WORLD SUBMARINE HISTORY TIMELINE
1870-1914


Prepared for NOVA by Captain Brayton Harris, USN (Retired)
Author, The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social and Military History

Thanks to recent scholarship, we are able to add new material---hitherto unknown
early submarines, new details added to older listings . . . October 2011

 


1580-1869

1870-1914

1914-1941

1941-2000

1870
French novelist JULES VERNE brought submarines to full public consciousness with "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." A submarine-wielding despot – Captain Nemo – uses his "Nautilus" to sink, among others, the then-fictional USS Abraham Lincoln. Verne's research was impeccable: he even computed the compressibility of seawater – "0" for most purposes – as .0000436 for each 32-feet of depth.

Where might he have gotten the idea? 1833, Villeroi "Waterbug"

1870
Frederich Otto
Vogel

1870
Jules Verne's
"Nautilus"

1874
John Phillip
Holland

1878
Holland "No 1"

1879
George Garrett
"Resurgam"

1881
Holland
"Fenian Ram"

1883
Holland
"Zalinski Boat"

1885
Claude Goubet

1885
Josiah Tuck
"Peacemaker"

1885
Thorsten
Nordenfeldt

1887
"Nordenfeldt III"

1887
USN First
Submarine
Competition

1888
Gustave Zede
"Gymnote"

1889
Isaac Peral

1893
USN Second
Submarine
Competition

George C. Baker
Simon Lake

1895
Holland "Plunger"
Lake "Argonaut"

1896

Gathmann submarine
and torpedo

1897
"Holland VI"

1898
Spanish-American
War

"Holland VI" trials

"Argonaut I"

Electric Boat
Company

1898
"Gustav Zede"

1899
Modified
"Holland VI"

1900
USS Holland

1901
French president
goes to sea

1902
D'Equevilley
First German
submarines
"Forelle"
"Karp"

1904
USN Competition
Lake "Protector"
EB "Fulton"

1904
British fleet
maneuvers
with Hollands

1904
Holland forms
new company

1905
Theodore
Roosevelt
goes to sea

1906
U-1 launched

1909
Lake "Seal"

1910
British fleet
maneuvers

D-1

1911
USN replaces
gas engines
with diesel

1912
Chester Nimitz
on submarine
operations

1912
British fleet
maneuvers

1912
Germany "30's"
series U-boats

1914
Status of forces

 

1870
A submarine built by German FREDERICH OTTO VOGEL sank on trials.
1874
Recent Irish emigre and Patterson, NJ, schoolteacher JOHN PHILLIP HOLLAND submitted a submarine design to the Secretary of the Navy, who passed the paperwork to a subordinate. No one would willingly go underwater in such a craft, that officer suggested, and, even if the idea had merit, he warned Holland, "to put anything through Washington was uphill work."
early submarine: John Holland first submarine design

Holland's first design: a 15.5 foot-long one man boat with a foot-operated treadle to drive not only the propeller, but also to control the one-cubic-foot ballast tank and discharge "used" air
.
1878
HOLLAND found sponsorship with the Fenians, a group of Irish revolutionaries, looking for a way to harass the British Navy. He built a small prototype submarine, "Holland No. 1" to test out his theories – including the use of a gasoline engine. The trial was successful enough to encourage building a larger, more warlike, boat.
1879
Anglican Reverend GEORGE W. GARRETT tested the steam-powered "Resurgam:" steam for a boiler for surface operations, steam stored in pressurized tanks for submerged operations. The boat passed initial trials, but sank while under tow (rediscovered in 1996). Out of funds but not undeterred, Garrett took his ideas to a wealthy Swedish arms manufacturer, THORSTEN NORDENFELDT. See below.
1881
HOLLAND launched the "Fenian Ram" – 31 feet long, armed with a ram bow and an air-power cannon. Tests continued for two years, to depths of sixty feet for as long as one hour. Surface and submerged speeds were about the same, 9 knots.

