John Philip Holland
(1841 - 1914)

Photo of John Philip Holland Photo of John Philip Holland

(The World's Work)

(Edward Max Graf Collection, Paterson Museum)

The Early Years

John Holland senior patrolled the headlands of County Clare as a rider with the British Coastguard Service. He was assigned to the small coastal town of Liscannor, sometime before his first wife died in January 1835. A short time later, he married a local girl named Mary Scanlan. Together, they had four children. Albert was the oldest child, and John, who was born on 24 February 1841 was their second child. Robert was born on 1 June 1845 and Michael was born on 30 July 1847.

Little is known about John's boyhood. According to Richard Compton-Hall, he lost his brother Robert and two uncles to illness during the Great Famine of 1847. John probably attended St. Macreehy's National School in Liscannor and later, is rumored to have walked 5-1/2 miles (each way) to attend the Christian Brothers secondary school in Ennistymon - presumably because they offered a course in navigation.

John's father retired from the coastguard service in 1853, and moved the family to Limerick. His father died soon after the move, leaving his mother to raise three boys on a small military pension. John transferred from the Christian Brothers School in Ennistymon to the Sexton Street School in Limerick. During this period, young Holland met Brother Bernard O'Brien. Brother O'Brien was a scientific man and an excellent mechanic who distinguished himself by building several telescopes complete with clockwork mechanism to track the movement of the stars and various apparatus to demonstrate electro-magnetism. From letters written years later, it is clear that Brother O'Brien has a profound influence of him.

About this time the bishop asked the Christian Brothers to begin evening and Sunday classes for adults. Being short of trained teachers, the Brothers asked their more gifted students to volunteer. John Holland answered the call.

Life as a Christian Brother

Teaching must have appealed to Holland, because he joined the Order of the Irish Christian Brothers, whose vows included "gratious instruction." He arrived at the novitiate in North Richmond, Dublin on 15 June 1858. After a short retreat, he received the habit and became known as Brother Philip. A brief course in religious life and another in classroom management followed. On 3 November 1858, Brother Philip was assigned to the North Monastery school in Cork where he met Brother James Dominic Burke. Brother Burke was a noted science teacher and founder of vocational training in Ireland. “Brother Burke was by now demonstrating the powers of electricity in underwater propulsion at the public exhibitions for the entertainment of the people.” 1

Time passed quickly for the young Philip Holland. It soon became apparent that preoccupied as he was with ‘inventions and improvement in mechanical arts,” he was not a very successful teacher of the ordinary subjects. He found it almost intolerably boring to drill and re-drill the pupils in the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic, but he was gifted in the teaching of drawing, science and music. Still without vows, he was changed to Armagh early in 1860 to see if his classroom control and teaching of elementary subjects would improve in a smaller school He must have missed the congenial atmosphere of the large community at the North Monastery, and, never very robust and of a nervous disposition, he soon fell ill.

He was ordered back to the novitiate in Dublin in July 1860 to receive proper medical treatment. His visit was recorded by Joseph Hearn in the Novitiate Register:

Br Philip was ordered here from Armagh [14 July 1860] to have a growing sore on his neck like scrofula inspected by Surgeon Farrell – done so, and his prescription followed – came to a suppuration – and is now much better. Returned to Armagh August 9th, 1860. 2

Holland was changed to Maryborough (now Port Laoise, Co. Laois) early in 1861. He hoped to make his first vows at Christmas, but then the scrofula flared up again. His request for vows was refused. The Novitiate Register records: Christmas 1861: Rejected at Scrutiny – the scrofula or evil rendered him unfit for this state – retired to his aunt in Cork who is well-to-do, Dec. 22, 1861. 3

“I was a schoolmaster in Cork, Ireland, when your civil war was in progress,” [Holland] remarked, “and about two weeks after the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac [March 9, 1862], it struck me very forcibly that the day of wooden walls for vessels of war had passed, and that ironclad ships had come to stay forever. I reflected that with her tremendous facilities England would apply them to the situation and become the chief naval power of the world; and I wondered how she could be retarded in her designs upon the other peoples of the world, and how they would protect themselves against those designs.“4 The seed was planted, but it would be many years before it bore fruit.

Brother Michael Paul Riordan, superior general, died in February 1862 and was replaced by Brother James Aloysius Hoare. John Holland applied for readmission and was accepted on September 8, 1862. After a short stay in Dublin, Brother Philip was transferred to Enniscorthy, County Wexford. While in Enniscorthy, Brother Philip developed an interest in flight and began to design flying machines.

