In 1844, Narcis Monturiol was walking on the beach at Cadaques when he saw a near-drowned coral fisherman being dragged from the sea. He rushed to help, holding the man’s legs up so that he could cough up water. During the entire process, the fisherman never lost his grip on the precious lump of coral in his hand.
Monturiol was a follower of the utopian socialist, Etienne Cabet. He had taken refuge in Cadaques from political persecution in Barcelona, his home. Now Monturiol pondered the plight of this poor working man who daily risked drowning and shark attack for a few cents worth of coral. Suppose, he thought, that a machine could be manufactured that would allow these men to travel the sea bottom in safety.
Monturiol was an inventor. Largely self-taught, he had an enormous aptitude for engineering and technical problem-solving. Further, he was able to communicate his ideas to technicians and fabricators. Funded largely by his socialist comrades, Monturiol set out to build a submarine.
The vessel’s shape had to be rounded, to withstand pressure, and fish-shaped, to minimize drag. This sounds simple enough today, but in 1844 these were new design principles:
Before the 20th century, people didn’t think in terms of either hydrodynamics or aerodynamics. Things moved so slowly in the first place that you just didn’t think a flat surface would make enough of a difference to slow you down. Another crucial innovation was the double-hull—one inside the other—which would withstand the pressure of the deep.
It would be expensive to fabricate this ship from metal, so Monturiol used wood as his main structural material, though he did sheathe the hull with copper. The submarine was small — meant for a crew of five — and propelled by a hand-cranked propellor. It had four ballast tanks between the double hulls and a set of weights on a track inside the vessel that allowed pitch control. An air-exchange system used a filter of lime to absorb carbon dioxide. Monturiol called his ship the Ictineo , a word combining the Greek words for fish (icthys) and boat (nau-), although Monturiol pointed out that “neo” is also the Latin for new.
Monturiol’s socialist comrades donated money to manufacture the Ictineo and, in 1859, the submarine was launched in Barcelona’s harbor. The crew was made up of the boat-builder, a business partner of Monturiol, and the inventor himself. Certain problems were detected in the first dive, having to do with the iron nails used to attach the copper sheathing. This was soon remedied and, over the next three years, the Ictineo made fifty successful dives. But, in 1862, it was crushed by another ship in Barcelona harbor.
Now Monturiol designed a second submarine, the Ictineo II, that was larger and capable of reef exploration and other difficult underwater tasks. The large ship was too slow when propelled by a hand crank, so Monturiol designed to install a steam engine. He devised an ingenious method of combining zinc, manganese dioxide, and potassium chlorate for a reaction that gave off enough heat to fire the boiler and produced oxygen as a by-product. This was the first modern submarine. The Ictineo II was tested successfully and demonstrated to be a capable vessel.
But Monturiol had exhausted the cash that he could raise from his friends and sought major investment. He tried to float a stock issue and to interest the Spanish government in a warship, the Ictineo III, which would have a crew of 250 and was armed with a huge ram. This ship never got off the drawing board. In 1869, the Ictineo II was seized by Monturiol’s creditors. The only part of the ship they thought of value was its steam engine, so they tore the vessel apart to get at the engine. One creditor hung the Ictineo‘s portholes in his bathroom.
Monturiol built no more submarines but he invented a great many other items. The only one that brought any money to his family was a cigarette-rolling machine and even the proceeds from that device were largely stolen from him. Like many creative geniuses, he was unable to translate his work into money. “I don’t know how to do business, nor do I know how to win men over so that they will come to my aid,” he said. One Monturiol invention that was never funded was a sewing machine, a device that might have made him a fortune.
Even so, Monturiol was a man much admired in Catalonia. Songs and poems were written about him and his work and people were proud that he was Catalan. In 1873, during a brief republican period, Monturiol was elected as the Catalan deputy to the national assembly. On arriving in Madrid, Monturiol discovered that the new government was facing problems turning out stamps. There was no way to dry the glue on the back and drying machines would take months to procure. Monturiol sat down with the press workers and quickly they devised a device to dry the sheets of gummed stamp paper. The First Republic soon fell, however, and the monarchy was restored.
By 1880, Monturial was reduced to earning a pittance as a clerk. He continued to be involved in large projects, though, such as a scheme to divert water from the Ter River to Barcelona. He died in 1885. Monturial’s friends and political allies announced an event to pay homage to Catalonia’s greatest inventor. The monarchy tried to ban the public event but it was held anyway, a week later. Four years after Monturiol’s death, Spanish naval officials came to understand the value of his submarines and, guided by his designs, built a new vessel that was propelled by electricity. Now the government decided to rehabilitate Monturiol’s memory and he was named a national hero, and is so thought of today. A film about Monturiol was made in 1993 that used replicas of Ictineo I and II. These now are displayed near Barcelona’s harbor.
Matthew Stewart’s Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World is hard to find. (A Spanish version may be easier to locate). Two important sources for this article are: an interview with Matthew Stewart about his book and a long article produced by the Technical Institue of Barcelona in 2009, named by the Spanish government as The Year of Monturiol.