How Ictíneo II, The World’s First (Working) Submarine, Was Crowdfunded into Life

by Owen James Burke

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Above: A modern-day replica of the Ictíneo II, a nineteenth century submarine crowdfunded into life by political radical and sage scientist Narcís Monturiol i Estarriol, whose outspoken sympathy for the working class gained him enough public support to design and build the world’s first air-independent, engine-propelled submarine. This replica sits at the entrance of the Museu Marítim in Barcelona. (Photo: Cookie/Wikimedia)

The first submarines envisioned by the human mind did not go unbuilt due to lack of imagination or scientific wherewithal, but for fear of the catastrophes their applications might bring. Aristotle described the modern diving bell in ancient Greece, Alexander the Great was said to have toured Athens Harbor in one, and Leonardo da Vinci drew schematics for a military submarine. But like the others before him, DaVinci chose not to publicize his plans, citing “the evil nature of men who practice assassination at the bottom of the sea.”

DaVinci was, of course, right. One of the very first autonomous submarines was built for just this purpose. The H.L. Hunley was put into military service during the United States Civil War despite sinking twice in 1863 and killing nearly all her Confederate crewmen in horrific fashion. Yet on February 17, 1864, Hunley displayed the potential advantages of undersea warfare by sinking the U.S.S. Housatonic, a previously indestructible ironclad blockading Charleston, South Carolina’s outer harbor with a torpedo blast (an explosion that apparently also brought about her own demise).

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Above: The H.L. Hunley after being retrieved from Charleston Harbor, South Carolina in 2000 (Photo: NavSource)

But years before the Hunley, there was Narcís Monturiol i Estarriol and the Ictíneos I and II in Spain. Monturiol was a Catalonian revolutionary, engineer, intellectual, painter and politician — a veritable madman straight from the pages of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. His Ictíneo II (a neologism based on the Greek words for “fish” and “boat”) was the world’s very first air-independent and combustion-driven submarine.

Born in Catalonia, Spain in 1819, Monturiol was the son of a cooper. He received a law degree from the University of Barcelona in 1845 and began progressive work in social justice as a proponent for the advancement of both sexes while earning a living by painting portraits. He was a charismatic figure, and he captivated the public with his rauxa,  or “exalted passion.”

At the start of the Spanish Revolution in 1848, Monturiol founded La Fraternidad, Spain’s first communist newspaper, but the Spanish government was quick to smother the publication, and he was exiled to France. He was allowed to return home the following year, provided that he would not continue his revolutionary editorial ventures.

Monturiol instead turned his rapacious curiosity and intellect to science and engineering. While visiting Cadaqués, Spain, he was observing the dangerous job of harvesting coral, when he witnessed the death of a diver. The tragedy set him to racking his brain over the idea of submarine navigation – not for warfare — but rather how it might make for a safer and more efficient means of seafaring.

Monturiol believed the submarine was a promising “liberational technology,” writes Matthew Stewart (author of Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World), one that would spread democracy across the seas” and serve as “the pilot vessel on humankind’s journey toward utopia.”

He shared this vision with a handful of other European visionaries including a notable Bavarian colonel named Wilhelm Bauer who had developed a submarine in 1851 in order to break a Dutch blockade, the Brandtaucher (Fire-Diver), was able to dive up to 9.5 meters.

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Above: Wilhelm Bauer’s  Brandtaucher (Photo: Submarine History)

Still, the Fire Diver was limited to human propulsion, was very slow, and ultimately sank (though Bauer and the operators barely managed to escape with their lives).

Monturiol and Bauer weren’t the only Europeans working to crack the undersea code. French scientists had been experimenting with human-powered submarines for over 20 years and in 1863, Captain Siméon Bourgeois and Charles Brun launched Le Plongeur (“The Diver”), a 140-foot, 80-horsepower combustion-driven but air-dependent submarine. Le Plongeur’s first dive occurred in February 1864, but she had considerable deficiencies: she needed a support vessel just to refill her compressed air tanks, she could only dive to 10 meters, and had fatal stability issues (when shifted into gear, she would glide downward and strike the seafloor). Le Plongeur was eventually abandoned, but a model was put on display in 1867, and was reported to have helped inspire Jules Verne to write 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

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Above: A replica of Ictíneo I at the Museu Marítim in Barcelona (Photo: Till F. Teenck)

In 1857, Monturiol returned to Barcelona with 10,000 pesetas (about $115,000 USD today) launching the first society in Spain dedicated to submarine navigation. Over the next year, he scribed a scientific thesis on the possibilities, and in September of 1859, his first submarine, Ictíneo made her inaugural dive into Barcelona Harbor.

