THE SUBMARINE BOAT AND ITS FUTURE
BY JOHN P. HOLLAND
When the first submarine torpedo-boat goes into action, she will bring us face to face with the most puzzling problem ever met in warfare. She will present the unique spectacle, when used in attack, of a weapon against which there is no defense. You can pit sword against sword, rifle against rifle, cannon against cannon, iron-clad against iron-clad. You can send torpedo-boat destroyers against torpedo-boats, and destroyers against destroyers. But you can send nothing against the submarine boat, not even itself. You cannot fight submarines with submarines. The fanciful descriptions of the submarine battle of the future have one fatal defect. You cannot see under water. Hence, you cannot fight under water. Hence, you cannot defend yourself against an attack under water, except by running away. If you cannot run away, you are doomed. Wharves, shipping at anchor, the buildings in seaport towns cannot run away. Therefore, the sending of a submarine against them means their inevitable destruction.
Tomorrow, if we had a fleet of submarines big enough, they could protect New York harbor completely against an attack by the combined surface fleets of the world. But our shipping and our city would still be at the mercy of our enemies, if they had even one submarine, manned by a fearless crew of experts. You could not mine against her, for she would countermine. You could not close the harbor against her, even with a net-work of torpedoes and chains stretched across the Narrows, reaching from the surface to the bottom of the channel. From a safe distance she would simply send a torpedo against the network that would blow it to pieces, giving her all the passageway she wanted to go in and out. You could not chase her with a fleet of your own submarines, because you could more easily find a needle in a haystack than a sixty-five foot cylinder in a place like New York Bay. And if, by accident, you did find her, she would be out of sight in a flash. Then, too, the pursuing boats could never tell under water whether it was one of their own number or of the enemy. This difficulty might be met by sending only one submarine in pursuit; but, in that case, the prospect of finding the quarry would be about as promising as dredging with a butterfly-net for a half-dollar that had been thrown into the bay.
No; as nearly as the human mind can discern now, the submarine is indeed a "sea-devil," against which no means that we possess at present can prevail. She can pass by anything above or beneath the waves, destroy wharves and shipping and warships at anchor, throw shells into the city and then make her way out again to sea. She can lie for days at the bottom of the harbor, leaving only when she has used up all her stored power except what is required to carry her back to the open, when she can come to the surface a speck on the water. She would never have to expose herself for more than a second at a time during all her work of destruction in the harbor. This would be when she rose to discharge her gun to shell the city. The recoil of the gun would send her down again and out of sight. The chance of hitting her would be one in a million, even if the harbor was a floating battery, which it would not be very long while the submarine was at work. Her torpedoes she could discharge without coming to the surface at all.
It may be that the tacticians can solve the problem. To me it is the most profiund puzzle. To me there seems but one solution, and that is too Utopian for serious consideration. Nations with sea ports will have to refrain from making war. It is probably safe to trust the ingenuity of man to provide the means for preventing such a contingency.
But how the menace of the submarine is to be met nobody has at this time been able to say. The greatest minds in the armies and navies of the world are wrestling with the problem, but so far they have not succeeded in solving it. The genius of scores inventors is groping in the same field, but so far without result. Still, there are many capable men who insist that, sooner or later, a weapon will be devised to fight the "sea-devil" when she attacks. Even these, however, are agreed that, in one direction at least the "sea-devils" will remain unconquerable. They will make a close blockade impossible. With the investment of Santiago, the world, undoubtedly, saw the last instance of a harbor of a civilized nation being closed by hostile warships - that is, unless the next war comes with unexpected suddenness. Even to-day, no fleet of warships could safely lie within the five mile limit deemed effective in blockading, if France was the object of the attack. Her fleet of submarines, small as it is, would make the enemy very uneasy. If necessary, the boats could be carried from one of her coasts to the other by rail. The six Holland boats building for the United States, though inadequate for general protection, would make a big hole in any blockading squadron that settled down in front of one of our great harbors. The squadron would have to face almost inevitable destruction, or put out to sea.
Those who question the efficiency of the submarine in other directions have been compelled to admit this. They still insist, however, that these boats will never have value as offensive weapons. They say that these boats cannot live away from home, and that, therefore, they will never be available in making war on a country across seas. They rank submarine boats simply as weapons of coast defense.
