The Writer Who Built the World’s First Engine-Powered Submarine

Narcis Monturiol loved the ocean’s corals so much, that he built a machine so he could better enjoy them

A plan of the Ictineo, the world's first engine-powered submarine. (Wikipedia)

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Monturiol untied the mooring rope as a small crowd looked on, climbed in, waved and closed the hatch. The submarine began to move under human power and as it did, it disappeared into the water. It worked! Monturiol eventually completed more than 50 dives and established that the submarine was capable of diving to 60 feet and staying submerged for several hours. The submarine was able to dive deeper and for more hours than any submarine that had ever been built.

To Monturiol, the experience was at once tremendous and terrifying. As he would later write: “The silence that accompanies the dive…; 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."

For a while, Monturiol enjoyed the excitement and tried to drum up interest among investors for the production of more-advanced submarines. Catalonians pledged money at concerts, theatre performances, and other gatherings were held, town to town, to garner funds and support for his endeavors. Then, one day in 1862, a freighter drilled straight into the sub, which was docked in Barcelona’s Harbor, and crushed it. No one was harmed, and yet the dream splintered.

Monturiol was distraught. The Ictineo had taken years of his life. Now he had no choice. He would have to build the Ictineo II, an even larger submarine.

In 1867, the Ictineo II launched successfully. Monturiol descended to 98 feet and yet, to him, the endeavor still seemed clumsy. It was hard to power a submarine with nothing but one’s legs. Monturiol opted to develop a steam engine to be used inside the submarine. The steam engine, like the submarine, was not a new invention. It had been around for almost two centuries: Thomas Newcomen first patented the idea in 1705, and James Watt made innumerable improvements in 1769.  In a standard steam engine, hot air is forced into a chamber with a piston, whose movement produces the power to motor practically anything, such as a submarine. For Monturiol, however, he couldn’t simply apply the technology of a standard steam engine because it would use up all of the valuable oxygen in the sub. The standard steam engine relies on combustion, using oxygen and another fuel substance (usually coal or fire) to produce the heat needed to create steam. This wouldn’t work. Instead, he used a steam engine run by a chemical reaction between potassium chlorate, zinc, and manganese dioxide that produced both heat and oxygen. It worked, making the Ictineo II the first submarine to use a combustion engine of any kind. No one would replicate his feat for more than 70 years.

Others tried to copy the concept of an engine-propelled submarine, but many failed to replicate the anaerobic engine Monturiol had created. It wasn’t until the 1940s that the German Navy created a submarine that ran on hydrogen peroxide, known as the Walter Turbine. In the modern era, the most common anaerobic form of submarine propulsion comes from nuclear power, which allows submarines to use nuclear reactions to generate heat. Since this process can occur without any oxygen, nuclear submarines can travel submerged for extended periods of time – for several months, if need be.

When Monturiol began constructing his submarine, the United States was entangled in the Civil War. Both sides in the conflict used submarine technology, though their vessels were rudimentary and often sank during missions. When Monturiol read about the Civil War – and attempts to use submarine technology in the conflict – he wrote to Gideon Welles, the U.S. Secretary of the Navy, to offer his expertise and designs to the North. Unfortunately, by the time Welles responded to Monturiol’s solicitation, the Civil War had ended.

The submarine was an incredible innovation, but the timing was wrong. He could not sell the submarine and for whatever reason he did not choose to explore on his own. He desperately needed and wanted more funding to feed himself and, of course, produce more submarines and, at this point, would do nearly anything for it. He even installed a cannon on the submarine to interest the military—either that of Spain or, as he later tried, the United States (so much for pacifism)—all to no avail. In 1868, he sold his dream submarine for scrap. Its windows went into Spanish bathrooms and its engine—the first submarine engine in the world—became part of a device used to grind wheat. The grand machinery of his imagination would be used to make food, each bite bearing, one supposes, some taste of Monturiol’s dreams. 

Monturiol died broke, and his submarines do not seem to have directly inspired any others. Yet, in Catalonia he has come to have a kind of understated fame. He was Dali before Dali, Catalonia’s first visionary artist, who worked with the tools of engineering rather than painting. The most concrete testimonies are a replica of his submarine in Barcelona harbor and a sculpture of him in the square in Figueres. In the sculpture, Monturiol is surrounded by muses. Even though the muses are naked, the statue seems to go largely unnoticed, overshadowed in the town by the more prominent legacy of Dali. But maybe the real testimony to Monturiol is that his spirit seems to have continued just beneath the surface in Catalonia. People know his story and every so often, his spirit seems to rise up like a periscope through which the visionaries—be they Dali, Picasso, Gaudi, Miro or anyone else—can see the world as he saw it, composed of nothing but dreams.

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