Monturiol The Forgotten Submariner
by Thomas Holian

The evolution of the submarine, from its infancy through the American Civil War, enjoys a fairly well-documented, if perhaps not popularly well-known, place in history. The earliest description of how a diver might be supplied with air beneath the waves is found in the writings of Aristotle, who described what is essentially a diving bell. By submerging inside a weighted object shaped roughly like an upside-down bucket, the diver can breathe the air trapped inside. Legend has it that another famous ancient Greek, Alexander the Great, investigated Athens harbor in such a device. Interest in the depths then apparently submerged until the Renaissance. A fifteenth-century Venetian named Roberto Valtino may have invented a hand-propelled wooden submarine, about which little evidence remains, and Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) claimed to have designed a military submarine, but refused to publicize it “on account of the evil nature of men who practice assassination at the bottom of the sea.” Da Vinci’s prejudicial view against submarines as tools of war seems to have been shared by many officials and navies even into the latter years of the nineteenth century.

Photo caption follows
This photo shows the large port holes on the bow of a reconstruction of Monturiol’s Ictíneo II in Barcelona.

In the mid-sixteenth century, Englishman William Bourne published the first account to deal with a submarine’s quintessential feature: buoyancy control. Forty years later, in 1623, a Dutch inventor in the court of King James I named Cornelius Drebbel put Bourne’s design to practice in the Thames, purportedly rowing submerged for several miles. About a century and a half later, American submarine design debuted with David Bushnell’s Turtle, which he and George Washington hoped would help even the naval playing field in the American War of Independence between the almost-nonexistent American fleet and the powerhouse British Royal Navy. The egg-shaped craft was unsuccessful in the world’s first submarine attack on another ship, HMS Eagle, and was later lost while under transport. Americans Robert Fulton (who was later to invent the steamship) and Loder Philips each built submarines that they tried to sell to various governments, with no luck. In 1850, a Prussian soldier named Wilhelm Bauer built a submarine with a metal hull powered by men on a treadmill, which promptly sank during its first trial for the German government. Bauer and his crew survived, but he was forced to seek a buyer elsewhere, ultimately unsuccessfully.

The American Civil War, which started in 1861, produced several roughly comparable primitive submarines, such as the Alligator (acquired from a Frenchman) and the Intelligent Whale for the Union and two Pioneers and the CSS Hunley for the Confederacy. Each of these boats sank at least once except the Intelligent Whale, which was not delivered until after the war ended. The Hunley became famous for being the first submarine to conduct a successful submerged attack when it
torpedoed the Union ship Housatonic, causing five deaths, but the Hunley itself sank during the attack, killing its nine-man crew. The Hunley had already sunk twice previously, killing several crewmembers including its namesake inventor.

Thus reads, generally speaking, most histories of early submarine inventors and their designs. History, as it meandered through the years, decades, and centuries, picked these men up and swept them along, preserving their legacy for posterity and future historians. However, one submariner got left behind, his impressive work largely forgotten in the years after his death, his name virtually unknown to modern naval historians. That man was Narcís Monturiol.

Photo caption follows
The Ictíneo II reconstruction is seen from the port side.

Monturiol was born in 1819 in Figueres, located in Spanish Catalonia. Early in his life, he moved to the Catalan capital of Barcelona, where he got caught up with the revolutionary, utopian, and socialist citizens of that city agitating for social justice and political change in Spain, away from a reactionary monarchy. Throughout his life, Monturiol would spend significant amounts of time either engaged in republican activities, or in exile as a reward from the Spanish government for his efforts.

A unique talent Monturiol brought to this movement was a knack for engineering and invention. He believed in technology and science as the answers to mankind’s social and economic woes, and he was constantly dreaming up ways to ease the suffering of his fellow man. Once, around 1844, as Monturiol walked along the beach he noticed a group of Barcelona’s coral fisherman gathered around a motionless and nearly-drowned fellow diver. Not one to ignore the plight of another, Monturiol raced over and lifted the man by the legs, allowing gravity to force the water out of the diver’s lungs. The fisherman recovered, still clutching the precious coral he had brought back from the bottom of the sea. Later, as Monturiol sat near the same spot with a friend, watching the ships off the cape, a light bulb went off in his head. What if he could build a ship that sailed under the water? For starters, the coral divers would be able to reap their harvest in complete safety. He might even usher in a new age of scientific exploration and enlightenment beneath the waves that cover over seventy-five percent of the Earth’s surface.

