Narcís Monturiol

The man who gave the world the submarine.

Narcís Monturiol.

Quick: “Who invented the airplane?” The easy answer is: The Wright Brothers. Now: “Who invented the submarine?” It’s safe to say that few could associate any individual with the submarine, much less Spaniard Narcís Monturiol (1819-85), creator of the world's first fully functional sub. 

Perhaps this should be no surprise. After all, most 19th-century would-be submariners didn’t live long enough to make a name for themselves—typically going to a watery grave inside experimental vessels that were accidents waiting to happen. On the other hand, Monturiol’s safety-focused craft was a technological marvel, cruising below the surface of the sea almost without incident. In the recent book “Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor who Wanted to Save the World” (Pantheon), author Matthew Stewart recounts the story of this remarkable inventor, one who realized his dream of building a submarine yet never became a household name.

Arc of a Diver

At first glance, Monturiol seems an unlikely candidate to have become a submarine inventor—an intention he announced at the relatively advanced age of 37. Trained as a lawyer, Monturiol eschewed law in favor of politics, making a name for himself as a political antagonist and socialist revolutionary. While Monturiol wasn’t exactly a novice inventor when he conceived his ambitious plan of developing a sub (his early inventions included a cigarette rolling machine and a method for mass-producing notebooks), his formal scientific training amounted to nothing. Even his source of inspiration was unlikely, as he first dreamed of a craft that would safely transport coral divers to and fro reefs in the hope of increasing the life-expectancy rate for this most accident-prone profession.

In preparation for his work, Monturiol read books about chemistry and engineering while investigating the current state of knowledge concerning underwater navigation. What he found was both encouraging and discouraging at the same time. “It was clear that going down into the water was a technological possibility. The other thing he took away was that it was quite dangerous,” begins Stewart. “Monturiol’s most important contemporary rival was Horace Hunley. The CSS H.L. Hunley sank three times, killing 25 people altogether, including its inventor. Wilhelm Bauer, a German inventor, also lost his two most important submarines at the bottom of the ocean. A lot of his predecessors [literally] collapsed under pressure,” notes Stewart. 

Yet, Monturiol took a radically different approach that readily distinguished him from contemporaries that were focused on creating a pure weapon of war. “Earlier inventors like American David Bushnell viewed the submarine as just skimming under the surface and attacking enemy warships. Monturiol had a comprehensive vision,” says Stewart, noting that his goal was to construct a craft capable of reaching the deepest, darkest reaches of the ocean. 

Grace Under Pressure

In order to realize his dream of building the Ictíneo (ancient Greek for the combination of fish and boat) Monturiol had to overcome two challenges: Raising money and finding solutions for a daunting list of technological problems. In 1857 Monturiol managed to secure a first round of funding in the amount of 2,000 duros (“equivalent to lunch for 25,000 or 16 times the annual wages of a factory worker,” according to a footnote in “Monturiol’s Dream”), but the technical obstacles were even more taxing. 

The first consideration was building a craft that could withstand the steadily increasing pressure that is exerted on a body as it descends in the water. To solve this problem Monturiol conceived of an ellipsoid-shaped craft with a double-hull. Only the interior hull would be sealed to resist the underwater pressure, so the exterior hull could be built to house ballast tanks and absorb the shock of any external blows. 

A second critical achievement would be maintaining buoyancy. “What happened with Monturiol’s predecessors is that their submarines tended to either stay right at the surface or sink until they hit bottom,” begins Stewart. “Monturiol had two systems of ballast tanks and a pressurized gas canister that could be used for micromanaging the buoyancy while in the water. The result is that he was able to stay underwater at very precise depths for very long periods of time,” he continues.

Meanwhile, a third problem was overcoming the lack of oxygen/carbon dioxide poisoning that can overcome and kill anyone sealed inside an airtight compartment. At first, Monturiol utilized an air filtration system in which “used” air was pumped through a container filled with calcium hydroxide, which would effectively cleanse the air of carbon dioxide. Ultimately he managed to develop a more elegant solution, combining the sub’s need for a propulsion system with an air filtration system. “The basic idea was to power a steam engine using exothermic chemical reactions—chemical reactions that generate oxygen—so rather than polluting the cabin oxygen would be supplied to the crew,” says Stewart.

Diver Down 

By June of 1859 the seven-meter-long Ictíneo was ready for its first real-life test, one that nearly had to be aborted when the boat scraped against underwater pilings during launch and required hastily-made repairs to the exterior hull and portholes. The sub stayed submerged for 20 minutes on its maiden “voyage” and performed admirably in 20 increasingly demanding tests. Only the sub’s cruising speed of one knot was a disappointment—although expectations should have been modest considering that the Ictíneo’s propeller was hand-driven by a crew of four men. 

In order to build a bigger and more technologically sophisticated submarine Monturiol would need considerably more cash, an amount that could only be supplied by a national government. Yet, much to Monturiol’s dismay, the Spanish government responded coolly to his advances. “In this story the Spanish Navy plays the role of hideous bureaucracy,” begins Stewart. “There were a couple of figures who wrote glowing reports [about the Ictíneo], but it seems everyone else in the Navy couldn’t imagine why on earth anyone would want to go underwater.”

Ultimately, Monturiol had no choice but to build version 2.0. In January of 1862 the Ictíneo was smashed in its berth at port by a wayward freighter. Although it took a full two years to amass enough private money to begin work on the 17-meter-long Ictíneo II, the new model (launched on October 2, 1864) was a dramatic upgrade, particularly in regards to buoyancy control, maneuverability and life support systems. The Ictíneo II could stay submerged for eight hours or more, and was even outfitted with a weapon—namely, a single cannon that could be fired while completely submerged. A pacifist by nature, Monturiol tried to rationalize the addition of a cannon by postulating that heavily armed submarines would actually encourage world peace. “He argued that they would be so powerful that once every nation had them no other nation would dare threaten any other,” says Stewart. “It was a curious anticipation of the kinds of arguments you heard during the Cold War.” 

Yet, even successful demonstrations of the underwater cannon did not attract the attention of the Spanish Navy and in late 1867 Monturiol finally ran into an obstacle he could not overcome—bankruptcy. After spending 100,000 duros—“which would have bought several frigates for the Navy, 160 kilograms of gold, or 125,000 pairs of shoes,” says Stewart—Monturiol could attract no more investors. When creditors came calling and discovered Monturiol had only one asset—the Ictíneo II—they took apart the boat and sold it as scrap. Depressed and impoverished, Monturiol was reduced to taking a job as an editor and flogging some of his earlier and less ambitious inventions. 

Later, Monturiol tried to preserve his place in history by writing his “Essay on the Art of Underwater Navigation” (1869). His rationale was that even if he couldn’t build the submarines he designed—which were as large as the largest subs utilized in World War II—he could at least document how he created the Ictíneo. His efforts, however, were mostly in vain. “By the time people realized what he had accomplished—which was over 20 years after the fact—the rest of the world had caught up,” says Stewart. 

Today, the world remains largely unaware of Monturiol’s contributions to humanity. “His name recognition is pretty high in Barcelona and Catalonia. But outside of Spain his name recognition is zero,” claims Stewart. Regardless, Stewart believes Monturiol deserves some credit for the sacrifices he made while working for the greater good of humanity. “We tend to forget that not all invention and progress is motivated by self-interest narrowly defined. That’s the accepted model but I don't think that’s the case. In that sense, Monturiol is a perfectly iconic success.”