Electric Boat A Battler At 100

By ROBERT A. HAMILTON Day Staff Writer
(Copied here in February 1999)

It was a fortuitous pairing of men, one a moneyman and the other a masterful promoter. Both had a vision and an inventor ready to launch a radical idea.

A century ago, financier Isaac Rice teamed up with Elihu Frost, a lawyer and promoter, to persuade the U.S. Navy that it needed a new craft, a truly underwater vessel.

With inventor John P. Holland’s proposal in hand, they marketed a submarine boat to the Navy, and in the process these three men revolutionized naval warfare.

That partnership was the start of Electric Boat, which turns 100 today. In the past century, 22 shipyards have built submarines for the Navy, but for a time in the 1990s, the Groton shipyard was the only one still in the business.

And its distinctions are many. It was the first to build a Navy submarine, the first to build a welded-hull submarine, and the first to build a nuclear-powered submarine. EB also was the first builder of a submarine to launch ballistic missiles, from the surface or submerged. At every step, the shipyard overcame those who were convinced that what it tried to do was technically impossible.

After a century of shipbuilding, EB officials concede that they have probably encountered almost every kind of problem confronting their industry. EB has, for instance, weathered several downturns after defense budgets were slashed, and even with the current drawdown after the end of the Cold War, it survives, smaller but still profitable.

And now, as it enters its second century, the critics are still here. Some say the nation no longer needs nuclear submarines with the Cold War at an end; others say the United States isn’t building enough. Some insiders claim that the newest class of submarine, the Virginia boat, has pushed technology too far and could run into schedule and budget problems; others say it is not advanced enough for the threats of the 21st century.

EB has contracts to keep it in business for at least a decade, and a massive reorganization has prepared it for a new defense environment.

"Celebrating 100 years for EB is something we should enjoy, we ought to savor it and look at the success of the products that have been built and the hard work that has gone into it," says EB President John K. Welch. And while it commemorates its past century of shipbuilding, Welch pledges that his shipyard is clearly focused on the future.

Kenneth G. DelaCruz, who heads the shipyard’s Metal Trades Council, has seen his union membership decline from more than 9,000 in the 1980s to about 2,000 today, but he says that EB has survived where others have not because of one thing: the caliber of its tradespeople.

"If our quality wasn’t there, we would never have survived as long as we have," DelaCruz says. "Marginal work isn’t acceptable on submarines. It can’t be. Everything is tested and re-tested, and when the Navy takes them over, they’re ready to go."

Melvin E. Olsson, the president of the Marine Draftsmen Association, says he is hopeful that as the next century begins, EB will win work in other arenas to augment its dwindling defense contracts.

"We made it through one hundred because the world situation made it necessary to keep developing submarines," Olsson says. "The country can’t stop the evolution of underwater potential, and its uses for defense." 

Olsson says that he believes there is a lot of potential for commercial use of the undersea environment. He favors government funding of projects that could harness some of the power potential under the sea. "If they go in that direction, we have a design and engineering force that would be on the cutting edge," he pledges.

The inventor and his submarine

John Holland was born Feb. 24, 1842, in Loscannor, County Clare, Ireland, and grew up within view of the North Atlantic. By 17, he already had plans for a submersible boat. He emigrated to this country when he was 30, and among his earliest backers were the Fenians, a political group that wanted Ireland to overthrow British rule.

In 1878, Holland launched a 14-foot iron craft he and a friend tested by sitting on the bottom of the Passaic River in New Jersey for 24 hours. Unsatisfied with the ballast system and diving planes, he later built the "Fenian Ram," 30 feet long and 6 feet in diameter, at a cost of some $13,000. In 1895, his Holland Torpedo Boat Co. won $150,000 in Navy funding to build "Plunger," a 140-foot, 420-ton submarine that ran on compressed air but was almost uncontrollable on the surface.

But in 1896, at Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, N.J., he laid the keel for the "Holland," 54 feet in length and 75 tons of boat powered by a 50 horsepower gasoline engine with a 60-cell storage battery for submerged operations. 

