Monturiol Inventor, Writer, Publisher, Activist, and Submariner


Narcis Monturiol

Narcis Monturiol

Narcis Monturiol, born 28 Sept 1819, died 6 Sept 1885. Now, on to the man, he graduated law school but never practiced law. He became a writer and publisher, inventor and politician. He was a socialist who wanted to create a utopian community where people could live together, “each according to his ability, each according to his needs.” He also produced Spain’s first communist newspaper. In 1848, one of his publications was suppressed by the government and he was forced into exile in France. When he was allowed back in the country his publishing activities were greatly curtailed. By 1868 he was a member of the Assembly. Just a few of his other inventions included a machine for making cigarettes, a method for preserving meat, and a rapid-firing cannon, as well as a continuous printer.

One of his most remarkable inventions was the Ictineo. A submarine he hoped would help coral divers and save lives. Considering Ictineo I was finished and performed its first dive in September of 1859, it was a pretty remarkable submarine. Monturiol studied all of the available materials and the work of other submarine inventors before designing his submarine. He sought assistance from the government, when he was turned down he went to the people of Spain. More than 300,000 pesetas came in from the people of Spain and Cuba to help him build his submarine.

The submarine handled great, but the speed was disappointing. Like so many submarines designed in the 19th century it was powered by manpower. The submarine successfully completed more than 50 dives before a cargo ship ran into it while it was tied up at its berth. On 2 October 1864 Ictineo II was launched.

The submarine had a double hull with ballast tanks in between the hulls. The submarine’s pitch could be controlled with a weight on a rail that ran the length of the submarine enabling the submarine to hover. This was a feature that submarines would not have again for almost 100 years. The shape, like modern submarines, was that of a fish so that it would move through the water better. He developed his own method of navigating and used calcium hydroxide to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Monturiol performed many experiments to find a better propulsion system for his submarine. He came up with a chemical process that produced enough heat to run a small steam engine which almost doubled his speed to 4.5 knots (5.2 mph – 8.3km/h). His chemical process produced oxygen as a byproduct.

Source of image: Ictineo II replica at the harbour of Barcelona taken on October 2003 Author: Flemming Mahler Larsen

Source of image: Ictineo II replica at the harbour of Barcelona taken on October 2003
Author: Flemming Mahler Larsen

Unfortunately, by the time Ictineo II was finished and tested Monturiol was bankrupt. His submarine was sold at auction to cover his debts. The Spanish government taxed ships, so the new owner broke up the ship and sold it for scrap.

Many of Monturiol’s innovations were not seen in submarines again until the twentieth century. And Ictineo II was the first submarine designed and built that could operate without the need of oxygen from the surface. A capability the Germans experimented with during World War Two, but which was not fully realized until the nuclear powered submarines of the second half of the 20th century. The United States submarine USS Nautilus SSN-571 was the first nuclear powered ship in the world when it went into service in the late 1950s.

There were many men around the world during the 19th century who were working hard to build a viable submarine. Most had little or no help and used the materials they already had. Some of the would be inventors never realized their dream of building a submarine. Of the one who did, some died in their craft, others successful and a few even acquired fame (at least locally) for their underwater craft.

Unfortunately, very little is known of the majority of these 19th century submarines. The only ones that are still in existence are the ones which sank and were recovered much later. The designs and drawings for these 19th century wonders have been lost to time for the most part. Often only a few sketches or a newspaper article is all that remains. Even fewer photographs have survived.

That adventurous spirit still survives though. There are men and women who are determined to build their own miniature submarines to this day, and they share their knowledge, ideas, results, and photos in online groups and chats set up for armature submarine designer/builders. Once someone is “bitten by the bug” it is an addiction that won’t go away.

Original: Drawing from Author, 1858. Photograph is my own work. The author of this photo did not include his name. If you know who the author is, please contact us so we may give him/her credit.

Original: Drawing from Author, 1858. Photograph is my own work.
The author of this photo did not include his name. If you know who the author is, please contact us so we may give him/her credit.

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