Photo by Tashoma Lemard
Replica of Ictíneo I at the Museu Marítim de Barcelona
On a splendid summer’s day, on June 28th, 1859, a group of men and women watched as a strange-looking vessel slid into the waters of Barcelona harbour. After a few minutes chugging around, it slipped under the sea in a flurry of bubbles and disappeared. The spectators looked on in silence, each consumed by thoughts of the fate of the crew members. Twenty minutes later, the bubbles returned and the vessel emerged from the port’s green and muddy water. Ictíneo I, the world’s first fully-operational submarine, had been launched. Its inventor was Narcís Monturiol i Estarriol, a Catalan self-taught engineer and radical thinker, who dared to dream that his machine could help save humanity.
Narcís Monturiol was born in Figueres to a family of barrel-makers. Perhaps in some way he was influenced in his creation of the modern submarine by those containers used to store liquid without any leaking out, though he would of course aim for the contrary effect. After finishing a degree in law, Monturiol moved to Barcelona where revolutionaries had begun to challenge the more hellish aspects of industrialisation, which was spreading across Raval, Sants and Poblenou. In the rapidly changing city, he took to publishing socialist literature, upholding equal rights for women and founding La Fraternidad, the first communist newspaper in Spain, which was heavily influenced by the French utopian communist, Étienne Cabet.
The utopian communists lacked the historical critique of Marx, and believed they could create utopian societies here and now. Cabet’s version was an earthly paradise called Icaria over which he would rule as a benevolent dictator, until true communism could be established. Cabet’s ideas became popular in France, and spread to Catalunya, where a circle developed around Monturiol and La Fraternidad that managed to raise enough money to send three Catalan adherents to ‘Icaria’, which, Cabet had now announced, would take earthly form in Texas. Thousands of Icarians were said to be enlisting to travel to the promised land, an early wave of pioneers that would later sweep across all of humanity. In the end, however, just Cabet and 69 followers docked in New Orleans in 1848, where they set off for the land the great leader had bought from a property shark. It turned out to be a mosquito-infested swamp teeming with alligators, where surprisingly few of their neighbours in America’s wild lands seemed to believe in universal brotherhood. The project was an abject failure and Cabet died of heartbreak shortly after.
Oddly enough, it was only in Barcelona that fragments of Icaria survived, in the radical imagination of the city. Monturiol and many of his followers settled in what is today Poblenou. Unaware of the ruinous farce that had befallen their dream, they called the neighbourhood Icaria. The only remnant of it today is Avinguda Icària, which crosses the neighbourhood, though 140 years later the city council ridiculously also named the Olympic Village, Nova Icària. Being made up of apartments for the wealthy, it was neither utopian nor had much in common with a failed 19th-century Texas swamp settlement.
But perhaps the biggest Icarian influence on Barcelona was Monturiol’s friend Ildefons Cerdà, the great civil engineer, whose remarkable project for the Eixample, while not revolutionary in a political sense, seems to have drawn direct inspiration from Cabet’s ideas, with its ideal blocks of housing forming a new classless city. Lacking any public control over its development, however, the Eixample would also become a perfect example of the failure of the utopian socialists as Cerdà’s visionary idea of a green, egalitarian city was soon completely corrupted by speculative builders.
In 1848, with the spectre of a real communist revolution sweeping across Europe, the Spanish government did not take kindly to Monturiol’s ideas and banned his publications. Undeterred, he instead set about inventing things, passionately believing in human improvement through technology. During a stay in Cadaqués, he watched coral divers risking their lives to bring red coral to the surface; while this coral is protected today in Catalunya, it was a valuable commodity in the 19th century, when it was used in jewellery and as a crimson pigment. Monturiol saved one diver who appeared to have drowned and later, from the safety of the headland, watched other divers at work and imagined a machine that would render their labour safe. This machine would serve, as Monturiol put it, “as a prototype for efforts to improve the conditions of the landlocked workers of the world.” Somehow, through this “liberational technology”—in the words of Matthew Stewart, author of the excellent Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World (Pantheon, 2004)—workers repressed on land would find a new reign underwater free from tyranny, where they would harvest coral and fish, and help to advance democracy and scientific knowledge. The submarine would guide humanity on its voyage to Utopia, yielding the ocean’s bounty to the common man. Robert Hughes, in his seminal Barcelona, comments that Jules Verne may well have been directly inspired by Monturiol when he thought up the character of Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870), though, unlike the mild-mannered Catalan, Nemo becomes a fanatic.
After several years raising capital, studying earlier submarines, and improving their designs, Ictíneo I (from the Greek for ‘fish-ship’) was born. It was far superior to any other underwater machine around at the time. Its double hull, the first in history, was formed by olive staves clad in copper, reminiscent perhaps of his father’s barrels. It could dive to a depth of 20 metres, but six men were needed aboard to hand-power the machine, a major drawback. However, with no formal training in engineering, Monturiol had managed to overcome a series of complex problems (propulsion, buoyancy, stability, pressure, life support and vision underwater). It was a tremendous achievement.
After the publicity surrounding the maiden voyage, watching the Ictíneo’s further test dives in Barcelona’s harbour became a common pastime throughout the summer of 1859. Monturiol described the underwater experience in none-too-enticing words:
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 tomb.
Ictíneo I was badly damaged in the harbour after being accidentally rammed by a freighter and had to be scrapped, but Monturiol used the opportunity to build a new and better machine. Ictíneo II, launched in 1864, was a huge improvement. It was powered by steam, a major technological breakthrough, and could easily navigate at depths of up to 30 metres, though its maximum speed of just 1.5 knots was a serious stumbling block. It was also equipped with an ingenious chemical system for eliminating carbon dioxide and replenishing oxygen. There were even pincers for harvesting coral. In many aspects, it would not be bettered for decades.
For many Catalans, Monturiol was a hero. Robert Hughes claims that “the success of Ictíneo in Barcelona was a 19th-century premonition of the emotions which gripped Americans a century later at the sight of the NASA astronauts.” Poems were even written about his creation. But she attracted virtually no money, and Monturiol was now hounded by debts and desperately tried to enlist the support of the Spanish Navy by arming his new machine with a cannon. The submarine of peace would be now primed for war, but they were uninterested in this crazy Catalan. Spurned by Spain, he even offered Ictíneo II to the US Navy, but the American Civil War was over and military budgets had been slashed. His shareholder’s association soon went bankrupt, and the vessel, the most advanced submarine in the world for decades, was sold for scrap, its surface engine ending its days on a local farm grinding flour.
By 1880, Monturiol had fallen on hard times, surviving as a badly-paid clerk. However, he continued to be involved, more fruitlessly than ever, in large projects, such as a madcap scheme to divert water from the River Ter to Barcelona. Like many inventors, he was unable to turn his brilliant ideas into hard cash. As he put it, “I don’t know how to do business, nor do I know how to win men over so that they will come to my aid.”
He died in 1885 at the age of 69. Despite attempts to ban it by the Spanish monarchy, he was paid a public homage in Barcelona. Within four years, the Spanish Navy had picked up on his ideas and built a new vessel. Now Monturiol was declared a national hero. Tragically, the machine he naively believed would help save humanity was re-developed over the coming decades by numerous inventors in ways that led to tens of thousands of horrible deaths at sea during the two world wars.
Nick Lloyd leads Civil War tours in Barcelona and runs the website www.iberianature.com