However, the Fenians became increasingly frustrated with Holland's delays, and, faced with some internal legal squabbles, stole their own boat and hid it in a shed in New Haven, CT, where it remained for thirty-five years. Holland had nothing more to do with the Fenians; the boat was eventually donated to the city of Patterson, where it is now on display in West Side Park.
1883
HOLLAND and several investors formed the Nautilus Submarine Boat Company, hoping to sell a submarine to the French, then at war in Indochina. The company prototype, dubbed the "Zalinski Boat" after one of the investors, was launched in 1885. Too heavy for the launching ways, the boat smashed into some pilings and was badly damaged. Repaired, she made some token trial runs but the French war had ended and the company went bankrupt.
early submarines: Holland's Zalinski Boat
1885
French designer CLAUDE GOUBET built a battery-operated submarine, too awkward and unstable to be successful. He followed up in 1889 with "Goubet II" – also small, electric, and not effective.
early French submarine: Claude Goubet
1885
American JOSIAH H. L. TUCK demonstrated "Peacemaker" – powered by a chemical (fireless) boiler; 1500 pounds of caustic soda provided five hours endurance. Tuck's inventing days ended when relatives – noting that he had squandered most of a significant fortune – had him committed to an asylum for the insane.

Professor Tuck's submarine "Peacemaker"

early American submarine: Professor Tuck Peacemaker

M
1885
"Nordenfeldt I" – 64 feet, armed with one external torpedo tube – was launched. Powered by steam on the surface -- and "accumulated" steam while submerged. (See "Resurgam.") It took as long as twelve hours to generate enough steam for submerged operations and about thirty minutes to dive. Once underwater, sudden changes in speed or direction triggered – in the words of a U. S. Navy intelligence report – "dangerous and eccentric movements."

However, good public relations overcame bad design: Nordenfeldt always demonstrated his boats before a stellar crowd of crowned heads, and Nordenfeldt's submarines were regarded as the world standard.

The Greek Navy took delivery of "Nordenfeldt I" in 1886, and seems to have done nothing with it. Bitter rival Turkish Navy ordered two of the larger "Nordenfeldt II" boats – 100 feet with two torpedo tubes. When a torpedo was fired on a test dive, the first boat tipped backwards and sank, stern first, to the bottom. The second Turkish boat was left unfinished.
early european submarine: Nordenfeldt III

The 1887 "Nordenfeldt III" – 123 feet, rated to a depth of 100 feet and with an advertised surface speed of 14 knots – was sold to Russia, but ran aground en route. The Russians refused to accept delivery; the boat was scrapped.
1887
The U. S. Navy announced an open competition for a submarine torpedo boat, with a $2 million incentive. The specifications were based on presumed Nordenfeldt-level capabilities and presumed a steam-powerplant of 1000 horsepower.

Bidders included Nordenfeldt, Tuck, and Holland. Holland's design won, but because of contracting complications, the award was withdrawn.

The competition was re-opened a year later, Holland was again the winner – but a new Secretary of the Navy diverted the $2 million to surface ships. Nordenfeldt lost interest in submarines; Tuck went into the asylum; Holland got a job as a draftsman, earning $4 a day.
  1888
GUSTAVE ZEDE built "Gymnote" for the French Navy – a 60-foot, battery-powered boat capable of 8 knots on the surface but limited by the lack of any method for recharging the batteries while at sea. Her naval service was largely limited to experimentation.
 1889
Spaniard ISAAC PERAL's "Peral" successfully fired three Whitehead torpedoes while on trials, but internal politics kept the Spanish Navy from pursuing the project.
 
 1893
With a new Administration in office, the U. S. Congress appropriated $200,000 for an "experimental submarine" and the Navy announced a new competition. There were three bidders: Holland, GEORGE C. BAKER, and SIMON LAKE.

Holland and Lake submitted proposals; the politically well- connected Baker actually had a submarine, which he was demonstrating on Lake Michigan. A novel feature: a clutch between the steam engine and an electric motor allowed the motor to function as a dynamo, to recharge the batteries for submerged running. A troubling feature: a pair of amidships-mounted propellers that swivelled up or forward, through a clumsy period of transition.

