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The year 1883 marked the
beginning of the U.S. Navy's long climb out of post Civil War hibernation. From
a wartime high of 700 ships, the Navy had dwindled down to 26 effective warships
worldwide, only four of which were modern enough to have iron hulls. The Navy
had rejected most of the advances of the Civil War: armor on ships, steam ships
without the encumbrance of sails, guns mounted in revolving turrets and the
John P. Holland is best remembered for the design and construction of the U. S. Navy's first commissioned submarine USS HOLLAND SS-1, launched 7 August 1897. Before this famous submarine became a reality, there was some amount of trial, error and delay.
In 1888 the U.S. Navy Department announced an open competition for the design of a submarine torpedo boat. It was requested that the designs be submitted through the Cramps Shipbuilding Company of Philadelphia. The competition drew the attention of other submarine inventors, native and foreign. Among the competitors (besides Holland) was Professor Josiah Tuck, an American inventor, and Thorsten V Nordenfeldt, the Swedish inventor of machine guns and torpedoes. The Tuck device, known as the Peacemaker, dated from 1885 and had survived several short trips on New York's Hudson River. A14-horsepower Westinghouse engine propelled Tuck's submarine. The length of time it could run, either on the surface or submerged, was limited and it never advanced beyond the experimental stage. A unique feature of the Peacemaker was her patented Honigman's natron boiler, a fireless method of generating steam through the use of caustic soda. Its mode of attack was by means of a torpedo fastened to the bottom or side of an enemy ship by magnets or held in place by buoys rising under the keel. A water lock was provided through which a man, clad in a diving suit, could pass to lay a mine. Jules Verne applied this principle of egress under water to his fanciful Nautilus. Nordenfeldt's Type-III submarine was devised in association with the Reverend George W Garrett, an English inventor, and was of more account. She was 123' in length and rated to a depth of 100 feet. She had an advertised surface speed of 14 knots and was fitted with one of the first practical internal torpedo tubes. Boats of the type were later built for Turkey, Greece and Russia. These were just two of the men and designs against which Holland had to compete. Holland's own plan submission is not known, though it may have been his 1886 drawing of the submerging torpedo boat. The drawing describes a steam-driven submarine with a length of 96', a diameter of spindle 7' and a speed of 20 knots. Proposed armament was a 28-foot long submarine gun 12-inch in diameter and seven torpedoes containing 300 lb. charges. Although Holland's design won the contest, all were thrown out due to an informality in the bids (photo 1).
In 1889 another competition was held. John Holland's submission this time was a design for a "submergible torpedo-boat" for which he was later issued Patent No. 472,670 in 1892. Holland won the government competition, but the Cramps Shipbuilding Company failed to guarantee the specific requirements of the Navy. The Board in Washington withdrew its agreement and once again recommended that new designs be sought. The contest reopened the following year. The previous submarine designs were renewed and Holland again was declared the winner. But before the contract could be issued, President Cleveland's first administration came to an end and the appropriation originally allocated for submarines was reassigned to complete surface craft already under construction (figure 1).
The end of the nineteenth century was a period of intensive submarine development, and the 1889 design contest enlightened the navy regarding the degree to which submarine navigation had extended both in the United States and abroad. On the first of April 1893, the Navy Department again issued a call for designs for an experimental submarine. This year the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company was incorporated under the laws of the State of New York. On Holland's drawing board there emerged the plans for a new underwater vessel and on 14 June 1893, he signed the drawing Submarine Torpedo Boat that was to serve as the principal guide for the construction of what would be his fifth submarine, Plunger (figure 2).
John Holland's design won the contest of 1893, but over the next two years the government procrastinated and delayed signing the contract for experimental submarine construction. One such delay was an experiment conducted at the Naval Torpedo Station in Newport, Rhode Island, to measure the effects of concussion from underwater explosions on living creatures confined within the vessel. The test consisted of submerging a watertight tank in which were held captive a cat, rabbit, a rooster and a dove. Several charges of gun cotton were detonated, each succeeding charge being closer to the tank than the one before it. The last charge exploded within 100 feet of the mock submarine. The cat and the rooster survived, but their companions died. The tank was unharmed. During this period neither Holland's mind nor hand was idle. His 16 January 1894 Armored Submerging Torpedo Boat Mark-I and Mark-II design incorporated the concepts of steam propulsion for high underwater and surface speed and heavy armor and stealth design features that were far ahead of its time. The length was 180' with a beam of 20'. Armament consisted of four six-pounder rapid-fire guns in revolving turrets, nine automobile torpedoes with two expulsion tubes at the stem and one at the stern. The Mark-I also included two pneumatic over-water guns. Projectiles were fed into the over-water guns from two revolving casings containing 10 projectiles each. Four Thorneycroft Boilers (five in the MK-II) and twin triple-expansion engines would provide propulsion. The U.S. Navy is now designing a 21st century destroyer DD-21 (X) that has a remarkable resemblance to Holland's 1894 hull design (photo 3).
On 26 March 1895 the Secretary of the Navy signed the long awaited contract and John Philip Holland obtained the award for building Plunger. It had taken the company two years to achieve this victory, but for Holland the struggle had begun with the first Navy Department circular in August of 1888, nearly seven years earlier. Launched in 1897, Plunger resembled a gigantic cigar (technically termed, the spindle form) extending 85' in length with nearly 12' in diameter and a displacement of 168 tons submerged. For armament, two submerged telescoping torpedo tubes and five Whitehead automobile torpedoes were included. During construction Holland's original design was subjected to manifold changes devised by naval technicians. The result departed far from the ideas over which Holland had labored. It was now "improved" to such an extent that it failed. One example of the engineering mindset of the time was that naval experts did not insulate their boiler fireboxes. As a result, the heat from its Mosher boiler was so intense that no human being could stay inside the boat with the hatches closed, much less submerged. In what must be an unwitting irony, the first U.S. Navy submarine to be designed with built-in air- conditioning was the 1935 SS-179 Plunger. Unlike Simon Lake's Argonaut, which was built alongside Holland's submarine at William Malster's Columbian Iron Works in Baltimore, Plunger never left dockside under her own power. Sometime in 1900 Plunger was towed to the little town of New Suffolk, Long Island where her hull lay until World War-I. She was then removed to New London, CT to serve as a navy diving trainer until her final disposal in the early 1920s (figure 2).
Faced with the fact that Plunger was a failure, the inventor embarked on a new adventure which was to constitute the high-water mark of his creative genius. The Holland Torpedo Boat Company decided to grant a request to begin construction of his sixth submarine boat. From the first this inventor from Ireland realized that the ultimate utility of the submarine was as an engine of war, and he concentrated his energies toward the perfection of a craft for such work. Completed in 1899 and commissioned USS Holland 12 October 1900 (later designated SS-1) in ceremonies at Newport, Rhode Island, it was the first submarine named after its designer. This name became generic for future vessels of this type. Lieutenant Harry H. Caldwell was assigned as commander and became the first submarine captain in the United States Navy (photo 4).
Two of the author's models, Holland and Finian Ram, are on display as part of the John P. Holland exhibit aboard the Intrepid Air, Sea & Space Museum in New York City.
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