In 1865, Brother Philip was transferred again - this time to Drogheda, County Louth. "Old pupils in Drogheda recalled how Brother Holland constructed a mechanical duck, resembling an ordinary duck, that could walk about in the garden and when put in water could swim, dive and come to the surface again. They said that he could keep them interested for hours at a time talking about and demonstrating mechanical things." 5

In 1869, The Brothers established a school in Dundalk and Brother Philip was transferred to the new school where he developed his first submarine design. Two of Brother Philip's students were interviewed in the 1940's by Brother Lucius Hurley. His letter dated 27 October 1942 is quoted by Brother Blake in his work "John Philip Holland: The Father of the Submarine - His Connection with the Christian Brothers."

They describe him as being a man of medium height, about 5 feet 8 inches, slim and dark, with a pleasing open countenance. He was of a cheerful and happy disposition and was both admired and loved by his pupils. Henry Louth, in particular, seems to have had a sincere affection for him and corresponded with him for some time after his going to America.

He is remembered particularly as being a great lover of music and a very successful teacher of singing. He made a close study of the Tonic-Solfa and was the first teacher of the Dundalk CBS Boys’ Choir, the fame of which soon spread all over the country. One of his pupils was Tom Parkes, who later became organist in Dundalk and was famed as a choirmaster.

He also took a great interest in Drawing, especially Mechanical Drawing, in which many of his pupils excelled. One of them, Valentine Wynne, founded a very successful Building Trade and always attributed his success to the tuition he received from Mr. Holland. His nephew still carries on the business in Dundalk.

In connection with the singing class, as showing the success of his teaching, Mr. Louth mentions that the choir was formed in September ’69 and on the following Easter Sunday they sang a High Mass in four parts in St Patrick’s Church, ending with a most successful rendering of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

He was constantly engaged in devising mechanical contrivances and in beautifying the grounds around the Monastery, in which occupation the boys vied with one another in assisting him. Mr. McCourt says that he helped him to plant the trees which now adorn the Monastery garden. On the grounds in front of the Monastery he erected a replica of the Rock of Cashel in wood, which was much admired for many years until the ravages of time defaced it.

In those days water had to be pumped by hand from a well in the grounds to the top of the house. So in order to eliminate the labour Mr. Holland constructed and erected a windmill which proved a great boon to the Brothers. (Incidentally, Mr. Louth mentions that these activities did not meet the approval of Br Yorke who ordered the windmill to be taken down soon after its erection!)

There is still in the Monastery garden a very ingeniously constructed sundial which is also the handiwork of Mr. Holland, and, in one of the windows of the Brothers’ chapel, there is still to be seen a pane of glass on which a representation of the Sacred Heart is etched in colours, also designed and executed by him.

1872 was a pivotal year. The period of triennial vows ended and it was time for him to make his perpetual vows. Holland's mother and brother, Alfred, emigrated to the United States, and Brother Dominic McConnell launched his crusade to make the schools more efficient. Brother McConnell set about weeding out those brothers that did not meet his classroom standards. Brother Philip declined to take his perpetual vows at Christmas 1872 and on May 26 1873, John Philip Holland departed for America via Liverpool.

Life in American

Shortly after arriving in Boston, John slipped on an icy street and was confined to his rooms. His thoughts returned to the problems of submarine navigation. He decided to start from scratch and was pleased to find that his ideas had changed little from the design he had produced in 1869. The following year, John accepted a position as a teacher at St. John’s Parochial School in Paterson, NJ.

John Holland’s brother Michael introduced him to members of the Irish Fenian Brotherhood in 1876. The Brotherhood had established a "skimishing fund" to finance strikes against the British occupying Ireland. Monies from this fund financed the construction of John Holland’s first three submarines. However, disagreements within the Fenian Brotherhood leadership over the use of "skirmishing fund" monies resulted in the theft of the Fenian Ram and the 16-foot model on a dark night in late November 1883. John Holland severed his relationship with the Fenian Brotherhood after this incident.

Holland was now 42 years old and chose not to return to teaching school. He took a job as a draftsman at Roland’s Iron Works in New York City. The following year, he accepted a position with Army Lieutenant Edmond Zalinski’s Pneumatic Gun Company. Encouraged by this, Lieutenant Zalinski began promoting the idea of a submarine armed with a pneumatic gun. This led to the construction of the "Zalinski boat" on the grounds of Fort Lafayette in 1885 and 1886.