Monturiol kept his idea to himself for a dozen years, out of concern that he would not have the funds to build it and would be ridiculed for the idea. However, a friend he finally confided in convinced him that his idea must be brought to life, and money could be found from friends and the general public. Monturiol already had a good idea as to the design of the first of what he hoped would be numerous, ever-improving submarines, and had even given it a name, Ictíneo, from the ancient Greek icthus (fish) and naus (boat). The Ictíneo would fully encapsulate its passengers, protecting them from the dangers of the aquatic world while still allowing them to interact with all they discovered. Portholes were to be included so passengers could witness the wonders all around them, and the boat would be equipped with a means of retrieving objects (i.e., coral) and carrying them back to land. It would be able to dive to the very bottom of the ocean, and would operate independently of any surface assistance. In fact, Monturiol went so far as to suggest that the Ictíneo would extract oxygen from the surrounding water through fish-like gills. As Monturiol put it, the Ictíneo’s “form is that of a fish, and like a fish it has its motor in the tail, fins to control its direction, and swimming bladders and ballast to maintain an equilibrium with the water from the moment it submerges.”

Unlike his predecessors, Monturiol undertook an extensive study of all the scientific principles, as understood at the time, which govern undersea travel. He became an expert in oceanography, meteorology, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering, even conducting his own experiments to gain first-hand knowledge in those subjects. The first challenge Monturiol faced in designing the Ictíneo was water pressure. He realized that if his boat was to reach the depths of the ocean, it would have to be able to withstand crushing pressures. The best type of shape to absorb pressure, Monturiol knew, is a sphere. However, a sphere did not give him the streamlined, fish-like shape he needed for hydrodynamics and steerage. In a stroke of genius, Monturiol decided to keep his fishy hull design, but added a second, interior pressure hull. To fit the outer hull better, he stretched the spherical design into an ellipsoid. Thus, water was allowed between the two hulls, with only the interior hull tasked to withstand the water pressure while the exterior hull enabled the Ictíneo to slip more easily through the sea. In addition, Monturiol could locate the ballast tanks and any other equipment interacting with the sea in the free-flooding space between the two hulls.

Monturiol wanted to build his interior pressure hull entirely out of metal to make it as strong as possible, but this was impossible. He and his financial supporters simply did not have the money. Instead he settled for wood, with which Monturiol was intimately familiar through his father’s profession as a cooper, and which was readily available in Barcelona. He built a cylindrical barrel out of olive wood, supported with oak rings and sheathed in two millimeter-thick copper. This hull measured four meters long, two meters at its highest, and one meter wide, giving it an interior volume of about seven cubic meters. It could accommodate up to six very close friends. Using the math available to him, Monturiol figured the pressure hull would maintain its integrity down to 500 meters, although for safety’s sake he only rated it to 50 meters. He was, after all, interested in improving human life, not ending it. The outer hydrodynamic hull was seven meters long, two and a half meters tall, and displaced over 10 tons of water.

The free-flooding area between the Ictíneo’s two hulls provided the ideal space for Monturiol to install four ballast tanks, or, as he called them, bladders. With two located fore and two aft (controlled by valves from inside the pressure hull to admit sea water and pumps to expel it) the inventor now had a means to achieve neutral buoyancy. To actually take his craft down and then back up, he used hand-turned propellers. However, never one to take chances where the safety of his crew was involved, Monturiol installed a back-up system to ensure his submarine could surface even if the bladder system failed. By installing not one but two sets of large detachable weights to the exterior of the boat, he ensured that, by releasing these weights, the Ictíneo would be able to immediately increase its buoyancy and rise to the surface should an emergency occur.

Monturiol’s design called for another large weight to solve a submarine’s inherent battle between its center of gravity and its center of buoyancy. If a submarine is heavier forward than aft (that is, if its center of gravity is fore and its center of buoyancy is aft), it will plummet nose first to the bottom. The additional weight, inside the submarine and on a metal track, allowed Monturiol to counter any shifts in the submarine’s center of gravity or buoyancy as crew members moved about, the submarine changed its orientation in the water, water entered the ballast tanks, and so forth.

Photo caption follows An up-close view of the modern reconstruction as it stands near the harbor in Barcelona.


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Cover of Undersea Warfare Magazine Winter 2005