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Going Deep: John Philip Holland and the Invention of the Attack Submarine

Review

Going Deep: John Philip Holland and the Invention of the Attack Submarine

We generally say that Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the airplane, which is not technically correct, but we say it anyway. The popular ideal is that, for everything that is invented, there is one inventor (well, two, in the case of the Wrights) who gets all of the credit for the invention. Certainly the Patent Office sees it that way.

But that’s not usually how invention works. As the Wrights would be able to tell you themselves, they never would have been able to develop the first functional airplane had other people not first invented the lightweight gasoline engine that they used to power it, or the propeller, or any of the other elements that they put together successfully. The airplane was not one discrete invention; like most things, it is a combination of many different inventions put together in a unique way. The same thing is true of your car, your smartphone and, of course, nuclear submarines.

GOING DEEP is about the history of innovation in the construction of submarines. Lawrence Goldstone tells us of a 16th-century English mathematician who allegedly came up with the concept of the undersea boat, but he does not seem to have built one. Goldstone lovingly and patiently chronicles the various attempts by patriots and promoters to build submarines. It is not a litany of success.

"Goldstone is a superb historian, and GOING DEEP is simply the best book you will read about the development of submarine technology in the Gilded Age."

The concept of the submarine is simple enough, and crude submarines were built as early as the Revolutionary War. The difficulty in making a submarine that would be useful as a weapon of war was in two critical areas: propulsion and weaponry. The ill-fated American Turtle was supposed to drill holes in enemy hulls as a means of planting explosives aboard them. The even more ill-fated Hunley was manned by a small crew of sailors operating a crank. It would take a half-century of engineering advances before the submarine was ready to be more than a novel way to kill its operators.

Goldstone focuses on John Philip Holland, an immigrant Irishman who solved most of the problems that plagued prior innovators. Holland originally developed his submarine concepts in the pay of Irish rebels exiled to America, with the idea of countering the supremacy of the English fleet. But as the payments (out of the wonderfully named “Skirmishing Fund”) dried up, Holland continued his research with an eye towards building submarines for the Navy.

Holland’s genius solved problems such as the buoyancy of submarines, ballasting and how submarines change depth. After a visit to the Philadelphia centennial exposition, he paired his submarine ideas with powerful gasoline engines to solve the propulsion problem. He partnered with a New York financier named Isaac Rice to provide funding, and was able to develop the Navy’s interest in purchasing submarines.

While the first half of GOING DEEP is a fascinating historical account of the development of modern submarines, the second half is focused mainly on the rivalry between Holland and fellow developer Simon Lake, who was inspired by Jules Verne to create submarines that could run on wheels on the ocean floor. Both Lake and Holland were vying for the same limited pool of defense contract money, and so the tale veers out of the drydocks and drafting tables and into the halls of the Gilded Age Congress. Goldstone dives deep into the various machinations that both sides used to convince the Navy to buy their submarines. He devotes the same precise research and analysis to the political struggles, but the subject matter of the back-and-forth of Congressional committees isn’t nearly as compelling and interesting as the details of submarine construction.

Goldstone is a superb historian, and GOING DEEP is simply the best book you will read about the development of submarine technology in the Gilded Age. The innovations developed by Holland and Lake would, in time, go on to shake the world. As Holland lay dying in 1914, Germany was preparing a submarine fleet that would end Britain’s dominance of the Atlantic sea lanes. As Lake lay dying in 1945, American submarines had devastated the Japanese merchant marine. And the Navy submarines constructed by the company that Holland helped found still patrol the waters of the world, ready to strike if danger approaches.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on June 21, 2017

Going Deep: John Philip Holland and the Invention of the Attack Submarine
by Lawrence Goldstone

  • Publication Date: June 6, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Pegasus Books
  • ISBN-10: 1681774291
  • ISBN-13: 9781681774299