Reviews from the past: Monturiol’s Dream

Over the years I’ve written a large number of reviews of comics, books, graphic novels and movies and even the odd play (and now beer too). A lot appeared on the Library of Dreams, the first site I ever made and which I posted a lot of reviews on, along with some pics and some poetry I penned and which went defunct when the provider decided to stop making the free hosting free – the site stayed up for a good while after but I couldn’t update it anymore. I was planning a new reviews site when my good mate Ariel suggested I contribute instead to The Alien Online and soon I was posting a lot of reviews to TAO, which grew to be practically a magazine online – reviews of comics, science fiction and fantasy were the backbone of TAO but we had articles and interviews and other features too, from a wide range of contributors, including several authors such as Adam Roberts and James Lovegrove.

When TAO finished its run it stayed up for a while too but now its gone too, so I was thinking, I still have a lot of those reviews tucked away in a folder and maybe it would be interesting to repost some of them myself. So now I’m slowly picking upon the Woolamaloo again I thought it would be a good time to start reposting some of them. I’m starting with one from 2003, a popular science book (although TAO was mostly SF we also posted on some interesting factual science works too) which I found absolutely fascinating:

Monturiol’s Dream,
By Matthew Stewart,
Published Profile Books

A socialist utopian dreamer tries to create a better world through science

Narcis Monturiol is a name I suspect that most people will not recognise, even those of us who fancy we have a fair smattering of the history of science. Born in Catalonia in 1819 Monturiol was one of those people who seem to be able to turn to whatever interest takes them and to be rather good at it. A remarkably intelligent man he was also very politically aware, his soul fired by the socialist dreams of a modern utopia where men and women (for Monturiol was a staunch advocate of the role of women) could live a better life. Despite his fervent belief in the progress to a utopian future he remained, unlike many others, committed to achieving this goal through non violent means. This gentle man, like many intellectuals around Europe in the 1800s, turned to the new sciences to create a better world.

Monturiol’s contribution to this better world would be a remarkable device – a submarine. To modern readers this may seem almost laughable, but Narcis was in deadly earnest. While others around the globe had struggled to create somewhat poor submersibles barely worthy of the name he would create a proper, sea-going submarine. At a time when the best attempts had produced small vessels that could stumble along a few feet under the water with a breathing hose sticking up through the waves (such as those used in the American Civil War) Monturiol would settle for nothing less than a fully functioning craft that could sustain life for hours and cruise the deep depths.

During times of great political turmoil he fired his friends and other residents of Catalonia with his dream. Constantly struggling with cash flow Monturiol, with no backing from any big company or government, used his collective to help him design, build and launch his ‘artificial fish’ the Ictineo. Lined with portholes so that they could see the marvels of the underwater world the Ictineo would have been remarkably impressive for a team of engineers working in a naval dockyard. For a self-taught man working within a socialist co-operative it was a stunning achievement.

The Ictineo was powered by several volunteers turning cranks. Monturiol, through much experimentation and thought had hit upon the idea of a double hull design to help the submarine sustain its integrity in the crushing depths – a design every submarine follows to this very day. Monturiol turned to chemistry and devised a mixture of compounds that would be mixed to generate fresh oxygen without ruining the cabin’s atmosphere with noxious gases as a by-product. The Ictineo could thus sustain a number of crewmen for many hours beneath the waves, giving ample time for exploration of the depths.

His attempts to raise more investment cash by attracting the government were not so successful however. Despite the backing of engineers and local Catalan politicians the admiralty was unimpressed. Monturiol even, reluctantly, added a canon to his ship to show that it cold be used offensively. Being the man he was he devised a method to fire this while still submerged. Fair to say this would have been a devastating weapon if it had been explored further. Monturiol rationalised this to himself by reasoning that this would level the playing field between navies such as Spain’s and France’s against the omnipotent might of the Royal Navy. Still the Spanish admirals were not impressed.

Once again Monturiol was rescued by friends, fellow socialists and the local Catalan people (who often came down to Barcelona’s harbour on a Sunday walk to see the marvel of the Ictineo diving and surfacing). A new co-operative managed to raise enough funds to being work on the Ictineo II. Monturiol was feted by the local population and politicians as a great inventor. Emboldened he sets to work on a much larger submarine. Ictineo II is capable of diving to depths of over thirty metres and sustaining life for many hours safely and comfortably. Monturiol devises manipulators on the hull to allow him to interact with the marine environment. His chemical knowledge allows him to create a mixture that will give him underwater illumination. The human-powered crank engine is replaced by a steam engine. Once again this amazing, self-taught man invents an astonishing way to power a steam engine underwater. Instead of a fire to stoke the boiler Monturiol uses a chemical reaction to generate heat to boil the water and drive the engine. This reaction also produces oxygen for the cabin and he employs more chemical means to scrub carbon dioxide from the air. The Ictineo II is, to all intent purposes, a fully functioning modern submarine.

Bear in mind that this is the mid 1860s. No-one else in the world would come up with anything so advanced for decades, yet here was a self-taught man who had made the fiction of Captain Nemo a reality before Verne ever wrote his wonderful novel. This was a man who took a concept which was science fiction and sculpted it into reality. He works out aqua dynamics, engineering principles of double hulls to withstand pressure, devices for interacting with the undersea environment and submersible locomotion and navigation, all by the 1860s. Unlike the many others around the world who tried to create a submarine – and usually failed, often fatally – Monturiol publishes detailed descriptions of his designs and methods so that others can copy and improve upon them. Still his utopian dream behind it all, a belief that this new type of artificial fish could help usher a new era in for humanity.

Of course we know today that the submarine as it was developed in the decades after Monturiol’s death was used more principally as a terrible weapon of war. And yet some glimmer of his original idea can still be seen today. Submersibles that can touch the very floor of the ocean – something Monturiol longed to do – and explore the myriad of new life found there in the darkest depths. Knowledge of our environment, tectonics and evolution have all been enhanced immeasurably by underwater exploration. How many of us thrilled to Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when we were younger? What would Monturiol have made of the fantastic sights millions could view in their own home watching Blue Planet?

Monturiol’s Dream is a fascinating and utterly delightful scientific history. The history of those turbulent times in European and Spanish history are absorbing enough in their own right – the beginning of genuine attempts to have politics for the masses and a striving to make a better world using modern reason and science. The technical brilliance of Monturiol is undeniable and makes for remarkable reading. What I took most from this gorgeous little book however was the same thing I took from the finest SF novels – sense of pure wonder. This is a quite wonderful tale of a very gentle man who really wanted to change the world. Not for honours or riches, but because he believed it was the right thing to do, to create a finer world. Perhaps on some levels he did. Hopefully Matthew Stewart’s fine book will go some way to restoring Monturiol and his work to the place he deserves in the history of science.

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