The USS Holland
Holland VI

H6-35-USS Holland on the Potomac

U. S. Navy Photo

H6-02-Holland Sketch

Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers Transactions, 1902

Length 53 feet 9 inches
Diameter 10 feet 3 inches
Displacement 74 tons

Click Here for more images of the Holland VI

The Holland VI was a major breakthrough in submarine design. For the first time, all the major components were present in one vessel - dual propulsion systems, a fixed longitudinal center of gravity, separate main and auxiliary ballast systems, a hydrodynamically advanced shape, and a modern weapons system.

Dual Propulsion

The concept of dual propulsion was not new. Robert Fulton had provided sails for surface propulsion of his Nautilus and a handcranked propeller for submerged operation. A practical submarine, however, needed a more powerful propulsion system.

Thorsten Nordenfelt tried using steam for surface propulsion and the latent heat of the boiler to provide steam for submerged propulsion as well. The French submarines Goubet I, Goubet II, Goubet III, Gymnôte, Gustave Zédé and Morse used electricity for both surfaced and submerged propulsion. John Holland had experimented with internal combustion engines for surface and submerged operations in his early submarines, but the engines did not produce much power and consumed precious compressed air.

The high surface speed required of the Plunger, forced John Holland to employ steam for surface propulsion and electricity for submerged propulsion. The steam plant consumed most of the interior space of the Plunger and the latent heat made the interior unbearable once the hatches were closed.

According to Frank Cable,

"Holland encountered the usual difficulty in obtaining the right engine; he almost despaired of finding one. The internal-combustion gasoline engine giving large power with small space and weight had just been developed, and large storage batteries with corresponding electric motors were [only recently] available. Chance took the inventor to an electrical exhibition at Madison Square Garden, where he noticed the exhibit of an electric-light plant designed for a country home. The generator was driven by a 50 h.p. Otto gasoline engine. 'That is what I want for my boat!' he explained. He promptly bought the engine and installed it on the Holland."1

Unfortunately, Cable seems inclined to exaggerate for the sake of a god story, so the truth in uncertain. However, it is clear that it was shipyard owner Lewis Nixon, who suggested the clutch arrangement that allowed the HollandvVI to use the gasoline engine to recharge the battery.2 The Holland VI a range of 1000 miles when powered by the gasoline engine and 30 miles when powered by the electric motor.

Fixed Center of Gravity

Early submarine designers did not appreciate the impact of free surface on a vessel’s stability. Nordenfelt’s submarines, with their large boilers and partially full ballast tanks, were notorious. With the slightest up or down angle, the water in the ballast tanks and boiler would run to one end of the tank or another, increasing the angle and making it impossible to maintain a stable depth. The problem was so wide spread, that it became common knowledge that a submarine had to maintain a level keel at all times. Several designers developed systems involving pendulums, shifting weights and automated pumps to ensure their submarines would never develop a significant up or down angle.

John Holland solved the problem by fixing the longitudinal center of gravity. The main ballast tanks of the Holland VI were sized to be filled completely so the center of gravity could not shift. Then, just enough water would be admitted into the forward trim tank to bring the submarine to the deck awash condition. The forward trim tank was only two feet long and the effect of shifting water in a tank that small had a negligible effect on the submarine’s longitudinal center of gravity.

With a fixed center of gravity, John Holland could change depth by angling the boat up or down using the stern mounted diving planes. Observers saw this as proof that the Holland VI was unstable and John Holland was forced to spend a considerable amount of time and energy convincing skeptics that a submarine that rose and dove like a porpoise could be safe.

Ballast Systems

Initially, the Holland VI was fitted with a main ballast tank, an after ballast tank and a forward trimming tank. Tests conducted in 1898 showed that a series of small tanks could be used to compensate for changing water density and variable loads without adversely affecting the stability of the vessel.

Two aft trim tanks and two compensation tanks were added during the 1898-1899 overhaul. Each compensating tank held enough water to compensate for one torpedo. Thus, the Holland VI became the first submarine to effectively employ a main ballast system (used to submerge and surface) and an auxiliary ballast system (used to compensate for variations in water density and loads).

Advanced Hydrodynamic Shape

John Holland was a believer in the true submarine. His designs were optimized for submerged performance. The length to diameter ratio of the Holland VI was nearly ideal. The Holland VI was circular in cross section with the maximum diameter forward of amidships. There was a single propeller on the centerline and the superstructure was minimal.

The inspiration for this hull shape is unclear. All of Holland's earlier designs were symmetrical forward and aft - as were most of his competitors. If this idea had originated with Holland, one would expect the type 7 boats to continue the trend, but they did not. One theory is that the idea for an asymetrical shape originated with Arthur Busch (a trained naval architect who was credited with adding two fet to the bow).3

The other features were clearly Holland's ideas. Holland's insistance that the propeller should be on the centerline clashed with the Navy's requirement for two propellers. The result was three propellers on the . The Holland VI was built without Navy interference. Consequently, the Holland VI had a single propeller that was initially located aft of the rudders similar to modern nuclear submarines. Complaints by the Navy inspectors following the trial of 1898 about sluggish handling forced the company to relocate the propeller forward of the rudders in 1899. Holland's position on superstructure was clear - "The Navy will never accept submarines for there is no deck to strut upon."4

Holland’s ideas were rejected by Lawrence Spear who became Vice President and Chief Naval Architect of the Electric Boat Company in 1902. As a result, many of Holland's innovations disappeared until nuclear power made the true submarine viable.


Early submarines lacked an effective weapon. David Bushnell’s Turtle had to make contact with a stationary vessel in order to attach a mine. During the American Civil War, the Confederate forces experimented with towed and spar mounted "torpedoes" which required the submarine to get extremely close to an anchored vessel.

Robert Whitehead invented the automobile torpedo in 1866. Tests of this new weapon began at the Navy Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island as early as 1871. By 1888, Howell torpedoes were being deployed on battleships and small high speed "torpedo boats". A few years later, the Navy replaced the Howell torpedoes with Whitehead torpedoes constructed by the E. W. Bliss Company in Brooklyn, New York.

John Holland was able to purchase a standard Navy torpedo tube from the E. W. Bliss company and install it in the Holland VI. Following the trials in April 1898, the Navy provided the Holland Torpedo Boat Company with two practice torpedoes (i.e. with dummy warheads) and instructed the Holland VI crew on the care and handling of these torpedoes. The submarine was so small that a single man moving about the boat could drastically affect the trim, so the crew practiced reloading the tube while sitting on the bottom of Peconic Bay.

The First Submarine

The Holland VI was purchased by the United States Government on 11 April 1900 after more than two years of trials. She was commissioned as the USS Holland on 12 October 1900 and decommissioned on 21 November 1910. Ten years after she was decommissioned, the US Navy developed numeric designations for submarines and the USS Holland became known as SS-1.

  1. Cable, Frank Taylor, The Birth and Development of the American Submarine. (Harper & Brothers, Publishers, New York, 1924), pg 112.
  2. Letter from Lewis Nixon to Arthur Busch, Bush Collection, Submarine Force Library, Groton, CT.
  3. Alfred Holland's letter
  4. No deck to Strut Upon

ÓCopyright 1999,2000,2001,2002 Gary McCue