When Holland's design once again won the competition, Baker complained to his friends in Washington. The whole business seems to have been put on "hold."
 Simon Lake first submarine design

The scheme that Simon Lake submitted included a set of wheels by which the boat could run along the bottom. He tested this theory in 1894 with small wooden "test vehicle" dubbed "Argonaut Jr." and financed by relatives. Public demonstrations brought in enough money to build a larger boat, "Argonaut I." See photo, below.
 

History of Submarines: Lake patent 1897
Lake's basic patent, granted Apr. 7, 1896

 
 1895
Holland took a leaf from the Nordenfeldt playbook – in this case, good public relations to overcome political intransigence – and let it be known that he was entertaining offers from foreign navies. On March 3, the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company was awarded $200,000 to build an 85-foot, 15 knot, steam-powered submarine to be called "Plunger."

Holland was only somewhat pleased – he didn't like the imposition of a steam engine, as well some changes the Navy insisted upon: the Navy knew what it wanted, but didn't know what it was doing. Congress was thrilled, and immediately authorized two more submarines of the Plunger type at $175,000 each.
 Simon Lake submarine Argonaut

Simon Lake's prominently-wheeled "Argonaut I" – coincidentally under construction in the same graving dock as Holland's "Plunger." This boat used a gasoline engine for both surface and submerged running (drawing air from the surface through breathing tubes),
  Holland's steam-powered submarine 1897 Plunger

"Plunger," launched in 1897, failed before ever leaving the dock. The temperature in the fireroom reached 137 degrees at only 2/3 rated output. As one of Holland's employees was later to testify, "They forced us to put steam in the "Plunger" against Mr. Holland's advice. When we . . . put the steam on, we found it was so hot we could not live in her." (In what must be an unwitting irony, the first U. S. Navy submarine with built-in air conditioning was the 1935 SS-179, "Plunger.")
 
 

1896
Upon his death in 1917, Louis Gathmann (correct spelling) may have amassed more patents than any other person, in a wide range of investigation. Much of his work was devoted to large-calibre artillery; however, according to the below article in the January 19, 1896 St. Paul Daily Globe, he was also interested in the design of torpedoes and submarines. I have found no evidence that he ever built either . . . and would welcome any information!

Clipping, courtesy, www.navsource.org

 

Louis Gathman submarine 1896

 1897
Even before "Plunger" had failed, Holland began construction of a new, smaller (54 feet), slower (7 knots), gasoline-powered boat, "Holland VI." Armament: one dynamite gun (air-launched 222-pound projectile with seven loads) and a Whitehead torpedo (three loads). Crew: six men. Habitability: included a toilet, to support operations as long as forty hours. Holland began a series of public demonstrations.

New York Times, May 17, 1897: ". . . the Holland, the little cigar-sharped vessel owned by her inventor, which may or may not play an important part in the navies of the world in the years to come, was launched from Nixon's shipyard this morning,"
 1898
The impending Spanish-American War intruded on Holland's efforts to sell his new boat to the Navy, although Theodore Roosevelt – at the time, Assistant Secretary of the Navy – told his boss, "I think that the Holland submarine boat should be purchased." The war begun, Holland offered to go to Cuba and sink the Spanish fleet –if, upon being successful, the Navy would buy his boat. The Navy properly was horrified at the thought of a private citizen using a private warship to sink foreign ships; times had changed since Bushnell and "Turtle" and the days of the privateers.

In September,
SIMON LAKE'S 36-foot "Argonaut I" made an open-ocean passage from Norfolk, VA, to Sandy Hook, NJ, prompting Jules Verne to send Lake a cable: "The conspicuous success of submarine navigation in the United States will push on under-water navigation all over the world . . . . The next war may be largely a contest between submarine boats."

By November, with the war ended, the Navy held an "official" trial of "Holland VI." There were some problems; Holland did not have enough money to fix them, so he joined forces with another manufacturer to form the Electric Boat Company. He was designated Chief Engineer.
 first US submarine Holland

Holland VI, as pictured in the December, 1898 Scientific American.
 
