Holland was born and raised in Ireland. Although employed as a schoolteacher,he read about early experiments with submarines carried out by William Bourne (d.1853), Cornelius Drebbel, and David Bushnell, and by 1870 he drew up hisfirst plans for a submarine. He emigrated to the United States in 1873, resumed teaching, and continued to pursue his research on submarines. The UnitedStates Navy rejected his plans in 1875, but the American Fenian Society, a group of Irish patriots who hoped to undermine England's naval power and gain independence for Ireland, commissioned Holland to build a submarine. Holland'sfirst model sank during testing, but the second model, the Fenian Ram, was successfully launched in 1881. A full-scale vessel, the Fenian Ram had many of the features we associate with modern submarines. The cigar-shaped sub used electrical power for propulsion under water and had an internalcombustion engine for surface propulsion. It was fitted out with torpedos and had mechanisms to steady the craft after firing. Previously designed subs submerged by sinking, but rudder planes on the Fenian Ram allowed the craft to dive by inclining its axis. The conning tower, however, was much smaller than has become customary for modern submarines, which are also a littlesleeker.
Holland tried to interest the US Navy in his work once again, and in 1895 theJ.P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company was awarded a navy contract for his submarine, the Plunger. The vessel, in Holland's trademark fat-cigar shape,was to be 85 feet long, again with a small conning tower. A great many designchanges were carried out without Holland's approval during building in 1898,however. As a consequence, the sub performed so badly that the project was abandoned during the first trials. One of the main reasons for the failure ofthe project was that the interior became intolerably hot during submersion.
The Plunger's steam engine for surface propulsion was also a step backward in terms of submarine design. While the Plunger was in production, Holland scraped together enough money to build a submarine on his own, theHolland no. 8. This craft, almost 56 ft. long, was small and light when compared to submarines being developed by the French. It improved upon allthe engineering advances of the Fenian Ram. The internal combustion engine for surface power also served to charge the batteries for the electricalengine that powered the craft under water. In this way, the submarine had agreatly increased range, not having to return to shore to recharge batteries.The Holland could dive and remain submerged for four hours. Surface speed was 8 knots while submerged speed was 5 knots. The craft was fitted outwith a torpedo tube and dynamite gun. The Navy promptly commissioned severalof the subs in 1900 when testing proved successful.
Holland's company continued to supply the US navy with many submarines over the years and has built subs for many other countries besides. Great Britain became interested in Holland's work in the early 1900s, commissioning severalsubmarines. Russia and Japan also bought vessels from the Holland Boat Company. In his final years, however, Holland himself lost interest in submarines and turned his attention to aviation.