As with his all-metal pressure hall, Monturiol was forced to abandon hopes for steam power, or some other mechanical solution, for propulsion. He simply did not have the money for such a complex addition to his design. Instead, like his predecessors, he relied on human brawn to propel the Ictíneo through the sea. As for keeping the crew alive beneath the surface, Monturiol figured that if his boat was to look like a fish, it might as well breathe like a fish. Therefore, he commenced a study of the gills of fish to learn how they extract oxygen from the water. Upon further consideration, however, he determined that since most fish seem to spend their time close to the surface, the ocean’s oxygen must be concentrated there. And since his was to be a deep-diving submarine, the gills concept was abandoned. He did manage to develop a way to cleanse the interior chamber of carbon dioxide by pumping air through a container of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide). The carbon dioxide and calcium hydroxide would react to form solid calcium carbonate, leaving behind air free of carbon dioxide. However, his solution to produce oxygen proved unfeasible because it produced sulfuric acid – not something one wants to share the confined, submerged spaces of a submarine with. Monturiol decided to let the problem wait and contented himself with limiting dives to the length of time it took the Ictíneo’s crew to use up most of the available oxygen. He also had to settle for a mundane solution to the question of interior illumination, resorting to a simple candle. This used up precious oxygen, but had the advantage of turning a deep red and alerting the crew as oxygen started to run out. To explore the underwater world, he installed several large glass portholes on the sides, top, and nose of the Ictíneo. These were thick and semi-conical, so water pressure would push them into the hull and seal off potential leaks.
On the morning of June 28, 1859, with his submarine association’s funds largely depleted, Monturiol was finally ready to take the Ictíneo on her maiden voyage. The thought, technical expertise, and flair of genius that went into its design were unprecedented in the annals of underwater travel. This large wood and copper fish, as with its inventor, was well ahead of its time. As a gaggle of Monturiol’s family, friends, investors, and fellow utopians watched along the pier at Barcelona’s harbor, the Ictíneo slipped down the guide rails, and crashed into the water – directly into hidden underwater pilings. Monturiol quickly determined that full repairs would completely exhaust his funds, so he opted to perform a quick fix to the damaged portholes, exterior hull, and ballast tanks, and limit dives to twenty meters.
Several hours later, the Ictíneo was ready for another try. Monturiol and his two crewmembers, an old business partner and his lead shipbuilder, sealed themselves in the boat and started cranking the propeller. A safe distance from the dock, the Ictíneo stopped, and then slowly submerged amidst a froth of bubbles. The surface calmed, leaving no trace of the odd-looking contraption. Twenty minutes passed, as the anxious crowd strained for some sign that all was well with the submariners. Suddenly, the water boiled up again and the Ictíneo breached the surface. The hatch opened, and out came Monturiol, arms raised in triumph. The “fish boat” lived.
Over the course of that summer in 1859, Monturiol took the Ictíneo on more than 20 test dives, gradually increasing depth to his self-imposed 20-meter limit. He constantly monitored the performance of the whole boat, and the living conditions inside it. He learned that the crew could remain submerged for around two hours with only the oxygen sealed inside the boat. Their endurance could be doubled with the use of bottled oxygen and the carbon dioxide purifier. The Ictíneo proved to have good handling in the water, but its human-powered top-speed was disappointing. Nevertheless, by the end of that summer, Monturiol enthused that “After the successful trials of my first Ictíneo, which is no more than an experimental prototype… it is no exaggeration to assert that, henceforth, man can dominate the entirety of the solid crust of our globe, for he has in his hands the means to transport himself to any depth in the Ocean.”
Unlike many of his predecessors and antecedents, Monturiol did not conceive of his invention as a tool of war. Given his socialist and utopian tendencies, it is hardly surprising he would be more concerned with the plight of local coral-divers than the armament of nations. However, eventually the realities of public funding caught up to him, and as the donations dried up, he felt forced to turn to the government of Spain for help. Even as the Ictíneo plied the waters of Barcelona’s bay, Monturiol was planning an improved second submarine named, appropriately enough, Ictíneo II. To the Spanish Navy, Monturiol conceded that his boats could have military value, but of course only as a defensive weapon that could save Spanish lives. The Navy, however, did not share his enthusiasm for the project. It pledged support to Monturiol, but did so with no intention of following through. Monturiol and his friends redoubled their fundraising efforts, and eventually were able to build his improved submarine. Before work on the boat even began, though, the original Ictíneo met its untimely demise January of 1862, after some fifty dives, when a wayward freighter ran into it while it was berthed. Monturiol was of course crushed, but the loss only intensified his desire to build his second submarine.