That this is erroneous will soon be demonstrated. A submarine is now under construction that will explode this theory. Not long after this article is published, she will start on a journey across the Atlantic. She will travel entirely under her own power. She will go first to Bermuda, a distance of 676 miles, then to Fayal, 1,880 miles, and thence to Lisbon, 940 miles, or a total of 3,496 miles. If it were deemed advisable, the trip could just as easily be made direct, without making a call at any intermediate port.
This boat will go on the surface almost exclusively. Her chief motive power will be a gasoline engine of 160 horse-power, that will drive her at the rate of nine and a half knots an hours. This engine will also generate the electric power that may be needed for submerged runs, and such work as may be deemed expedient in the harbors where she touches. Her crew will subsist entirely on the provisions she carries. The food will be cooked by electricity. The crew will consist of seven men, who will sleep in hammocks slung from the ceiling.
While this voyage will not be comfortable, judged from the standpoint of the regular trans-Atlantic travellers, it will not entail any real hardships. During storms or dirty weather the boat will run awash, only her turret showing above the surface, and, as the water will break over instead of against her, there will be no rolling. The boat will lie as steadily as a water-soaked log. She will be accompanied by a tender, probably a small tramp steamer. An extra crew will be carried on this tender, in case her own men find the confinement too much to endure for the sixteen days required in crossing the ocean.
This trip will show that it is possible to send a fleet of submarines against a foreign coast, as well as to employ them for defense at home.
We have been so busy up to this time in getting a hearing for the claims of the submarine as an engine of war that we have overlooked almost entirely her future usefulness in the pursuits of peace. Yet in this field she presents most fascinating possibilities. As a factor in commerce, there are great acheivements before her. As an instrument of science, she has possibilities that no man may prescribe.
As soon as men overcome their fears and learn to go down beneath the water as readily as they now skim its surface, the progress of the submarine in commerce will be rapid. She has, along certain lines, such manifest advantages that her development is to be measured only by the length of time people may require to conquer the foolish dread of travelling under water.
Within the next ten years, we shall have made more progress in submerged navigation than has been made in the three hundred years that have just passed. Within that period, I expect to see submarine boats engaged in regular passenger traffic. Owing to the well-defined limitations that surround travel under water it is no difficult matter to forecast what the nature of such travel will be.
For trans-Atlantic travel submarine boats will never be possible commercially. Here and there, no doubt, such boats will cross, but the reguar ocean carrying-trade will always be conducted on the surface. For short trips, however, the submarine offers commercial advantages that will render it a dangerous rival of the surface sailing vessel, if, indeed, it does not drive the latter entirely out of the competition in particular waters. Take, for example, the trip across the English Channel. No other water journey causes an equal amount of suffering. The most hardened traveller becomes seasick there. The fogs and heavy traffic are constantly causing collisions on that course, and the storms toss the stoutest boats about like cockleshells. Thousands are deterred every year by its dangers and annoyances from essaying that short voyage.
The submarines will effectively remove all these objections. There will be no seasickness, because in a submerged boat there is absolutely no perceptible motion. There will be no smells to create nausea, for the boats will be propelled by electric power taken from storage batteries, which will be charged at either end. The offensive odor that causes so much discomfort in surface boats is due to the heated oil on the bearings, and to the escaping steam. There will be no steam on these submerged channel boats, and the little machinery necessary to drive them will be confined within an air-tight chamber.
There will be no collisions, because the boats coming and the boats going will travel at different depths - say, one at twenty, the other at forty feet. The water overhead may be crowded with large and small craft, but the submarine will have a free, unobstructed course. She will be kept absolutely true to this course by means of cables running from shore to shore. On these cables will run an automatic steering gear attached to the submarine. Storms and fogs will have no existance for the traveller, for weather cannot penetrate below the surface of the water. There, everything is smooth and clear.
The appointments on such a vessel will be finer than anything that can be furnshed on the surface. There will be no dampness, no stickiness. The passenger will enter a hansomely fitted cabin at Dover. Electric lights will make it cosey and bright. Neither the cold of winter nor the extreme heat of summer will be felt. The temperature under water is about the same all the year round.
Almost without a jar, the boat will put off from her dock on the English side. Practically no vibration will be felt from the smoothly running machinery. Before the traveller fairly realizes that a start has been made, the boat will be fast at her dock at Calais. The three of four hours consumed will be passed in reading, in sleep or in social intercourse, as pleasantly as though the traveller were at home in his own drawing-room. The nervous old lady will have less to worry her than she would find on a drive through the streets of London or Paris. Her husband or son will find perfect comfort in a handsomely appointed smoking-room.
