Narcís Monturiol

The man who gave the world the submarine.

Narcís Monturiol

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.

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