A Utopian's Submarine
Monturiol's Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine
Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World. Matthew Stewart. xiv
+ 338 pp. Pantheon, 2003. $25.
In the summer of 1859, Narcís Monturiol i Estarriol and his
crew ran sea trials of the Ictíneo, the world's
first fully operational submarine, in the harbor waters of
Barcelona. This untethered, double–hulled, hand–powered
vessel built of copper–sheathed olive–wood staves proved
capable of routinely diving to 20 meters and of navigating at that
depth with a crew of up to six men. Thus the Ictíneo
was far superior to the pioneering submarine most Americans know
about: the Hunley, which was used in the Civil War.
Monturiol, who invented the Ictíneo, was not an
engineer; rather, he was an idealistic visionary. His
little–known story is ably recounted by Matthew Stewart in
Monturiol's Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine
Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World.
In the first half of the book, Stewart describes Monturiol's
remarkable life as a socialist revolutionary and a follower of the
utopian thinker and influential communist Étienne Cabet, who
promoted a new earthly paradise in Texas called Icaria. Monturiol
was one of the leaders of a progressive movement in Barcelona that
advocated the advancement of both sexes. Also, he associated with
the likes of bourgeois reformist Ildefons Cerdà, a civil
engineer whose innovative design for the expansion of Barcelona and
treatise on urbanization laid the groundwork for modern urban planning.
How does a person who spent his younger years fighting for social
justice while earning a living by painting stylish portraits end up
designing a state–of–the–art submarine?
Monturiol's youth was defined by rauxa, a Catalan word
meaning "exalted passion." He held on to his rauxa even as
he abruptly abandoned his revolutionary past and embraced
seny—the common sense that built the machines and
factories fueling the economy of Barcelona. This combination of
rauxa and seny led Monturiol to dream of building
Monturiol hoped such an invention would immediately benefit one
particular group of workers—coral divers—and would
eventually serve as "a prototype for efforts to improve the
conditions of the landlocked workers of the world." His
ultimate goal was the construction of a craft that would be capable
of descending to the greatest depths of the ocean and navigating
underwater indefinitely; it was to be a pacific vessel, harvesting
the corals and fishes of the deepest waters and seeking to promote
understanding of the nature of Earth's oceans through science and
technology. He conceived of his submarine, Stewart says, as a
"liberational technology, one that would spread democracy
across the seas" and serve as "the pilot vessel on
humankind's journey toward utopia."
Stewart describes compellingly Monturiol's inspired solutions to
problems of submersible design, his initial brilliant technological
successes and his fight for funding. We get taken on a
roller–coaster ride through the inventor's trials, triumphs,
frustrations, despair, capitulation and penury. Along the way, many
personalities of 19th–century Barcelona are
introduced—so many that they threaten to overwhelm Monturiol's
story; readers must be vigilant to keep track of his path.
Monturiol, as he worked on his design for the
Ictíneo (the name could mean either "fishlike
boat" or "new fish," he said), was diligent in trying
to learn from the subaquatic experiences of a number of predecessors
who had tried to launch submarines. He managed to solve a number of
problems that had daunted them—problems of pressure, control
of buoyancy and stability, life support, underwater vision and propulsion.
For Monturiol, Stewart says, diving in the Ictíneo
was "transcendental, a near–death experience."
Monturiol himself described it as follows:
The silence that accompanies the dives; the gradual absence
of sunlight; the great mass of water, which sight pierces with
difficulty; the pallor that light gives to the faces; the lessening
movement in the Ictíneo; the fish that pass before
the portholes—all this contributes to the excitement of the
imaginative faculties. . . . there are times when nothing can be
seen outside by natural light, when one sees nothing but
the obscurity of the deep; all noise and movement stops; it
seems as though nature is dead, and the Ictíneo is a
Tragically, in 1862 the Ictíneo was destroyed while
berthed in the Barcelona harbor, "victim to a
hit–and–run attack by an irresponsible freighter."
Monturiol set about building a second submarine with ardor.
Practical considerations—a need to raise money to pay off
debts—led him eventually to equip this second vessel, the
Ictíneo II, with a cannon, which he somehow
justified to himself as being "all part of a plan to achieve
universal peace." This submarine proved to be too stealthy:
Unannounced demonstrations of its ability to load, aim and fire the
cannon underwater created loud thunderclaps and tall splashes of
water in the Barcelona harbor, startling unsuspecting port
authorities and arousing their wrath. Monturiol was charged with
disturbing the peace. When the cannon failed to achieve its purpose
of attracting support from the Spanish government, Monturiol turned
to the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, offering the Ictíneo
II for submarine warfare in exchange for funds; but the Civil
War had just ended, and the Navy had no pressing need.
Monturiol forged ahead with "perhaps the finest of his
technological achievements": the addition of a steam engine to
his submarine. But he couldn't keep it underwater longer than 20
minutes without the interior overheating, and he couldn't afford to
try the solutions he envisioned for keeping it cool. The association
of shareholders that was backing him went bankrupt, and the most
advanced submarine of its day was seized by creditors and sold to a
businessman. The purchaser, on receiving a large tax bill from the
government for his new possession, ordered the vessel scrapped. Its
surface motor was removed to a textile factory; its viewports ended
up as bathroom windows. It was an ignoble end for a remarkable
machine. We are fortunate to have Stewart's remarkable book to help
preserve the memory of the Ictíneo and of its
inventor, Monturiol.—Cindy Lee Van Dover, Biology, College
of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia
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