 1898
The French fielded the 148-foot, 266-ton "Gustav Zede" – named for the recently-deceased designer. On maneuvers, the submarine "torpedoed" an anchored battleship, to the consternation of some, and pride among other, French naval officers.

The success of "Zede" prompted an international competition for a submarine with a surface range of 100 miles and a submerged range of 10 miles. There were twenty-nine entries; the winner was MAXIME LAUBEUF'S "Narval," 188-feet, 136-tons, which began life with steam power that soon enough was switched to a diesel engine.
 French submarine Gustav Zede
 
 1899
A modified "Holland VI" passed the Navy trials; the company made a formal offer to sell the boat to the Navy, and moved it down from New York to Washington, DC to enhance the PR effort with some demonstrations for members of Congress.

Simon Lake's "Argonaut I" was enlarged, improved, and redesignated "Argonaut II."
 1900
On April 11, the U. S. Navy bought "Holland VI" for $150,000 and changed the name to USS Holland. The boat had cost $236,615 to build, but the company viewed it as a loss-leader. The Navy ordered another submarine.

Congress held hearings. One admiral testified: "The Holland boats are interesting novelties which appeal to the non-professional mind, which is apt to invest them with remarkable properties they do not possess." However,
Admiral George Dewey – the senior officer of the Navy – noted that if the Spanish had had two submarines at Manila, he could not have captured and held the city. Besides, he said, "Those craft moving underwater would wear people out." In August, Congress ordered six more Holland submarines.
 first US submarine USS Holland

USS Holland in drydock.
 
 

1900
By October, the British had five Hollands on order, but not until senior naval leadership had wrestled with a moral dilemma: they, like many others through the years, believed that covert warfare was, basically, illegal. Gentlemen fought each other face to face, wearing easily recognized uniforms. The Navy agreed to proceed with caution, primarily to "test the value of the submarine as a weapon in the hands of our enemies."

However; Rear Admiral A. K. Wilson assured himself of a certain immortality by declaring that the submarine was "underhand, unfair, and damned UnEnglish." The government, he wrote, should "treat all submarines as pirates in wartime . . . and hang all crews."

 1901
President of France Emil Loubet became the first chief executive to go for a submerged ride, aboard "Gustav Zede." He did so in full formal dress, frock coat an all. Three months later, on maneuvers three hundred miles from her base, "Zede" put a practice torpedo into the side of the moving battleship "Charles Martel" to the reported "general stupefaction" of those aboard the battleship.

Submarines had become so popular in France that the newspaper Le Matin had launched a public fund-raising drive to build submarines for the Navy: "Francais" launched in 1901 and "Algerien" launched in 1902
.
 1902
Spanish submarine designer RAIMONDO LORENZO D'EQUEVILLEY, looking for work, was rebuffed by the German Navy; Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz was on record, "The submarine is, at present, of no great value in war at sea. We have no money to waste on experimental vessels." D'Equevilley took his plans to the Krupp Germania shipyard, which built the 40-foot "Forelle" (Trout) on speculation. Powered only by electricity and without an underway recharging system, – like the French "Gymnote" – "Forelle" was not a practical warship. However, Kaiser Wilhelm II was impressed and his brother, an admiral, took a ride.

D'Equevilley turned his hand to marketing, publishing a book (in Germany) in which he traced the history of submarines. "As exaggerated as it may sound," he wrote, "who knows whether the appearance of undersea boats may put an end to naval battles." Krupp worked on a larger, improved design – the "Karp" class – powered by gasoline engine on the surface, with an onboard battery recharging system. Russia ordered three. The German Navy ordered one, but asked for a kerosene rather than gasoline engine.
 
 1904
On their first fleet maneuvers, the five British Hollands were assigned to defend Portsmouth – and managed to "torpedo" four warships. Of this, Admiral John Arbuthnot (Baron) Fisher – known as "Jacky" in a profession which cherished nicknames almost as much as tradition – wrote, "It is astounding to me, perfectly astounding, how the very best amongst us fail to realize the vast impending revolution in Naval warfare and Naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish!"