Slightly larger than its predecessor (designed for a crew of twenty), the Ictíneo II boasted improvements in virtually every aspect of its design and featured an underwater chemical search lamp, retractable pincers for plucking objects out of the sea, better life-support systems, and separate ballast tanks for both trim and depth control. The Ictíneo II took her maiden voyage on May 20, 1865, submerging to a depth of 30 meters. Some months later, in a final effort to secure government funding, Monturiol installed a cannon atop the Ictíneo II, which could be aimed and fired from inside. Several unannounced demonstrations in the bay did nothing to attract the funding he wanted, but they did run him afoul of the harbor’s authorities. Upon reading of the American Civil War and the far cruder efforts at undersea locomotion across the Atlantic (including the CSS Hunley, which, as one Confederate quipped, “would sink at a moment’s notice and sometimes without it”), the financially-strapped Monturiol wrote to the American Secretary of the Navy. Unfortunately for Monturiol’s bank account, the Civil War had ended by the time the Secretary got around to his response.
Throughout his career as a submarine inventor, there was one problem that continued to haunt Monturiol: inanimate propulsion. He calculated that three knots was the slowest an ocean-going vessel could go and still be able to safely overcome the currents and tides, but it seemed human muscle, no matter the size of the crew, was incapable of these speeds. He needed a motor. Working about twenty years before the inventions of reliable electric and internal-combustion motors, Monturiol’s only option was steam power. But contemporary steam engines were heated by an open flame, which is fine for a surface vessel that can expel exhaust and replenish oxygen easily, but this was not an option for a submarine. So Monturiol returned to his chemical experiments, mixing thousands of concoctions until discovering that a solution of 53 percent zinc, 16 percent manganese dioxide, and 31 percent chlorate would generate enough heat to power the engine, while also producing oxygen. He purchased a six-horsepower engine and divided it in half. The larger portion he left as a coal-burning engine for surface propulsion, while the second was given a separate boiler for the chemical mixture. The chemicals were stored in 15 rod-shaped cylinders, which were inserted into the boiler to induce the reaction. At long last, Monturiol felt he had found the answer to the question of underwater propulsion. Alas, two major hurdles remained: actually getting the engine inside a submarine, and of course money, Monturiol’s bane.
In Monturiol’s dreams, he saw yet another new submarine, purpose-built to house his new chemical steam engine. It would be much larger to accommodate all the necessary parts and pipes, and it would be built entirely out of metal, a much better conductor of heat than wood. The engine would also be housed in its own separate, climate-controlled area of the boat. Of course, given the dire financial strait of Monturiol’s submarine association, building another submarine was pure fantasy. A more realistic, but certainly still expensive, alternative was to shoe-horn the engines into the Ictíneo II and install an array of bronze pipes in the submarine’s interior, through which seawater would be pumped to carry off the engine’s massive heat output. He was able to scrape together the funds to get the two engines into his second Ictíneo (without the cooling system) during the first half of 1867, but then he was forced into one of his several exiles at the critical moment. Three months later it was finally safe to return, and on Oct. 22, 1867 the Ictíneo II made its first surface journey under steam power. The submarine averaged 3.5 knots with a top speed of 4.5 knots, enough for Monturiol’s minimum requirements. Two months later, on Dec. 14, he took the boat under the waves and ran the chemical steam engine, but didn’t attempt to go anywhere. Two weeks later, on Dec. 23, Monturiol’s submarine association went completely bankrupt, having finally exhausted all of its funds. The main creditor called in his debt, and, unable to pay, Monturiol was forced to surrender his only asset, the Ictíneo II. The creditor subsequently sold the submarine to a business man whom Monturiol hoped would use the vessel for its original purpose of harvesting coral. But even this was not to be, as the authorities, who taxed all marine vessels, decided that the Ictíneo II fit that description and issued its new owner a tax bill. Rather than pay, he dismantled the entire submarine and sold it for scrap.
For over a decade, Monturiol had pursued his dream of making undersea travel, exploration, and – as finances dictated – warfare, a reality. Through the trials of fiscal woes, intermittent exiles, and enormous technical challenges, Narcís Monturiol applied a mind unique in history to sustaining life under the waves. Both Ictíneos were decades ahead of their time, in everything from their double-hull design and life-support systems to the Ictíneo II’s dual engines, which apparently would have performed admirably had the inventor had the funds to properly utilize them. After the final crushing defeat of watching his second submarine dismantled and scrapped, he faded into obscurity, condemning future submarine inventors to retread the paths he had so painstakingly pioneered.
Mr. Holian is an analyst with Anteon Corporation in Washington, D.C. and a Contributing Editor to Undersea Warfare.
Friedman, Norman, U.S. Submarines Through 1945 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995)
Stewart, Matthew, Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2003)
[Note: The latter reference is the only scholarly English-language source for information on Monturiol and his submarines known to the author. All quotes are from this work.]
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