After the submarine sank at the dock, Holland worried that some of its electrical systems might be damaged. He asked his supplier, Electro-Dynamic Co. of Philadelphia, to help with repairs, and they sent him Frank T. Cable, who made the repairs, then suggested changes such as improved rudders and a two-man control station that improved the boat.

In early 1898, Teddy Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy, wrote to Navy secretary John D. Long: "I think the Holland submarine boat should be purchased. Evidently she has in her great possibilities for harbor defense. Sometimes she doesn’t work perfectly, but often she does, and I don’t think that in the present emergency (the Spanish-American War) we can afford to let her slip." 

The Navy, though, wanted more tests. And so Cable, seeking money to keep the efforts going, contacted Rice, president of the Electric Storage Battery Co. of Philadelphia, who was an expert on patents and marketing. Rice rode the Holland on July 4, 1898, and not only began putting his own money into the venture but convinced others, such as the promoter and lawyer Frost and the wealthy Rothschilds.

On Feb. 7, 1899, Rice incorporated Electric Boat, which also absorbed the Holland Torpedo Boat Co., Electro-Dynamic, and the Electric Launch Co. of Bayonne, N.J. The following month, the Holland submarine went through some Navy trials, and Rice offered to sell it for $175,000, but the offer was spurned. During the next year, the boat was subjected to a series of trials, and Frost and Rice brought it to Washington, D.C., to show it off.

In April 1900, the Navy accepted delivery at a cost of $150,000, with a contract for additional boats at a cost of $170,000 each, which meant that EB was officially in the business of building U.S. Navy submarines.

Those early years were difficult, and EB derived much of its income from foreign sales. Holland, upset that the newfound submarine maker seemed more intent on marketing than on improving the design, left the company in 1904, and spent the last 10 years of his life working on aircraft.

During this period, the company formed the New London Ship and Engine Co. in Groton, to manufacture diesel engines for its submarines. But there weren’t many submarine orders to fill. One New York banker on the fledgling company’s board of directors resigned in 1913, lamenting in a note to Rice that "this company can’t pull through." 

Ironically, that banker, Henry R. Carse, came back in 1915, as wartime contracts began to pile up, and replaced Rice as president. He would serve 27 years at EB’s top post.

Ultimately, EB would build 88 submarines for the U.S. Navy under contracts signed in World War I, and overhaul another 30. Italy ordered eight more, Britain 20, and Russia 12. It built 550 "submarine chasers" for Great Britain, and more for the Italians and French. Its Submarine Boat Corp. constructed 188 Liberty Ships for cargo transport.

End of war slows down sales

But the end of the war brought another period of slow sales, and an attempt to build and operate its own transports failed. From 1924 to 1928, EB built four submarines for Peru — in fact, the Groton shipyard was opened initially to complete that contract, bringing production to Connecticut for the first time — but with no other work in sight it began accepting contracts for towboats, ferries, fishing trawlers and even yachts. It built printing presses, and machines to fold paper, skin fish, make textiles and stamp out bobby pins.

For a 13-year period starting in 1918 the company did not win a single U.S. government contract. Then the Navy came to EB with a special request: Would it consider building a welded submarine hull, a project turned down by a Navy shipyard as impossible. EB agreed and laid the keel for the Cuttlefish in 1931.

The first hull was about 40 percent welded and 60 percent riveted. The Navy was so pleased with the work it ordered two more in 1933, and by 1936 the company started to pay stock dividends again for the first time in years. From 1936 to 1939, it built three a year.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Groton in August 1940, he predicted the rate of construction would soon reach one a month. But with the attack on Pearl Harbor the following year, EB was soon building far more: 16 submarines in 1942; 25 in 1943; and 23 in 1944. 

"Keep’m sliding" was a motto posted around the shipyard.

