Fascination with immersion in the (still) unknown deep sea abyss dates back to Classical Greece. However, not until the 19th century did the submarine conquest become essential for humanity. The use of natural resources suddenly turned water, our most precious commodity, into the obj
ect of desire for two vastly different scientific profiles: one that insisted on inventing gadgets to make it rain, and one that focused on developing a new type of underwater navigation for exploring sites that had been inaccessible up until that time. The emergence of the submarine offered a wide range of possibilities to fields as diverse as fishing, industry, science or politics. Even the world of culture fantasised about the virtues of such a craft and bestowed upon it additional attributes.
Through the entertainment sector, the most popular underwater vessels to date, such as the Nautilus created by Jules Verne or The Yellow Submarine by The Beatles, are fictional. Nevertheless, real-life, ground-breaking submarines were Spanish through and through, as the invention was ushered in by four Iberians.
The Great Forgotten and Unknow Discoverer
It was the summer of 1859 when Cosme García requested the privilegio de invención (the former name of a letters patent in Spain) with a five-year term of protection for his Garcibuzo (No. ES 1923). It was granted in May of 1860 and in August of that same year, the submarine made its great public debut in Alicante. Under the watchful eyes of the crowd gathered there, Cosme García navigated underwater for forty-five minutes.
Garcibuzo won over the public at the Alicante port, as well as Queen Isabella II at the royal court in Madrid. Sadly, though, the endless military disputes in which Spain was involved at that time decimated any possible funding for the project. As it was impossible to receive grants from the Crown, Cosme left Spain in 1861 to promote his submarine in France. Napoleon III did show certain interest in the invention and offered to finance it, but the Spaniard left shortly after the invention was patented in the French territory under the name “Bateau plongeur” (No. FR 49388).
While Cosme García was making his way through French lands, Narcís Monturiol followed in his colleague’s footsteps in the Alicante port. The politician-journalist-entrepreneur-inventor took his Ictíneo I to the Costa Blanca for an exhibition before politicians and military officials. Monturiol’s “fish-ship” was appealing because of its resistant, water-tight wooden hull, its system for handling and picking up objects, and another system it had for exterior illumination.
As occurred with the Garcibuzo, Ictíneo I was also granted an audience with Queen Isabella II. When the time came to discuss financing, however, once again the answer was a resounding no.
Still, Monturiol did not go abroad in search of funding. Instead, he wrote a letter to other citizens to raise the money needed. The missive brought together 300,000 pesetas, which is what it cost to build Ictíneo II. It debuted in 1865 and went down in history as the first steam-powered submarine, which incorporated an anaerobic engine (that did not require atmospheric oxygen for propulsion). The later addition of a revolving cannon caught the eye of the war hawks of that time. The submersible had all the elements it needed to succeed, but funding issues condemned it to a very short lifespan.
In 1868, Ictíneo II was scrapped, and the inventor permanently withdrew from the underwater race. The only patent registration left behind for posterity by the (first) genius from Figueres was a machine for rolling cigarettes (No. ES 4,221) which he sold to the Fábrica de Tabacos.
Diving in Times of War
Cosme García’s death and Narcís Monturiol’s retirement seemed to announce the end of the underwater conquest by Spanish ingenuity. Fortunately, however, two new leading figures were able to avoid the work of earlier pioneers being merely relegated to museum exhibits.
Antonio Sanjurjo, born in Sada (Galicia) in 1837, created a “torpedo launcher buoy” to defend the Vigo estuary against a possible attack by the United States fleet in 1898. The mini hand-propelled submarine was characterised by its T-shaped hull, with a vertical arm in which three people could fit, albeit quite uncomfortably. On 12 August 1898, it was tested in the Atlantic Ocean, where it successfully completed several immersion manoeuvres lasting between 45 and 90 minutes. The purpose of the defensive naval construction would never be fulfilled as a cease fire was signed between Spain and the US in the same fortnight of August that year.
Issac Peral, born in Cartagena (Murcia) in 1851, witnessed the debut of his Peral Submarine, as it was baptised, in September 1888.
The very first electric, battery-powered, steel submersible with double propellers and a single torpedo launcher tube enshrined the inventor.
Other important novelties it presented were the periscope with an electric slide and air regeneration by means of an engine that was also electrically powered. The electric storage device in the submarine and its corresponding improvements were patented by Peral (No. ES 7,073, ES 7,079 and ES 10,582). It was launched in the waters of Cadiz and performed several successful immersions, including firing tests, between the summers of 1889 and 1890.
There is no record as to what occurred exactly in 1890 for the brilliant minds of the government at that time to consider that the Peral Submarine, at its peak in popularity, was inviable. One thing that the passage of time has corroborated is that Spain celebrated both the birth and the death of the most advanced military asset from that period in record time.
This setback caused Isaac Peral to withdraw from his military career, but not from the invention. In 1891, he surrendered himself completely to the field of electricity, creating the company called Electra Peral-Zaragozana. In the last stage of his life, he invented and patented an automatic electric lift and a light projector, amongst other creations.
As ironic as it may seem, Spain did not include submarines in its Navy until 1915, and it acquired all of them from foreign countries.
Time has righted what politicians back in those days failed to see. Today, the work of these four men is gaining the importance that it should have been given in the past. Furthermore, one of the greatest contributions made by Spanish inventiveness is finally being granted the recognition it so richly deserves.
1,2 Courtesy of the Ministry of Industry, Trade, Tourism. Spanish Patent and Trademark Office (Oficina Española de Patentes y Marcas, O.A.). Archive, Historical Background (“Fondo Histórico”), P7506.
3 Photo courtesy of the Museo do Mar (Sea Museum) of Galicia (Vigo).
This article has been made possible as a result of the collaboration and graphic contributions of the following institutions: Ministry of Industry, Trade, Tourism. Spanish Patent and Trademark Office (Oficina Española de Patentes y Marcas, O.A.) Archive, Historical Background (“Fondo Histórico”), P7506; House of Science (“Casa de las Ciencias”) of Logroño, which provided us with the book entitled “Cosme García, Un Genio Olvidado” (A.R. Rodríguez), in relation to the figure of Cosme García, and the Museo do Mar (Sea Museum) of Galicia (Vigo), in relation to the figure of Antonio Sanjurjo.