Jan/Feb 2004 Book Reviews

Monturiolís Dream

Matthew Stewart
Allen and Unwin 404 pages
ISBN: 1 86147 470 1

reviewed by David Skea

In Barcelona, if you go to the end of Las Ramblas, cross the road by the statue of Christopher Columbus, and walk along to the new harbour, you will come to a strange wooden structure. And if you are curious enough to stop to read the nearby commentary, you discover that you are looking at a full-sized model of Ictineo II, the first real submarine to be built. Sure, others had built and trialled submersible vessels, but here is a replica of the first real submarine that dived, surfaced and proceeded underwater, on its own, at depths of up to 20 metresóan event in 1867 as astounding as the landing of men on the moon some 100 years later. And it was invented and built by an idealist with no formal engineering training who had spent the first 37 years of his life publishing left wing journals (always banned by the authorities) or organising a radical political party, most of whose members were jailed or exiled. He was himself wanted by the police. His name was Narcis Monturiol i Estarriol.

This book is his biography. Born in 1819, he was the second son of an artisan family, and he was destined from childhood for the priesthood. At the age of eleven, he was sent to university in Cervera to study Latin, Greek and other subjects that would qualify him for the church. However, he found science more to his liking and studied medicine instead. Not that he ever practiced as a doctor, for at that time the first Spanish civil war broke out, and Monturiol had no difficulty in deciding which side to support. In a burst of revolutionary fervour, he switched from medicine to law and moved to Barcelona. Not that he ever practiced law either. In Barcelona he put aside his law books and fell in with student demonstrators, revolutionary journalists and communists, all of whom became his close friends for the rest of his life. He was sixteen, and for the next 20 years, he was part of the left wing movement seeking a better life for the workers.

Suddenly at the age of 37, Monturiol, ignoring his day-to-day involvement with the left wing, concentrated all of his energies into designing and building a submarine. And it was not to be any old submarine. Monturiol made it clear in his first writings on the subject that he imagined a craft that would take humankind to the very bottom of the ocean (at least eventually) and would propel itself in all directions, without any link to the land or surface, remaining underwater indefinitely.

Why did he design and build such a vessel? Not for the usual reasons, such as a delivery system of weapons of war. No, he had been motivated to find an easier way for the coral divers who worked off the coast of Spain to harvest the coral after he had helped to save the life of one such diver who had apparently drowned. Also, he reasoned that by making a better life for the workers, a new civil (ideal) society would naturally develop.

He overcame many problems, raised finance, and found a dockyard to build the vessel. He became a master in the sciences such as they existed at the time. He conducted his own experiments to test his hypotheses about hydrodynamics, respiration, and so forth that would underpin the submarineís construction. In three years he designed, had built, and then, in 1859, launched his first submarine. Ictineo I performed admirably as a prototype and was shown off to all until it was crushed in dockside encounter with a freighter.

The story now takes on a familiar theme known to many inventors. Few in the establishment were keen to adopt the submarine concept or to provide funding for the next, larger, version. However, new funding did materialize, and in 1867 a new larger submarine, Ictineo II, was built and launched. It even had a steam engine (fired by a revolutionary concept) that ran underwater. In the end, the project ran out of money and ran up huge debts. Ictineo II was seized by the major creditor, parts sold off, and the rest broken up for scrap.

The rest of Monturiolís life was a struggle for existence. He had no official position and no income. He scraped together a living by taking odd jobs as a writer and editor. He lectured, translated works from French and copy edited manuscripts. At the age of 59, he took a job in a brokerage house, and a year later worked his way up to cashieróa trade for which he had also trained 35 years previously as a student.

In his lifetime, Monturiol invented many things: a cigarette rolling machine, a method of preserving meat for export, a cheap food for rabbits being raised for meat and a mechanism for copying letters as they were written, are just a few mentioned in the book. None, though, enriched the inventor. As Monturiol wrote about himself: "I do not know how to market anything. I do not know how to conquer the hearts and minds of men so that they come to my aid..."

Had he had this ability, who knows what other inventions he would have developed. He had flying machines in mind once he had solved the submarine problem.

The book is illustrated. However, as the illustrations are all printed in black and white on the same paper as the text, the quality of the reproductions is less than satisfactory, which is a pity. I found the book well worth reading and would have liked to examine the drawings of the submarine more closely.


Previous Piece Next Piece