This is no dream. It is simply the forecast of a trip that I myself expect to make some day, and I am fifty-nine years old. It is so feasible commercially that capital in plenty will be found for its realization.
Had not the unreasonable prejudice against the submarine existed all these years, such a line might be seen in operation to-day.
Boats of this class will be more economical than the surface channel boats are to-day. The first cost, it is true, will be larger than that of constructing the present day craft; but, after that, with charging stations on either shore, the operating expenses will be much less.
These boats will be from 160 to 200 feet in length. Larger boats will never be feasible, unless we discover some better system of storing electricity than exists to-day - a contingency which is exceedingly doubtful.
To cross the Atlantic and to make any sort of speed, a submarine boat the size of one of the surface greyhounds would have to carry electric storage batteries weighing about six times as much as the vessel herself. No other motive power has been found that can be employed under water so well as electricity. Liquid air has been suggested, but nothing has been accomplished with it. The expenditure for power, therefore, stands as an absolute bar to commercial traffic across the ocean under water.
There are other objections too, to general submarine travel across the Atlantic, objections that would prove insuperable even if the power problem were solved. First and foremost is the confinement. Few people could be found who would be willing to endure confinement for ten or twelve days in a limited, submerged space. The chief charms of an ocean voyage, sunshine and fresh air, would be gone. Even freedom from seasickness would not compensate for that. There could be no decks. Then, too, the danger from collision, which would be eliminated from short trips by the submarine, would here be heightened. There could be no cables for an automatic steering gear, and the vessel could not be relied on to hold her course safely, uninfluenced by ocean currents.
In the domain of science, much may be expected of the submarine. With her aid, the bottom of the ocean will be safely explored at comparatively great depths. Just how far down we shall be able to go in her, no one at this time knows. Singularly enough, we have never ascertained the limit of safety - that is, the point where the weight of the water is so great that it will crush the stoutest submarine that could be built. It has been estimated that four hundred feet below the surface is the limit, but it may be a thousand feet, just as well, for all the definite informatio we have on the subject. Whatever the depth, it is certain to be much greater than any explorers have heretofore been able to reach in person, and the scientists are certain to take full advantage of the possibilities.
In certain submarine pursuits - such as wrecking, pearl and sponge fishing, etc - a complete revolution will be wrought. Millions of dollars now lost to the world in submerged wrecks will be recovered, and the work of raising sunken ships will be a matter of days, instead of months, with the submarine’s aid.
Lake’s boat, built in Baltimore, has already given us an example of what may be expected along these lines.
The surveying of harbors and shoals and obstructions to navigation will be reduced to an exact science. Where now such surveys can be made only semi-occasionally, a perfect system of submarine patrol will be maintained.
Much missionary work will probably still have to be done before the people can be taught to take full advantage of the possibilities of submarine navigation. But the time is in sight when the prejudice against going through, instead of over, the water will have disappeared.
Experience teaches that, wherever its application is desirable, submarine navigation is the safest method of water travel we have. For more than three hundred years, there have been submarine boats. In all that time, only one life has been lost in a boat running beneath the water. When it is remembered that, during all these years, the craft employed has been experimental, this record is certainly marvellous.
What other system of transportation can show such a clear bill? From the stage coach to the locomotive, there is a steady trail of blood and death. Last year, 7123 persons were killed on the railroads of America alone. The trolley, the innocuous, familiar trolley, that we board as blithely as we sink into a chair in our dining-room, numbers its victims by the thousands, though it has been at its work among us only eight or ten years. In the city of Brooklyn alone, over three hundred people have lost their lives since the first trolley spun merrily along the streets of that city.
The automobile, though it has passed the experimental stage, keeps the surgeons and the undertakers actively employed in attending to its daily victims, and this though its use is confined to persons of exceptional intelligence and training.
No one practically objects to travelling on the surface of the water to-day. Yet, from the time when man fashioned his first skin canoe, to the present day, when we go to Europe in floating palaces, the sea has given us a steady record of tragedies. It is no uncommon thing for a whole shipload of people to go down into the depths.
When, in contrast with these experiences, it is remembered that only one life has been lost in a submerged boat, it must be agreed that the objection to submarine travel is a superstition.
