Culture & History

Outer & Inner worlds: The Irishman and Spaniard who invented the Submarine

Imagine someone mopping the floor of a submarine while savouring a chupa-chups.

This seemingly surreal ensemble, worthy of being the opening scene of an Almodóvar film, would make a good charade for ‘most renowned Spanish inventions’.

For some reason, no other country has sought to claim the less glamorous, yet wonderful, mop and chupa-chups inventions, but several nations have joined Spain in claiming to be the birthplace of the modern submarine.

The Irishman and Spaniard who invented the Submarine: Seeking the elements

Since ancient times, humans have felt the need to use air and water as a means of travelling. It is almost as if we were seeking elements that already form part of our own living nature. Travelling is an exploration of both the world around us and the world inside us. I want to think that this philosophical stance would have pleased Narcis Monturiol i Estarriol, a utopian communist writer who was for forced to abandon his controversial publications on philosophy, politics and social issues, and turned to inventions instead.

His concern for the coral workers of his area, who too often died trying to harvest these gems of nature, led him to develop a type of submarine, building on previous models going as far back as the 16th century. This device, now in the Museu Marítim de Barcelona, has the romantic air of Monturiol’s endeavour, a peaceful enterprise designed to make life easier for the humblest of people.


Ideas to live and to die for

Monturiol’s interests were intrinsically social; thus, it was only suitable that the submarine he built would be powered by people. Not only physically, but also financially: given the lack of interest from the government, Monturiol capitalised on popular enthusiasm and started a sort of crowdfunding which raised 300,000 pesetas from Spaniards and Cubans who wished for the project to continue. The Ictineo II, the first air-independent and combustion-powered submarine, was launched in Barcelona in 1864.

But Monturiol is not as familiar a name for the average Spaniard as you would expect. If you walked the streets asking who invented the submarine, you would most likely get “Isaac Peral” as a reply. It is obvious that the Irishman and Spaniard who invented the submarine are sadly unknown.

I, for one, would have been fast to give that answer had I not decided to immerse myself in the fascinating story of underwater transport.

Olympic-sized Talent

To be more precise, Peral (a Spanish lieutenant, 1851) should be credited with inventing a later model of the submarine. It was powered by electrical batteries and included a reliable underwater navigation system. Most importantly, Peral (the submarine, 1890) had the ability to launch torpedoes that travelled underwater at great speed, long before any Olympic swimmers were nicknamed after them.

As is often the case in Spain, Peral’s progress was stalled by an absurd political dispute. At the end of the 19th century, when Peral was developing his submarine, liberal and conservative governments took turns to rule Spain.

Initially, the government backed his plans, but then conservative politicians dropped their support at a crucial point. Many since have blamed the loss of Spain’s last Caribbean possessions in 1898 on the failure to use this emerging technology.

An Irishman, a Frenchman and a Spaniard walk into a bar

The truth is, inventions are complicated things. Some of them come after years of research and tests; some others are happy coincidences that, in their randomness, change the course of history forever. But also, more often than not, two people successfully and simultaneously develop the same idea in two, or even more, parts of the world.

Almost exactly at the same time as Peral was testing his submarine, John Philip Holland, an Irish schoolmaster who had no connection with the army, also developed one.  In addition, French naval architect Dupuy de Lôme and his friend Gustave Zédé worked on a project for an electric submarine, which was launched in 1888.

Holland grew up in an Irish-speaking area and was inspired to design his submarine when he learnt about the Battle of Hampton Roads in the American Civil War. He emigrated to the United States in 1873, where his research was financially supported by the Fenians, who were enthusiastic about the submarine’s potential against the British. Absurdly, the so-called “Fenian Ram”, the last of a series of devices sponsored by them, ended up in a shed due to some internal disputes.

In 1897, Holland successfully developed the first submarine to be used by the US Navy, who commissioned it in 1900. The Holland Type VI used an internal combustion engine power, which was an improvement over the Peral, as it allowed the batteries to be recharged while in motion. Paradoxically, it would also end up being bought by the British Royal Navy.


The Irishman and Spaniard who invented the Submarine: War and Peace

Muntoriol moved from writing about social improvement to actually coming up with an invention which helped his community practically.

Despite the fact his submarines would end up becoming a tool of destruction during the First World War, one of Holland’s first projects was a recreational underwater boat whose aim was for ordinary people to admire sea life. He also took an interest in the theory of flight and published about the topic.

Examining the details of submarine development highlights the fact that inventions are hardly ever the work of a single person, but rather the culmination of efforts made by many different people.

But even more importantly, it shows that the shared desire of these two men to explore their inner and outer worlds teaches us much more about history than any country appropriations or political usages of their figures.

And remember…

You can listen to our podcast on RadioPublic, the aural place of culture and insight! Also, why not take a look at this article? It’s about embassies and ambassadors in Madrid. The Irishman and Spaniard who invented the submarine are just some of the things we talk about on the blog; discover more.

Thank you for reading!






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