On a more somber note: "A-1" – first of a brand-new British designed class of improved Hollands – was run over by an unwitting passenger ship, and sank with the loss of all hands. "A-1" was salvaged and put back in service.
 British submarine Holland No. 3

The British Holland "No. 3," in service from 1902 to 1912.
 
 1904
Holland, squeezed out of management and increasingly ignored, resigned from Electric Boat and formed John P. Holland's Submarine Boat Company. He sold plans for two larger, improved submarines, to be built in Japan under the supervision of a Holland associate; one achieved a remarkable underwater speed of 16 knots, about twice that of the five earlier model Hollands in Japan.

Holland solicited business from around the world, but quickly discovered that all of his patents were controlled by Electric Boat – a fact of which the company made certain that all potential customers were aware. He tried to interest the U. S. Navy in a new, fast hull design; tested in an experimental tank at the Washington navy Yard, it promised submerged speeds as high as 22 knots. The Navy offered the opinion that it would be too hazardous for submarines to go faster than 6 knots underwater.

He was sued by Electric Boat for breach of contract, for unethical conduct, and even for using the name "Holland." The suits were eventually dismissed by the courts, but Holland's business never recovered.
 1904
Simon Lake, blocked from competing for submarine contracts, challenged what had become a monopoly business for Electric Boat. He won, and the Navy agreed that the next procurement would be through an open competition. Lake planned to enter "Protector," launched in 1902, as a template for a new class of submarines. Electric Boat planned to enter "Fulton," a company-financed prototype of an "improved" Holland.

However, Lake was desperately short of cash, and grabbed the opportunity to sell "Protector" to Russia, just then at war with Japan (and took orders for five more). Thus, as the only entrant, "Fulton" won the design competition, leading to continued orders from the U. S. Navy – but within a month, in an amazing display of impartiality, "Fulton," too, was en route to new owners in Russia. Impartiality? Only a few months earlier, Electric Boat had received a contract to deliver five Hollands to Japan.
 Simon Lake submarine Protector

Lake's "Protector," taken out of the competition and sold to Russia in a desperate bid for cash.
  John Holland submarine Fulton

"Fulton," about to be loaded on a barge to begin its journey to Russia.
 
 1905
Theodore Roosevelt became the first U. S. president to take a submerged ride – in the A-1 "Plunger" (not the unfinished steamboat, but a later Holland model. The first "Plunger" became a training target for Navy divers). He was so impressed with the hazards and hardships of the duty that he instituted submarine pay for crew members.
 1906
U-1, the first German "U-Boat" (for unterzeeboot), was launched. This modified "Karp" was 139 feet long, displaced 239 tons, had a surface speed of 11 knots, a submerged speed of 9 knots, and a range of two thousand miles. It was joined in 1908 by a twin, U-2. By this time, the French had a submarine force of sixty boats, the British almost as many. Germany finally took notice.
 1909
Simon Lake received his first U. S. Navy contract. However, Simon Lake was an inveterate tinkerer, unable to keep his hands off a design even when a boat was almost finished. The first submarine he managed to sell to the U. S. Navy – "Seal," laid down in February 1909 – was delivered two years, five months and fifteen days late.
  Simon Lake submarine Seal

Virtually obsolete by the time she entered service, Simon Lake's "Seal" nonetheless set a depth record, 256 feet, in 1914. The Lake Torpedo Boat Company had some World War I contracts, but went out of business in 1924.
 1910
British doctrine held that submarines were limited to harbor operations; of course, but the people who wrote the doctrine had not been paying attention. The question could be, operations in whose harbor? In the annual fleet maneuvers, the first of the new "D" class "torpedoed" two cruisers as they left port – 500 miles from the submarine's home base.
 
British World War I submarine D-1

The British D-1, 1908-1918. Note the marked shift from the Holland porpoise-like hull shape to that of a surface ship – a shift common in all navies of the day. It was an acknowledgment that submarines would spend most of their lives on the surface and needed sea-keeping qualities not found in a streamlined "underwater" hull.
 1911
The U. S. Navy purchased a set of plans from the Italian designer Laurenti. It was not a happy move. While the Laurentis had some advanced features, they were difficult to build and awkward in service.
 
