Submarines Before Nuclear Power: After the <i>Holland</i>

Submarine development in the United States during the early 20th century focused on coastal defense. Only when World War I broke out in Europe did Americans realize how far behind they had fallen in submarine design. An extensive building program culminated in the S-class boats, which formed the backbone of the submarine force through the 1920s and early 1930s.

A submarine class is a series of boats built to the same basic plan; the name of the first submarine in a class usually becomes the name of the class as well. From 1911 to 1924, U.S. submarines had only numbers, not individual names, so classes were designated by letter.

During the 1930s, the U.S. Navy developed long-range fleet submarines powered by diesel engines and electric drive. They were designed for speeds high enough to match the surface fleet in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean. The same speed and range that made them vital adjuncts to the fleet proved equally valuable for attacking the Japanese merchant marine in World War II.

This 1942 photograph shows the USS Porpoise (SS-172), commissioned in 1935 as one of the first American diesel-electric 'fleet' submarines. Courtesy National Archives

Five recently commissioned U.S. submarines lie at anchor in Irish waters after the United States entered World War I in 1917. Courtesy Naval Historical Center

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