A history of the attack submarine and its inventor, who “would never know that he had helped create one of the defining killing machines of two world wars.”
Historians pay great attention to humankind’s yearning to fly. The desire to travel underwater turns out to be equally fascinating, with many difficult technical barriers and a fiercely single-minded inventor, John Philip Holland (1841-1914), who is now mostly forgotten. The story is well-told by historian and journalist Goldstone (Drive: Henry Ford, George Selden, and the Race to Invent the Auto Age, 2016). Holland arrived from Ireland in 1873, already fascinated by submarines. Faced with an indifferent U.S. Navy, he struggled for more than two decades to obtain financing. No sooner had he succeeded when Navy “experts” demanded changes that converted his plans to a lugubrious Rube Goldberg–esque contraption. Holland essentially abandoned it and built the submarine he had designed. Tested in 1898, it thrilled observers, including Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt, who urged superiors to buy the machine. They refused. His money exhausted, Holland had no choice but to accept the offer of a rescuer, Isaac Rice, wealthy owner of many businesses, including some that supplied Holland. In exchange for financial aid, Holland turned over his patents and control of the company. Rice had no interest in sharing power, and Holland resigned after several frustrating years. Litigation prevented him from starting a rival company, and his death after 10 years of retirement went unnoticed. Rice’s capital and connections worked their magic on the Navy, which bought its first submarine, the USS Holland, in 1900 but remained lukewarm about buying more. Rice eventually struck it rich but not until World War I broke out.
A well-crafted combination of technology history, tortuous military politics, and the biography of a shamefully neglected American inventor.