His Head in the Clouds and His Dreams in the Sea ; Narcis Monturiol Built a Revolutionary Submarine, but His Plans for Success Sank

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History is peppered with individuals whose inventions became indispensable to society: Johannes Gutenberg, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Graham Bell. Narcis Monturiol ardently wished for his Ictineo (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 Ictineo and its successor Ictineo 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 Ictineo with features to prevent the fatal mishaps that had plagued the development of others' submarines. The Ictineo 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. …