Narcis Monturiol, submarine genuis

Every new development depends on geniuses. One of those was Narcis Monturiol.

The American Civil War had ended and the US government was demobilizing fast. In Europe, though, submarine development was picking up, mainly thanks to French government interest and people like the Spaniard Narcis Monturiol in Barcelona. We mentioned his first submarine, the Ictinéo I, in podcast episode 2.2: First Blood, but it was the Ictinéo II that broke new ground. The Ictinéo I was constructed by the socialist pacifist Monturiol to help coral divers. The submersible was destroyed in an accident while docked.

The Ictinéo II looked a lot like its predecessor – a double hull, with the outer hull made of wood, a small conning tower and working ballast tanks, but twice the size in length. In 1864, so in the year when the Hunley sank the Housatonic, the Ictinéo II put to sea and proved a success. Monturiol was not satisfied, though. He disliked the slow manual propulsion and loathed the fact that bad seas could bring the submersible to a halt when on the surface. He wanted to speed things up.

Replica of Ictinéo II

And so he set to work to replace manual propulsion with something new that would provide more speed: mechanical propulsion, like surface ships all over were now using.

Of course, Monturiol wasn’t the first to try it. The French Plongeur, after all, of which we spoke in podcast episode 2.2: First Blood, had tried propulsion using compressed air. Other inventors and designers had tried it. There was the Rotterdam Boat of old. The designers of the CSS Hunley at first also wanted to use means of mechanical propulsion and the German submersible designer Wilhelm Bauer had actually tried to sell governments on new versions of his Sea Devil using various ways of mechanical propulsion. Steam engines featured prominently in many designs.

This was of course only logical. The surface ships of the day quickly saw their sails replaced by steam engines, which meant for faster speeds and above all, those ships could operate independently of wind. Skippers were no longer at the mercy of the elements. So steam engines held promise.

But having a large, hot steam engine that depended on a huge cache of coal on a big surface ship in the open air was quite different from having a large, hot steam steam engine with a large cache of coal inside a small submersible with limited air that would sail below water.

Steam engines aboard a sub is a bad idea
Monturiol quickly realized that a steam engine on board a submersible was a non-starter. There was the coal problem, of course. There had been some inventors who seriously entertained the idea of having a coal tug accompany a submersible on the surface, which kind of defeats the main purpose of a submersible: stealth.

But more importantly, a steam engine requires a big fire to be lit. That creates two new and very big problems.

First, fire consumes a lot of air very quickly. Second, it produces a lot of carbon dioxide which made a submersible uninhabitable. Yes, this could be overcome by adding a chimney or perhaps an underwater exhaust, but this also flew in the face of stealth. The chimney problem is obvious and a lot of bubbles rising up to the surface is a dead giveaway. And third, of course, a steam engine by its nature produces a lot of unbearable heat. Even if you would only use the chimney temporarily to replenish air, the heat would turn a submersible into an oven.

Holy grail
But Monturiol refused to give in and put his brilliant mind at work. He studied the problem, read everything he could get his hands on – and then, without knowing it, laid the groundwork for what in future would be a new holy grail of submarine propulsion: air-independent propulsion.

Monturiol realized that a chemical furnace fed with a combination of potassium chlorate, zinc and manganese dioxide reacting to each other would not only generate sufficient heat to bring water to boil in a controlled environment, the essential ingredient for creating steam, but that a side effect of this process would also produce oxygen. In this way, Monturiol perfected the idea of Cornelis Drebbel, who also used a chemical reaction to produce oxygen.

With this propulsion system in place, the Ictinéo was able to improve its speed up to 4,5 knots per hour on the surface, a huge improvement on the 1 or perhaps 2 knots using manual propulsion.

So we’re now in 1867 and Monturiol had built the first air-independent propulsion. To give you an idea of how revolutionary this was: first off, the general idea of using chemical reaction would be used to drive torpedos, the next big thing in submarine development which we’ll get to in episode 2.5.

Second, it would take until the 1940s until it was again used in submarine propulsion. Third, only now – so these days, since the 1990s – are new submarines around the world using air-independent propulsion, or AIP. We’ll get to all this in later episodes. But in the meantime, yeah, definitely tip your hat to that Spanish genius, Narcis Monturiol.

The Ictinéo could stay submerged for eight hours and dive to a depth of 50 meters, quite a feat.

Like said in the previous episode, Monturiol was a socialist revolutionary and a pacifist. All he ever wanted was for his submersibles to help coral divers and other people trying to make a living off the seabed. The Ictinéo II was fitted with a mechanical arm to aid in this. But he could never monetize it.

Monturiol had taken out loans from a local businessman but with no revenue forthcoming, he realized the end was at hand. Monturiol set aside his staunch pacifism and proposed fitting a canon to the Ictinéo in a desperate attempt to seduce the navy into investing and pay of his debts.

But even if it was interested, the Spanish crown was in severe financial troubles and the idea was turned down. With all his options now exhausted, Monturiol’s main creditor called in his debts and claimed the submersible to sell it for scrap.

Monturiol gave up his submersible adventures, moved into politics in the first Spanish republic and died in 1885. Spain did later realize his genuis, though: replicas were made of his Ictinéo submersibles in Barcelona. There are statues of him and a new submarine named after him is being commissioned. In a twist of irony, this submarine will be the first in the Spanish navy to have air-independent propulsion.

Narcis Monturiol – remember his name.


Your host, Kaj Leers. 1975, Amsterdam dweller, submarine aficionado.

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