Of the dive he wrote:

“The silence that accompanies the dives; the gradual absence of sunlight; the great mass of water…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.”

Like Bauer’s Brandtaucher, Ictíneo was slow, shallow-diving, relied on human propulsion and traveled at only one knot per hour. But at 23 feet long, built with olivewood and reinforced with copper rings something like the stays of a barrel, she could carry a crew of four and dive to a remarkable 20 meters. She lasted longer than Brandtaucher too, successfully completing around 50 dives. Yet Ictíneo also met an early end. She was destroyed when a barge collided with her while docked in port.

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Plans for Ictíneo II, featured in Monturiol i Estarriol’s essay, Ensayo Sobre el Arte de Navegar por debajo el Agua (Image: Upcommons)

With the success of Ictineo I, Monturiol wrote a “letter to the nation” requesting the support of Spanish citizens in building a new Ictineo that was bigger and faster. The payback for entreaty? An astonishing 300,000 Pesetas (about $3.5 million USD today). Needless to say, he went on to design Ictineo II with a comfortable budget.

Ictineo II was launched on October 2nd, 1864. She was initially built with human powered propulsion and her inaugural dive on May 20th, 1865 proved a far greater advancement than both her predecessor and her French competitor. In short, she could dive deeper and stay down longer because Monturiol had managed to solve a litany of problems that other submarine inventors had yet to even approach; pressure, buoyancy control, stability, underwater vision and life support. Still, Monturiol wanted – and needed – to considerably increase Ictineo II’s speed. He hypothesized that he could fit a small engine inside her, and as usual, he was right. He had first hoped to custom-build another Ictíneo II of steel for installing an engine, but with finances dwindling, he resorted to shoehorning the engine into the original.

Monturiol fit a small heat combustion engine (an external combustion engine that uses hot air) into Ictíneo II through a foot and a half wide porthole. Using a chemical mixture that produced both heat and oxygen when mixed, the engine managed to take the sub down to a remarkable 98 feet where she remained for 7-and-a-half hours, withstanding an unprecedented atmospheric pressure (ATM) of 3 (about 44 pounds per square inch) — a depth and pressure no human being had ever reached, experienced or imagined.

On December 14th, 1867, Ictíneo II made her first surface voyage under power at an again unprecedented speed of 4.5 knots (5.2 miles per hour). But here, she displayed a crucial deficiency. With her engine at speed, the sub’s interior became unbearably hot within twenty minutes. Nearing the depletion of his cash, Monturiol was unable to design a successful solution.

Sadly, just over a week after her trial voyage, Monturiol lost the interest of his backers. He campaigned for more investment, but was unsuccessful. His creditor sold the submarine, and rather than pay its bills, the purchaser dismantled Ictíneo II and sold the most advanced piece of maritime technology in existence for scrap. Her surface motor went to power a textile mill. Her viewports ended up as bathroom windows. Despite the incredible promise of her technology, all that’s left of Ictineo II today is a replica, marking the entrance to Barcelona Harbor.

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(Image: Raco Catala)

Since his death in 1885, Narcís Monturiol i Estarriol goes largely forgotten. Yet he continues to receive praise from some historians for remarkable contributions to science and technology ranging well beyond undersea exploration. He’s also credited with inventions including a continuous printer, a rapid-firing cannon, a system to enhance the performance of steam generators, a stonecutter, a method for preserving meat, and a machine for making cigarettes.

Monturiol also penned an essay entitled Ensayo Sobre el Arte de Navegar por debajo el Agua (“Essay on the Art of Navigating Underwater”), which was published posthumously in 1891. The essay not only highlighted the potential advancements submarines could bring to coral harvesting but military operations and deep sea exploration. He called the sea the “new continent.” He was, of course, right again.

Read more in Matthew Stewart’s book, Monturiol’s Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the World, and in an essay by the Technical University of Catalonia, Barcelona, Spain and Undersea Warfare, the Official Magazine of the U.S. Submarine Force — OB

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