John Holland married Margaret Foley in Brooklyn on January 17, 1887. Their first child, John P. was born in 1888 but died while still an infant.6

"In 1888, the United States Navy Department announced an open competition for the design of a submarine torpedo boat that would meet the following specifications:

  1. Speed: 15 knots on the surface, 8 knots submerged
  2. Power endurance: 2 hours submerges at 8 knots, provisions for 90 hours.
  3. Ease of maneuvering: circle in no greater space than 4 times her length.
  4. Stability: assured normal or positive buoyancy at all times.
  5. Structural strength: sufficient to withstand pressure at depth of 150 feet.
  6. Power of offense: torpedoes with 100-pound charge of gun cotton."7

Competitors included famed Swedish arms manufacturer, Thorsten Nordenfelt and George Baker. John Holland won this competition, but no contract was awarded. Discouraged, John Holland turned his attention to the problems of mechanical flight. Unable to find a backer for his aircraft designs, John Holland accepted a position as draftsman with Morris and Cummings Dredging Company. John Holland worked for Charles Morris until 1893.

On February 27, 1893, a young lawyer named Elihu B. Frost told Charles Morris that he would consider forming a company to provide Holland with the necessary capital to continue his submarine experiments. When Congress appropriated $200,000 to cover another competition for a submarine torpedo boat on March 3, 1893, Frost decided that the time was right. At short time later, Frost met with John Holland and agreed to loan him the money needed to prepare his bid. The Holland Torpedo Boat Company was formed that spring. Elihu B. Frost assumed the role of secretary treasurer and John Holland became General Manager with a salary of $50.00 per month.

The New York papers reported that John Holland won the 1893 competition but the Navy Board decided to examine George Baker’s submarine (built in 1891 and trialed in 1892) before making an official announcement. In the end, the money to fund construction of a submarine was diverted to other construction projects and construction of the Plunger was delayed two years.

The construction of the Plunger proceeded slowly. There were many changes and delays. The Navy requirements could not be met and Holland became frustrated dealing with the Navy Department. By the fall of 1896, Holland realized that the Plunger would be a failure. He sought and received approval from the Holland Torpedo Boat Company to build his sixth submarine as a private venture - free from Navy interference.

The Holland VI took shape on the ways of Lewis Nixon’s Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport New Jersey during the spring of 1897 and was launched on May 17, 1897. Construction continued throughout the year and trials began the following March. Frank Cable replaced John Holland as trial captain in late 1898 following incidents of forgetfulness and inattentiveness. John Holland was 57 years old, but his mind never stopped working. He had learned much during the trials of the Holland VI and was hard at work designing an improved (type 7) submarine. The specification and drawings for the type 7 were forwarded to the Navy in November 1899.

Isaac Rice formed the Electric Boat Company in 1899 with the Holland Torpedo Boat Company as a subsidiary. Mr. R. McA. Lloyd was brought in to be the engineer in chief of the new company. Sensing what the future would bring, Holland opened discussions with Captain Adrian Tromp of the Netherlands about starting a new company in Europe to build submarines to his designs. On June 16, 1900, Holland signed a contract with the Electric Boat Company that was retroactive to April 1, 1899. The terms of this contract included:

In another letter to Captain Tromp, Holland indicated that Electric Boat was bound to the contract, but that he was free to leave the company whenever he wanted. The company viewed the situation differently.

The purchase of the Holland VI on April 11, 1900 lead to many discussions regarding the size of the submarine fleet and what to do with the submarines. The Naval Appropriation Act of 7 June 1900 provided for the construction of five improved Holland boats. Construction began in late 1900. These boats were built under the supervision of Naval Constructor Lawrence Spear - a conservative technician with no experience with submarines. The inventor and the constructor battled.

During this period, the Electric Boat was hard at work trying to drum up sales to foreign governments. By September 1901, discussions with the government of the Netherlands had progressed to the point where the Netherlands planned to send a commission to inspect the Fulton. Captain Adrian Tromp was a member of this commission. On September 6, 1901, Holland wrote to Captain Tromp describing everything that was wrong with the Fulton. Holland ended his letter with:

"In fact, Mr. Frost and his assistants, Cable and Brady, have produced a flotilla of submarine boats that will suit fairly well to impress those who know little about the sea and much less about tactics, the conditions to be encountered and provided for, with what a wonderful machine a submarine boat can be; but they know nothing of what actual service and work under all conditions means.

They know nothing of the qualities required in boats designed for defense or for offense at long distances and hence the unfavorable criticisms of men like Admiral Melville who can see nothing good in any project but the particular one that has succeeded in obtaining his favor notwithstanding the fact that many important features of that design have been “borrowed” without permission of the inventor.

Mr. Frost will discover in time although possibly too late to be of any advantage to me that even a Napoleon of management having possession of my inventions and the assistance of two bright young men still lacks the experience and other essentials that are necessary for success."

