His head in the clouds and his dreams in the sea

Narcís Monturiol built a revolutionary submarine, but his plans for success sank

History is peppered with individuals whose inventions became indispensable to society: Johannes Gutenberg, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Graham Bell. Narcís Monturiol ardently wished for his Ictíneo (combining the Greek words for "fish" and "boat") to become such a revolutionary invention. In the mid-19th century, in the port of Barcelona, he built the most sophisticated submarine of his time. His goal was nothing less than to bring peace and democracy to the world.

Surely, he thought, the riches of the deep would supply bounty to eliminate need, and the prospect of unavoidable destruction from below would bring an end to naval warfare.

Unfortunately, Monturiol fell into that category of inventors who sink into history's murky depths. How many sad stories litter this category we may never know, but Matthew Stewart has done a great service in bringing Monturiol to the surface. Although he may be remembered in his native Catalonia, Monturiol seems to have been forgotten even in the small, cramped world of submarine inventors.

That Monturiol had the soul of an inventor is obvious. Despite having no scientific or technical education, he tackled projects with determination and remarkable success. Dissatisfied with the notebooks available for his schooling, he invented a better one. Frustrated with rolling his own cigarettes, he designed a cigarette-rolling machine.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that the Ictíneo and its successor Ictíneo II were terrific technical successes.

Determined to submerge his craft indefinitely, Monturiol developed systems for producing oxygen and removing carbon dioxide from the air. Portholes and external lighting functioned admirably. In fact, extended underwater stays ended only because the volunteer crew needed to get back to their lives.

Refusing to accept any casualties, Monturiol packed the Ictíneo with features to prevent the fatal mishaps that had plagued the development of others' submarines. The Ictíneo had two hulls: an outer one to protect the craft and an interior one hermetically sealed to protect the crew.

As an entrepreneur, Monturiol was less successful. Stewarts notes his "astonishing inability to turn a great idea into a good business."

Most of his inventions went to waste or were adopted without benefit to himself, though others reaped millions. Had he clung to his inspiration and focused on the commercial application of his invention as a coral harvester, he might have been able to sustain his venture. But instead, he remained true to the ideal of a general-purpose submarine, a craft capable of indefinite submersion without any link to the surface, and with ship-like propulsion.

His politics and his personality were decidedly communistic. As Stewart reminds us, "Monturiol's dream belonged to that special category of human endeavor that would lift the fortunes of everyone without favoring anyone in particular." Especially himself.

He spent a significant part of his life in hiding or in exile on account of his progressive politics and short-lived publications. Though he developed nearly all of the submarines' systems on his own, Monturiol could not have built even a model without the financial and moral support of his revolutionary friends.

As disheartening as the failure of the grandiose submarine project was, his story is no tragedy. The project's failure was the result not only of the utopian inventor's inability to empathize with and capitalize on others' financial self-interest, but also of a society unwilling to support a real visionary.

Even after the Ictíneo II was dismantled for scrap, Monturiol documented for public record everything he had learned in the process. And while we might wish for him to have met with more success and less heartache, his unswerving devotion to humanity makes Monturiol's story, ultimately, uplifting.

It helps also that Stewart maintains a light tone. His choice application of wit is sometimes necessary to prevent the routine tragedies of a tumultuous time from dragging down the narrative. And the book contains scores of interesting illustrations that help us keep Monturiol's acquaintances, benefactors, and adversaries straight.

Incidentally, Barcelona has not forgotten Narcís Monturiol. A sculpture of the Ictíneo II sits alongside the Avinguda Diagonal, and a full-scale model of the curious wooden fish-boat looks out over Barcelona's harbor.

Tim Rauschenberger works on the Monitor's website.

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