The Plunger
Holland V


H5-01-Plunger Drawing

Scientific American April 25, 1896


H5-04-Plunger Photo

Triggs Shipyard, Richmond, Virginia March 1900

U. S. Navy Photo


Length 85 feet
Diameter 12 feet
Displacement 168 tons


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By the late 1880s, submarines were getting hard to ignore. The Secretary of the Navy decided to ask for bids and Lieutenant William Kimball volunteered to develop a set of requirements subject to the approval of the Chief of Ordnance.

Two bids were received in 1888 - both from Cramps Shipyard in Philadelphia. One was based on a Nordenfelt design. The other was John Holland's. Citing the danger involved, Cramps insisted that the trials be done by Navy personnel, but Secretary Whitney insisted that the builder prove his product. An impasse resulted and both bids were rejected.

The government held a new competition in 1889. Holland won again, but there was a change in administration and the money was diverted to complete ships already under construction.

A third competition was held in 1893. By this time, Charles Morris had introduced Holland to Elihu Frost. Impressed by Holland's knowledge and preparations, Frost incorporated the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company and enlisted the aid of Charles Creecy to handle their Washington affairs, but George Baker was a step ahead of them.

Baker began constucting his submarine in 1890 and used his political influence to get an appropriation for submarine construction through Congress. When this appropriation triggered the 1893 competition, Baker was ready with an operational submarine. So, when word leaked out that the Holland Torpedo Boat Company was about to be awarded "his" contract, he convinced the Secretary of the Navy that he would be remiss if he did not examine his boat before making a decision.

The Holland Torpedo Boat Company argued that this was a construction contract, and a completed boat was not required. Nonetheless, the Secretary sent a Board of Inspection to Detroit to examine Baker's boat. Sometime in 1894, Baker went to Washington, confident that the contract was his. While there, he caught pneumonia and passed away.1

When Simon Lake learned that Holland had received the contract he was furious. He was convinced he had the superior design and that any submarine based on "diving" principles would be a failure, but Lake had not submitted a construction bid. He was a young man of 27 years. He had little money and no investors, so he hoped the Navy would build the boat in a Navy yard under his supervision. Lake felt he had been out-maneuvered politically and eliminated by a technicality.2

The contract for the Plunger was awarded to Columbia Iron Works in Baltimore, Maryland in 1895, but Holland's troubles were far from over, because the working drawings had to be approved by the Navy. Holland wanted to use a gasoline engine, but the Navy would not allow it, so a steam plant was installed. Holland wanted a single propeller on the submerine's axis, but the navy insisted on twin screws, so three were installed. Holland wanted to contol the depth with a horizontal rudder, but the Navy insisted that the submarine be capable of maintaining depth with no headway, so downhaul screws were installed. Holland wanted a single torpedo tube, but the Navy insisted on two.3 Construction of the Plunger proceeded slowly.

Alan Burgoyne described the Plunger as follows:

"The radius of action at full speed was to be 180 miles on the surface. Whilst at an economical speed 1,000 miles could be accomplished. The endurance when submerged was to be 10 hours at 6 knots."
"The motive power was to have consisted of two independent sets of triple expansion engines having a combined power of 1,625 I.H.P. with which a speed of 15 knots on the surface and 14 when awash, was expected. Steam was to be supplied by five tubular boilers of the Mosher type, placed in three groups, two pairs in the centre of the vessel and one forward for the regulation of balance. For submerged navigation two electric motors having a power of 100 I.H.P. each were to be fitted and these could on occasion be used as dynamos for recharging the accumulators, motive power being obtained from the steam engine. The boilers were heated by combustion of oil."
"The armament was to have consisted of three torpedo tubes, - two side by side in the bow, and one in the stern, and for these tubes five Whitehead torpedoes would be carried. On the deck is a steel armoured turret 4 feet high to protect the operator, the rest of the hull would be covered by 3 feet of water when the vessel is running awash. On this turret are placed two smaller armoured turrets fore and aft of the smoke-stack, and each of these contains a small quick-firing gun. The mode of attack is as follows: When the boat is running on the surface of the water with full steam power and it becomes necessary to dive quickly, the pilot gives the order 'Prepare to dive,' the oil fuel is instantly shut off from the furnace and the valves are opened to admit water to the water ballast tank; an electric motor draws down the smoke-stack and air shaft into the superstructure and moves a large massive sliding panel over the aperature of the turret through which the smoke-stack passes. These operations would take about 30 seconds to complete when the boat is in the awash condition and prepared to dive. In 20 seconds more it will be running horizontally at a depth of 20 feet below the surface. Although the 'Plunger' was actually launched on August 7th, 1897, she was never completed, although for three years various alterations of detail were carried out. The steam engines were removed and were replaced by oil motors. But by the time these modifications had been effected, the 'Holland Torpedo Boat Company' came to the conclusion that the 'Plunger,' when completed, according to the plans of the contract, would be so inferior to the 'Holland' and 'New Hollands' that they offered to refund the government all it had paid them upon the 'Plunger' and all expenses connected with the contract, and consented to the loss of that amount, provided the Department would contract with them for a 'New Holland.' The Secretary accepted their proposition, and they refunded to the Department the sum of $94, 364.68 ..."4

Robert Barnes described Plunger's basic design flaw as follows:

"The Plunger was doomed from the onset, principally because of too much interference from the bureau technicians in the Navy Department. The requirements were impracticable. For instance, the engine specifications stated that the vessel be propelled on the surface by steam, utilizing three screws, the two outside propellers operated by 600 H.P. engines, and the middle propeller by a 300 H.P. engine. No provision was made to protect the crew against the heat developed. The heat was particularly unbearable upon submerging even though the engines had been stopped and the propulsion shifted to the one lone electric motor operating on the middle propeller shaft. All the heat was retained in the sealed submarine."
"Another tough and impracticable test was that for changing from the surface to the submerged condition. The specifications stated that after the full 1500 H.P. had been developed, the engines were to be stopped on signal, the funnel hauled down, the hatches closed, and the vessel taken down below the surface in the short period of one minute. This feat was never achieved."5

In 1899, the Holland Torpedo Company offered to sell the Holland to the Navy and reimburse the Navy all monies advanced for the Plunger. The Holland Torpedo Boat Company planned to remove the port and starboard propellers and replace the steam plant with a diesel engine6. The Plunger was moved to Triggs Shipyard in Richmond, Virginia to make the modifications. Unfortunately, negotiations with the engine company fell through. The Plunger was never finished and it would be another ten years before diesel engines replaced gasoline engines in submarine.

  1. Transcriptions of Des Moines newspaper articles provided by Klara Hunt.
  2. Lake, Simon, Submarine: The Autobiography of Simon Lake New York: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1938. pp. 38, 45-49
  3. Cable, Frank T., The Birth and Development of the American Submarine New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1924 pp. 323-325
  4. Burgoyne, Alan H., Submarine Navigation: Past and Present New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1903. Vol. II, pp. 7-8
  5. Barnes, Robert Hatfield, United States Submarines (New Haven, Connecticut: H. F. Morse Associates, Inc., 1944), pp 17-18
  6. A plan exists in the Paterson Museum showing the Plunger with a four cylinder diesel engine and a single centerline scew. The plan is dated 1899.


Copyright 1999,2000,2001,2002 Gary McCue

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