but later joined the staff at St. John’s Catholic school in Paterson, staying on for six years.
Holland slipped and fell on an icy Boston street soon after emigrating, using his time in the hospital to refine the plans for a submarine he had already drawn up. He submitted his designs to the U.S. Navy, but they were rejected. The Fenians, an Irish revolutionary group, saw something in the invention that the navy didn’t and funded his R&D, paying him enough that he could resign from his teaching post.
In 1878, he demonstrated his prototype, Holland I. It was 14 feet long, weighed 2.25 tons and was powered by a 4-horsepower petroleum engine driving a single screw. The inventor was at the helm. Although Holland scuttled the sub after its test runs, it was raised in 1927 and can be seen in the Paterson Museum.
In 1881 Holland launched the Fenian Ram. But the inventor and the revolutionaries fell out over money.
The inventor eventually raised enough private funds to hammer out various prototypes. On May 17, 1897, he launched the Holland VI, the first submarine that could run submerged for any distance and the first to combine electric motors for submerged travel and gasoline engines for use on the surface. It was bought by the U.S. Navy on April 11, 1900, after rigorous tests and was commissioned on Oct. 12, 1900 as the USS Holland.
Holland founded The Electric Boat Co. in 1899. It eventually evolved into General Dynamics, the major defense contractor. Holland died in 1914.
The lives of great inventors offer lessons we can apply to our own lives, and Holland is no exception. First, persistence, persistence, persistence. Second, ignore anyone who tries to tell you that your ideas are all wet. Third, be smart enough to walk away from funding offered by revolutionary organizations.