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
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-
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
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. …