For twenty-one years I have been experimenting with submarine craft. I have travelled in submerged boats under all sorts of conditions and with all sorts of crews. All my work has been experimental, the most dangerous stage of any mode of travel. Yet I have never had an accident. On one occasion, an engineer who thought he knew more about my boat than I did gave me a few uncomfortable minutes. Before putting out for a trial dive, he cut off the automatic attachment that supplied us with air. Before I had realized what the trouble was, our supply of air was permitted to get so low that my nose began to bleed. But when the engine was stopped, the reserve buoyancy sent the boat to the surface like a cask, and we had only to open our hatch to get relief. Certainly, that is a fair showing for nearly a quarter of a century of work.
Possibly some people will exclaim against my statement that only one life has been lost in a submerged boat. They will point to half a dozen cases "of record" where whole crews lost their lives. The answer to that is very simple. The majority of cases so recorded were utterly without foundation. In other cases, the men operating the submarine boats were drowned while they were using them as surface boats, and because of that fact. The boat built by McClintock and Howgate for the Confederates sank with four of her crew, the last time after she had blown up the "Housatonic." These accidents are charged against submarine navigation, when the fact is that had the boat been used as intended, under water, instead of on the surface, she would not have lost a single life. Mr. Howgate, one of her builders, told me himself that the first and second accidents were due to the failure of the crew to close the manhole cover when preparing to run out. The waves washed over the boat and filled her. On her third trip, the new crew didn’t fasten the cover before diving. The fourth time, Mr. Howgate himself ordered the men to close the cover as the boat pulled away. Some one called back that it was "too hot."
To charge these accidents against submarine navigation is as reasonable as it would be to argue against surface navigation because a ship that went to sea with her side hatches swinging open filled and went to the bottom.
The other drowning cases set against submarine boats are built on even less foundation; in fact, they have no foundation at all, because they had no existence. Very recently a certain newspaper published a circumstantial account of the great loss of life sustained in the various attempts to navigate the "Intelligent Whale," the submarine boat that has been for years at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Thirty-three deaths were charged to her. As a matter of fact, she never lost a single life, though, Heaven knows, she was handled carelessly enough. She was built in Galveston shortly after the war and brought North. The Government bought her and she made a few trips. Though a good submarine boat to-day, she was abandoned because of the public outcry against sending a crew of men under water. For nearly a quarter of a century, she has been pointed out as the "coffin ship" by wise people who knew all about her terrible record.
Admiral Hichborn, Chief Constructor of the Navy, went extensively into the question of fatal accidents in submarine navigation. He found there were eighty-three cases set down at various times. On investigation he found that fifty had never occurred at all, being of the "Intelligent Whale" class. Thirty-two were chargeable to the Howgate boat. The only case he could find where life had been lost in a submarine, when she was acting as such, was that of Day, an Englishman, who built and operated a submarine boat late in the seventeenth century. The second time she was submerged, it is reported that the hull was crushed by the weight of water. In a report on the subject, Admiral Hichborn wrote:
"If Day were really crushed in his boat, he has the unique distinction of being the only vistim of the dangers of submarine navigation: but this distinction depends upon the supposition that reports of submarine accidents were much more reliable two hundred and forty years ago than they have been for the last forty years, during which period there have been authentic newspaper reports of the loss of eighty-two lives in attempting submarine navigation in the United States. Fifty of these lives were not lost at all, and the other thirty-two, though lost in a boat designed to operate as a submarine, were all lost when, and apparently because, she was not so operating."
These false reports are undoubtedly responsible for the backward state of submarine navigation to-day. The accident to Day practically put a stop to experiments for a hundred years.
Fulton, who went into submarine navigation before he took up steamboats, ran against a solid stone wall of prejudice. He built two excellent boats in France, but all his perseverence could not overcome the fear men have of going down into an element that they invariably associate with drowning. So, though he had the active interest and good will of the first Napolean, Fulton had to drop the matter. Others took up the work. Almost every year a submarine boat in one form or another was presented to the world by some ambitious inventor. But these craft could make no progress. Day’s ghost invariably rose against them.
In my own time, the thirty-two lives lost in the Confederate boat, and the fifty men drowned in the newspapers, stood as a solid barrier against me whenever I tried to take a step forward. But a breach has been made in the barrier. To a limited class at least, to the naval men of France and America, it has been demonstrated that the submarine is not a trap in which men are drowned like rats. The extension of this knowledge may be expected to be rapid. The commercial application of submarine navigation will follow almost immediately in the wake of this extension.
We shall soon be able, in the domain of peace, to say of the under-water boat what Admiral Hichborn said of her in war: "The submarine has arrived."
|JOHN P. HOLLAND.|
Holland, John P.,"The Submarine Boat and its Future," North American Review, December 1900.