A Concise History of US Navy Submarine Design

1900: First "Real" US Navy Submarine - Holland

With all due respect to the "submerging" iron-clads and other muscle-powered predecessors such as Brutus de Villeroi's "Alligator," what has become known as the "fleet submarine" didn't really have anything in common with designs developed prior to about 1870.

Out-performing designs by serious American and European competitors in a long and demanding engineering battle in the late 1800's, immigrant John Holland eventually sold the U.S. Navy the Holland VI for $150,000. It became the USS HOLLAND, the first submarine commissioned by the U.S. Navy, who subsequently ordered 6 more improved versions at $170,000 each from the holding company Holland was indebted to for financing his development. Electric Boat Company, primarily under the control of a man named Rice, who owned the patent on the batteries (chloride accumulator) used for underwater propulsion, was to be the builder of the majority of U.S. submarines in the future.

Holland VI - USS Holland

The Holland VI or "Adder" used the recently patented Brayton petrol-fueled (gasoline) internal combustion engine and had one torpedo tube forward. Many of the USS Holland's features carried forward into contemporary WW-I boats: Engine/generator powerplants, battery/motor submerged operation, diving planes, and torpedo armament. Barely buoyant, USS Holland and subsequent Adder-class boats used mainly dynamic pressure on planes to submerge.

Hollands Biggest Competitor

Through the influence of money, Simon Lake emerged as Holland's only real competitor through to WW-II.

Lakes designs often featured wheels for running on the bottom, and centrally-located diving planes to permit level submergence, something he considered very important for safety reasons.

These complicated and sometimes clumsy designs often caused him to lose sales to other nations as well as the USA.

Lake's Protector

Lake's Protector was not finished in time for Navy Board tests. His only competitive offering, 'Argonaut' failed to maintain depth and maneuver underwater. His important contributions included the separate conning tower and periscope for submerged navigation. Fifty tons heavier than Holland's 'Adder', Lake's 177-ton double-hulled boat also used flooding tanks for diving. He did sell some Protectors to Russia.

1908-1918: Into WW-I

Lakes designs continued to fail, some say due to his chronic under-funding. He frequently peddled his drawings before heads of European state, including Russians, and occasionally got enough to experiment. Most failed and in particular, failed to meet entrance criteria for US Navy contract trials during the early 1900's.

Electric Boat kept an eye on his developments, though and several unpatented lasting features like flooding tanks, the conning tower, dual periscopes and both electric and engine driven drive shafts made it into A- B- and C-class boats in the period.

D-3 Salmon

During World War I, with the building of D-class boats, like the D-3 Salmon, hull-strength bulkeads separating the boat into water-tight compartments were introduced. Because the rudder and stern planes were controlled by rods carried overhead inside the hull, the ships wheel had to be suspended on a yoke from above.

Lake Finally Succeeds

After many failures, and after watching many of his ideas appear in the E- and F- class Electric Boat designs, Lake finally succumbed to more conventional thinking. He actually sold several designs to Russia as their Kaiman class, one named the Alligator. His first US Navy accepted design was the G-1

Electric Boat also sold boats to foreign navies, most notably Russia and Canada.


1916: Laurenti

Lake finally went bankrupt after failing to deliver completed boats on time and losing contracts to various ersatz buyers. His company was picked up by Italian naval constructor Laurenti, however, and he was able to deliver G-4, the Navy's last gasoline-powered submarine. She was delivered very late, and was quite obsolete. She rolled excessively, needed a bigger rudder, but was liked in 1916 despite these shortcomings.


Through the War

Lake (Laurenti) and Electric Boat and Electric Boat's Portsmouth yards continued to improve, experiment and build boats for a number of countries, including Norway, Netherlands, and even Austria. These carried through in to the US Navy's H- K- L- M- and N-classes. It was quite a mix of builders - for instance, Lake built N-5 after EB's series starting with N-2.

Lake built an increasing number of boats under specifications of the Navy Bureau of Engineering (BuEng), although he steadfastedly held to some of his strange ideas, such as amid-ships planes.


Lake's O-12 had dual planes, one set in the engine room one in the forward part of the control room. He also made use of a watertight superstructure that could be flooded on demand for quicker diving.

Search for the Fleet Submarine

BuEng and the Navy wanted a boat that could keep up with a battleship. That meant the maximum 17-knot offerings of the day were lacking by at lease 4 knots. If a boat couldn't stay in front of a task group, the tactics of battleship-based forces would be severely hampered. Up to now, boats had had only two engines. With the demise of the O-class, gasoline power was out, diesel was in. A series of 2- 3- and 4-engine boats ensued. Two large engines were clutched to the shafts on the surface with two smaller engines driving generators for electrical power and charging batteries for submerged propulsion. These were the R- S- T- and V-classes. The engine room was getting crowded, power plants were increasingly unreliable, but hulls were successful and speeds crept up to the needed 21 knots.

Redesigned several times, R- and the little faster 14-knot S-boats received radar sets, air conditioning (actually dehumidifiers, to prevent electrical shorts and fires) and gradually more space for the larger crews. They took submarines into the sea, away from coastal limitations.

Lake was allowed to go out of business. Electric Boat became sole supplier. Similar in size and performance to German Type VII U-Boats, S-boats were still too slow, 11 to 14 knots tops, depending on configuration. Three T-class boats managed 20 knots, but power plants were still cantankerous. Something more was needed.

R-2 (Length 186 ft, 680 tons, 13 knots)

S-35 (Length 219 ft, 1,062 tons, 14.5 knots)

T-2 (Length 268 ft, 1,482 tons, 20 knots)

We Learn From the Germans

Between the wars a curious thing happend. To help raise money for reparations in Germany, some of their U-boats came to the U.S. to tour and raise money through admission fees. It worked. It also allowed key Electric Boat, Navy and BuEng folks to study them. It was scary... the Germans were way ahead of U.S. and British submarine technology.