USS G-4 submarine Laurenti design

Laurenti G-4, the 26th U. S. submarine, at the Cramp shipyard in Philadelphia one year after launching, one year before commissioning
 1911
Thanks in large part to the efforts of a 26-year old Navy lieutenant, Chester Nimitz – who by this time had commanded three U. S. submarines – the obnoxious and dangerous gasoline engine was replaced by diesels, beginning with Nimitz' fourth submarine command, "Skipjack."
 1912
Lieutenant Nimitz addressed the Naval War College on "Defensive and Offensive tactics of Submarines." A highlight: he offered an innovative method for forcing enemy ships into submarine-patrolled waters: "drop numerous poles, properly weighted to float upright in the water, and painted to look like a submarine's periscope."
 1912
In the annual fleet maneuvers, two British submarines slipped into a theoretically-safe fleet anchorage and "torpedoed" three ships. A staff evaluation warned that enemy submarines might prove a serious menace to the fleet. The Navy Board scoffed.
 1912
Germany began to get serious about submarines with the "30s" series – U-31 to U-41. These diesel-powered boats displaced 685 tons, carried six torpedoes and one 88mm deck gun, had a surface speed of 16.4 knots, submerged 9.7 knots – and a maximum range of 7,800 miles at 8 knots.
 1914
On the eve of World War I, the art of submarine warfare was barely a dozen years old, and no nation had submarine-qualified officers serving at the senior staff level. Ancient prejudice against submarines remained: they represented an unethical form of warfare, and they did not "fit" in the classic, balanced structure of a navy – where battleships were king. No nation had developed any method for detecting submarines, or attacking them if found.

Global scorecard: professional intransigence aside, and thanks largely to the efforts of Admiral Fisher, Great Britain had the world's largest submarine fleet; Germany, with a late start, had the most capable.

Great Britain: seventy-four in service, thirty-one under construction, fourteen projected.

France: sixty-two boats in service, nine under construction.

Russia, forty-eight boats (five Hollands and eight Lakes, the rest from Britain, France and Germany).

Germany: twenty-eight in service, seventeen under construction.

United States, thirty in service, ten under construction; Italy, twenty-one in service, seven under construction; Japan, thirteen and three; Austria, six and two.

Excluding freelance designers, adventurers and Civil War experience, the submarine safety record was surprisingly good. The U. S. Navy had one accident, two men killed. The German Navy, one accident with three men killed. Japan and Italy had each lost a submarine, each with a crew of fourteen. At the other end of the scale, Great Britain: eight accidents, seventy-nine killed; France, eleven accidents, fifty-seven killed; Russia, five accidents, seventy killed.
 
 1914
In June, British Admiral Percy Scott wrote letters to the editors of two newspapers. In one, he said "as the motor has driven the horse from the road, so has the submarine driven the battleship from the sea." In the other: "Submarines and aeroplanes have entirely revolutionized naval warfare; no fleet can hide from the aeroplane eye, and the submarine can deliver a deadly attack even in broad daylight." He called for more submarines, and no more battleships.

He was loudly attacked from all sides, by other senior naval officers, by the government, by the conservative press. In summary: his theory was "a fantastic dream."

By August, Great Britain and Germany were at war.

On September 5, U-21 sank the British cruiser "Pathfinder" with one torpedo. From weapon launch to sunk took three minutes. There were nine survivors of a crew of 268. A week later, the British had their turn when E.9 sank the German light cruiser "Hela" with two torpedoes.

Then, on September 22, 1914, one virtually prehistoric German submarine, U-9, sank three British cruisers. On the same day. Within slightly more than 90 minutes. A month later, U-17 became the first submarine to sink a merchantman. A month after that, U-18 penetrated the British fleet anchorage at Scapa Flow; although she did no direct damage and was captured, the effect upon the British Navy was electric: this one small boat forced the most powerful battle fleet in the world to shift to a base on the other side of Scotland.

The face of naval warfare was, indeed, changed forever.
 


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The Navy Times Book of Submarines: A Political, Social and Military History"

December 7, 2011