In all, EB built 74 submarines during the second World War and managed the construction of 28 more at its Manitowac Shipbuilding on Lake Michigan. The company’s 1945 annual report said its boats and the men on them won 777 major military awards, including two medals of honor, 10 presidential unit citations, eight Navy unit commendations, 97 Navy Crosses and 16 Legions of Merit. The shipyard won a Navy "E" Pennant with four stars in honor of the quality of its work.

As in World War I, the company also supplied other maritime needs, building more than 400 torpedo patrol boats for the U.S. and British navies. A model of one of the most famous of that class, the PT 109, sits on a shelf in Welch’s office. EB also built six large marine caissons for invasions, more than 7,000 electric motors, more than 100 gun turrets, and thousands of other components.

But the end of the war brought another business collapse. EB saw 34 submarine contracts canceled in 1944, two more in 1946, and its income fall by two-thirds. The company began building electric bowling pin setters and Armorlite truck bodies, as well as fishing boats and steel highway bridges. It also began acquiring other defense companies, the first step toward creating the conglomerate that would eventually become General Dynamics, which is the shipyard’s corporate parent based in Falls Church, Va.

The biggest development for EB came in January 1950, when then-Capt. Hyman G. Rickover called general manager O. Pomeroy Robinson Jr. from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which 20 years earlier had rejected the idea of welded hulls. Portsmouth said it could not build a nuclear-powered ship, Rickover said. Would EB be willing to take on the task. "Why sure, sure … but what the hell do we have to do?" Robinson is said to have responded.

"I don’t know myself, but we’ll figure it out," Rickover shot back. On Aug. 21, 1951, EB secured a contract to build the Nautilus. On Jan. 21, 1954, the ship slid into the Thames River after being christened by Mamie Eisenhower. On Jan. 17, 1955, the Nautilus left the pier, radioing back: "Under way on nuclear power."

Commander recalls nuclear power

Capt. Edward L. "Ned" Beach, who watched the Nautilus take shape and commanded the third nuclear submarine, the Triton, recalls his around-the-world cruise — 43,000 miles submerged, except for one brief surfacing to offload a sailor with kidney stones. His boat could cruise at better than 20 knots until the food ran out.

"Compare that with what a diesel submarine could do — and I grew up with diesels, I fought on them in the war, I knew them inside and out, but there was just no comparison," Beach recalls. "The diesel submarine could cruise at two knots for two days. You could possibly travel 100 miles without surfacing. That’s when we knew we were in a whole new ballgame."

Another milestone came in 1962 when EB launched the Lafayette class, 425 feet in length and 7,000 tons, capable of firing a missile that could fly an impressive 2,500 miles. Guaranteeing a devastating return punch no matter how hard an enemy might strike, it established the concept of strategic deterrence.

The 1960s were an era of experimentation.

By the close of the decade, EB had delivered 30 submarines, but nine of them had been prototypes, many of them pushing the technology of the time to its limit. The 1970s and ’80s brought two more stable programs, the Los Angeles-class fast-attack submarine — EB won most of those contracts — and a larger, more powerful Trident-class ballistic missile boat, with EB as the sole producer.

In the Navy and Congress, many credit the submarines built at EB as one of the leading reasons for the end of the Cold War. But the victory has meant some tough times as EB faces its second 100 years, with a backlog that has dwindled from a high of 16 or 17 boats to just two submarines today. Its work force, once this region’s largest, has plummeted from more than 25,000 to about 9,000.

Still, Welch today seems encouraged that the innovation that has brought EB through its first 100 years will see it through a second century, particularly now that the parent company it spun off 47 years ago is adding other shipyards to its growing portfolio, which will bring opportunities to collaborate on the design of destroyers, amphibious ships and aircraft carriers.

"There are so many exciting possibilities that are being put under the GD Marine umbrella," the shipyard’s chief executive says. "I don’t know if it will still have its primary concentration on submarines in another 100 years … But you know, there’s still so much we don’t know about the ocean, and submarines (and) submersibles can help us get the answers."