The Submarine Men: Fulton and Holland

Some curious facts about the two submarine inventors, Robert Fulton and John Philip Holland. Both were of Irish background, and both designed their boats specifically to be used against the British. Yet both ended up giving their designs to the British.

John Phillip Holland in later years.

The Clare-born Holland, who went on to found Electric Boat, was actually funded by Fenians in the 1870s-1880s. The plan seems to be that his electric and diesel submarines would sink the Royal Navy.

Instead, he ended up building submarines for the US Navy and the Royal Navy itself.

Many years earlier, Pennsylvania-born Fulton designed his submarines under commission from France’s First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte. Alas, Napoleon lost interest in Fulton’s undersea boat, the Nautilus, just as he later lost interest in transporting his Grand Armée across the English Channel on Fulton’s steam-powered barges.

So Fulton gave up on France, and went to England. Pitt’s government in the early 1800s didn’t do anything with Fulton’s designs, either; or indeed with any submarine designs for many decades. And Fulton ended up going back to America, where he famously launched steamboats on the Hudson.

Nearly a century later, the United States Navy commissioned its first Holland-built electric submarine, the USS Holland. Not to be outdone, the Royal Navy decided to order one too, and called it the HMS Holland 1. And then Imperial Germany decided it too liked the idea of Holland’s U-boats. So the race was on.

John Philip Holland died in 1914, at the start of the Great War. He thought his undersea boats would end naval warfare, but of course they had the opposite effect.

But while Holland is commemorated as the inventor of the modern submarine, Fulton is almost entirely forgotten in that regard. We all know him as the steamboat man. But he was also an innovative painter, who created the most popular tourist attraction in Paris in the last 1790s: the Panorama painting. This was a illustration inside a huge cylinder, providing a 360-degree view of some part of Paris or its environs.

The first painting a view of Paris from the Tuileries Palace. The Panorama became the subject of popular songs, and gave Paris a nickname: Paname.

Robert Fulton perished in rather ludicrous circumstances while crossing the frozen Hudson River in 1815 with his good friend Thomas Addis Emmet. The Irish-born Emmet, the richest lawyer in New York City, was probably also the fattest. He fell through the ice. Fulton jumped in to rescue him. Emmet survived, Fulton died of pneumonia.

 

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