U-boats had larger rudders so could turn more sharply, had higher surface and submerged speeds, more reliable power plants, better electical systems,... it went on and on. They could dive in under 40 seconds, due to advances in ballast tank flood and vent design.

All the while, with typical bureaucratic inertia, the U.S. was building larger, more lethargic craft in search of ocean-crossing fleet capabilities.

Commander Charles Lockwood fought long and hard, and ultimately successfully for more maneuverable and speed fleet-capable designs. He was largely responsible for the success of the Tambor class, resulting finally in the emergence of the war-winning Gato.


Based on knowledge gained from the touring German U-166, the V-class models were eventually designed in several varieties, ranging from small 800-ton coastal defense boats to 1,000-ton minelayers, and also had various types of deck armaments. They also experimented with different power plant arrangements, from 2 to 4 engines of various sizes, in a single engine room. The V class boats were the first U.S. subs to employ a barrel-shaped conning tower compartment as a separate center for navigation and target approaches.

The USS BONITA (SS165,) is a good representative of the class, at 341ft long, 2,119 tons and with a transitional power plant of two main and two auxiliary engines.The mains or the electric motors were clutched through mechanical drives to the screws. The auxiliaries were used for power and battery charging.

The Sargo, the highly successful Tambor, and Mackerel classes followed, each improving speed, reliability, diving performance, armament and habitability.

Gato-Class Wins WWII

1941 - Suddenly, war in the Pacific was a reality. As of 1941, the U.S. had mostly older S-boats left over from WWI, a few Porpoise and Sargo-class and a dozen or so newer Tambor-class, having many features adopted from captured German U-Boats. The need for a long range, ocean-going fleet boat capability now clearly exceeded any considerations for coastal defense and minelaying. But it took a while for the U.S. industrial might to ramp up production of the new hulls. Eventually, though new boats were coming off the ways at the rate of one a week. It could then take 8 to 10 months to commission and crew them for war patrols.

A flurry of boats based on this excellent design built in 1942 and 1943 undisputably won the war in the Pacific. Employing many of the most rewarding V-boat, Porpoise, Tambor and Gar-class technologies, Gatos accounted for more than half the total Japanese tonnage sunk in the war, overcoming many obstacles such as faulty torpedoes, hot working conditions, and often extremely competent Japanese destroyer commanders. Had torpedo problems been acknowledged earlier and solved quickly, Japanese maritime shipping would have been wiped out completely by 1943.

Later in 1942, hull thickness was increased from 9/16-inch to 7/8-inch and a re-engineered trim pump was employed for superior depth charge resistance and 450-foot operating capability. Otherwise indistinguishable from the Gato, Balao was the first of the new deeper diving fleet class, later superceded by the similar Tench class.

Gato/Balao Fleet Boat (Length 311 ft, 2,200 tons, 21 knots)

The Gato-class, with its dual enginerooms, larger fuel capacity, 10 torpedo tubes, deeper diving (300 feet) and fleet surface speed of 21 knots, finally made the grade. Its 10,000 mile range and 75-day patrol duration capabilities satisfied the needs of its day. Later Balao-class boats had even thicker hulls for operating depths to 400 feet.

What is a GUPPY submarine?

1947-49 - With the speeds of surface ships increasing with each new class, the Navy Department was always playing catch-up in submarine development. In order to speed up surface and submerged speeds of Balao class submarines like CUBERA, several important modifications were made. GUPPY-I boats typically got only a snorkel and deck streamlining for about $500,000. GUPPY-II modifications cost several million, due largely to the expensive new batteries and drive system modifications. Which boats got which modifications was largely determined by fiscal budget allocations. CUBERA got the first of 24 GUPPY-II conversions:

GUPPY-II Modifications
  1. Decks were streamlined by removing "standing rigging" (deck guns, bridge clutter, life lines, stanchions and other protrusions), and the bow was reshaped. A new fast-draining superstructure without limber holes was installed. Sonar gear was upgraded to the new BQR-2B and transducers moved to a streamlined "chin" dome. Topside streamlining yielded a 5% decrease in underwater resistance.
  2. The conning tower compartment, bridge and periscope shears and other mast supports as well as the snorkel and main air induction were covered with a smoothly fared "sail" (in CUBERA's case made of welded aluminum), yielding another 10% speed increase.
  3. Battery capacity was increased from 256 to 504 specially designed GUPPY cells by extending both battery wells toward the control room. The new cells provided higher motor currents at the expense of 50% in battery life.
  4. Snorkels were installed to permit battery charging while submerged. Consisting of two masts, one for air intake with a valve to prevent water ingestion and the other to vent engine exhaust as a froth of small bubbles, CUBERA's snorkel system operated at about 54 feet keel depth.
  5. Higher capacity electric motors allowed operation of both halves of the double motor windings while submerged as well as on the surface. Motor windings were wound directly on the shafts, eliminating noisy gear reducers.
  6. Faster, more powerful hydraulic controls for operating the bow and stern diving planes were installed.
  7. Air conditioning capacity was increased to reduce interior moisture which could cause electrical shorts and fires, and help cool the larger batteries while charging. Of course, a side benefit was it increased habitability for the crew and reliability of increasingly complex electronics.

Take a tour of these diagrams - operational descriptions of the compartments and trivia.

GUPPY-II Modifications
(GUPPY inboard profile -- 205KB)

GUPPY-II Modifications
(GUPPY inboard plan -- 156KB)

(Profiles and plans derived from drawings by Jim Christley for Norman Friedman's U.S. Submarines Through 1945.)

Rik Nilsson .