In another letter to Captain Tromp dated September 24, 1901, Holland reminded Tromp "that from the organization of the new Co. in April, 1898, that is, since Frost was permitted to manage everything, [he] was not allowed to have anything whatever to do with either the design or construction of the vessels."

As the company’s focus changed from developing a working submarine to marketing and construction, the friction between John Holland and Electric Boat management grew. Lawrence Spear was hired by Electric Boat as vice-president and naval architect in 1902. Holland had enough, and on March 28, 1904, John Holland resigned. He was 63 years old.

John Holland was down but not out. He still had ideas and friends. He designed a submarine capable of 22 knots. When he presented this to the Navy, their conclusion was "that while the inventor unquestionably could acheive the speeds he claimed for his boat, the dangers inherent in such a swift craft were too great to accept; further, the speed of a vessel running submerged should never exceed six knots because of the difficulties of navigating underwater."8

All attempts by John Holland to re-enter the submarine business were effectively thwarted by the Electric Boat company who filed a suit against him in October 1905 "restraining the said John P. Holland from engaging as an inventor or designer in the business of building or constructing submarine or submergible boats, and from using his technical knowledge of this particular and specific branch of boat building, and from accepting employment with any company, firm or individual, who is a competitor of your orator [Electric Boat], and from continuing in such employment for the purpose of aiding such firm, individual or company as an inventor or designer in his specific and particular branch of boat construction."

In an appeal to addressed to the chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs of the House of Representatives dated February 8, 1906, Holland states that Electric Boats' claim that he agreed to a contract, which prevented him "from using [his] brains and inventive talent in building submarines for the balance of [his] life" was absolutely false and "the whole proposition appears ridiculous and silly." Nonetheless, the lawsuit had the desired effect and Holland's backers deserted him.

John Holland was beaten. He quietly withdrew from public life and resumed his work on aircraft. Aviation experts have stated that his design would have worked, but he was beaten to the punch by the Wright brothers and abandoned his efforts.

On 12 August 1914, John Holland succumbed to pneumonia. He was 73 years old. "Forty days later, the German Navy’s U-9 torpedoed the British cruisers Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue off the Dutch coast. A submarine of only four hundred and fifty tons, manned by twenty-six men, had sunk thirty-six thousand tons of the enemy’s ships and had sent some fourteen hundred men to their death in the waters of the North Sea."9

Writings of John P. Holland

"Notes of the Fenian Ram"
"The Submarine Boat and Its Future"
John Holland's letter of resignation from the Electric Boat Company.
"How to Fly As A Bird"

Children of John Philip Holland and Margaret T. Foley

John Philip Holland Jr. (the first son) was born in 1888 and died in infancy.7

John Philip Holland Jr. (the second son) was born 8 April 1890 and died 30 November 1923.8

Robert Charles Holland was born in December 1892 and died 18 June 1942.9

Julia Holland was born in December 1893 and died 12 November 1913.10

Joseph Francis Holland was born in March 1895 and died 27 September 1942. He was admitted to the bar in 1922 and held the post of U. S. Commissioner when he died.11

Mary Josephine Holland was born in July 1898 and died the same month.12

Marguerite Holland was born August 3, 1904. She attended St. Elizabeth’s College, St. Vincent’s Academy in Newark, NJ and the School of Applied Designing in New York City. Later, she worked as a records librarian at St. Mary’s Hospital in Passaic for 15 years. Marguerite died on February 23, 1960.13

Photo of John Philip Holland Headstone
Photo provided by Patrick Ellis (used with permission)

  1. Kelleher, Daniel V., "Br James Dominic Burke – His Life and Influence in Irish Education" (Maynooth, NUI, 1984), Pp. 96 as quoted in Blake
  2. Blake, D. S., "John Philip Holland: The Father of the Submarine - His Connection with the Christian Brothers," pg 183
  3. Ibid.,pg 184
  4. The Evening Star, January 16, 1900
  5. Blake, page 185
  6. Morris, Richard K., John P. Holland: Inventor of the Modern Submarine. (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1966; 2nd ed., Univ. S.C. Press, 1998),pg. 205
  7. Ibid.,pg. 59
  8. Ibid.,pg. 124
  9. Ibid.,pg. 134
  10. Obituary published May 10, 1920 in the Newark Evening News provided by John Scanlan.
  11. "The Descendants of John Holland" by John Scanlan.
  12. "The Descendants of John Holland" by John Scanlan.
  13. "The Descendants of John Holland" by John Scanlan.
  14. "The Descendants of John Holland" by John Scanlan.
  15. "The Descendants of John Holland" by John Scanlan.
  16. Death Notice and Obituary provided by John Scanlan.

ÓCopyright 1999,2000,2001,2002 Gary McCue