USS Nautilus

The Electric Boat Company in Connecticut has been at the forefront of naval innovation since its foundation in 1899. Patrick Boniface explores the rich history of the company.

The Spirit of Rathlin was built by Arklow Marine Services and provides an all-year-round link for passengers and a limited number of vehicles alongside the Rathlin Express catamaran which was introduced in 2008.

The design of submarines has been at the heart of Electric Boat since its foundation on 7 February 1899. The visionary John P Holland, who designed and manufactured the world’s first practical submarine, the Holland 1, required assistance in building more sophisticated designs. When, on 13 October 1897, the Holland sank whilst alongside at Crescent Shipyard at Elizabethport in New Jersey, he pleaded with the Electro-Dynamic Company of Philadelphia to despatch an engineer to retrieve the submarines systems. The engineer the company sent was Frank T Cable, who was fascinated by the design and offered a number of engineering solutions, which Holland had not thought of. Another recruit to the fledgling company was inventor Isaac L Rice, then President of the Electric Storage Battery Company of Philadelphia.

The Holland Boat Company was absorbed on 7 February 1899 when the Electric Boat Company was formally established at its base at Bayonne in New Jersey. On 4 April 1900, the US Navy paid $150,000 for Holland 1, which greatly encouraged sales to Japan and Russia and interest from France, Turkey, Venezuela, Sweden, Mexico, Norway, Denmark and Great Britain.

Eleven years later, in 1911, Electric Boat constructed a new facility at Groton called the New London Ship and Engine Company to build diesel engines. In 1925, the company transferred all submarine and ship manufacture to the site. The first four submarines were ordered by Peru.

“RENEWED INTEREST”
Whilst interest grew in Electric Boat’s products, the US Navy steadfastly invested in only 25 submarines over 14 years. The situation was so bad that, in 1913, the company was nearly declared bankrupt. It was the tragedy of the sinking of the passenger ship RMS Lusitania, in May 1915, that sparked renewed interest in underwater warfare. Soon Electric Boat had a great many orders, 20 from Great Britain, 12 from Russia, 8 from Italy, while the US Navy placed orders for 88 submarines, and also gave Electric Boat the contract to refit 30 others already in service. Great Britain had also ordered a large number of submarine chasers, as did the Italian and French navies. The end of the First World War saw a dramatic U-turn in the company’s fortunes with the cancellation of many contracts. The US Navy did not order a single vessel from the yard for 13 long years. During this time, the yard built tugboats, ferries and yachts and also diversified into printing presses, and even repaired hair curlers for beauty parlours to survive.

In 1931, the USS Cuttlefish, the first welded submarine, was laid down and, by 1940, construction of submarines had increased again to six per year. With America’s entry into WWII, at the end of 1941, production was ramped up with Electric Boat producing 16 submarines in 1942, 25 in 1943 and 23 in 1944. However, the following year, with the end of the war in sight, production slowed to just 11. The old yard at Bayonne, meanwhile, was utilised in the construction of hundreds of torpedo patrol boats.

When peace finally came, so too did the cancellation of US Navy contracts, 36 submarines being removed from the order books in 1945, and Electric Boat saw its income plummet by 70 percent virtually overnight. Once again, Electric Boat diversified into things such as printing presses and steel highway bridges. From 1947 the holding company bought into aviation with the purchase of Canadair and Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Company. Also the electronics company Stromberg Carlson which gave Electric Boat a foot in the emerging scene of missiles, tanks and aircraft in addition to its traditional line in submarines.

NUCLEAR POWER
On 14 June 1952, the first components for the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, USS Nautilus, were laid down by the Electric Boat Company. The innovative design of the submarine was carried out by an enlarged team of engineers and draftsmen. Electric Boat would go on to build nine of the first prototype nuclear submarines, including USS Seawolf, USS Narwhal and USS Glenard P Lipscomb. On 8 May 1962, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy christened the US Navy’s largest submarine to date, the 7,000 ton USS Lafayette, a nuclear ballistic missile submarine armed with Polaris intercontinental missiles.

From 1960 to 1970, Electric Boat built 17 missile boats, 13 attack submarines and 8 research submarines. It also invested $150million in a new facility at Groton to handle the demands of building the Ohio class armed with the new Trident ballistic missile system, A further $120million was assigned to the former US Naval Air Station at Quonset Point to build an automated frame and cylinder operation. Quonset Point was tasked with constructing the huge cylindrical sections of pressure hulls and transferring them by barge to Groton for assembly.

Relations with the US Navy soured in the late 1970s over a dispute concerning a claim of $544million by Electric Boat, and welding problems during construction of the Los Angeles class submarine USS Bremerton. 1979 saw Electric Boat launch the USS Ohio, the first of an 18-ship class of nuclear ballistic missile submarines. In 1994, a small piece of history took place when First Lady Hillary Clinton christened the yard’s 33rd and final Los Angeles class boat, USS Columbia.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - March 2018 Issue
Click here to subscribe