PHOTO: BRIAN MURDOCK
MADRID BY PETRA, Tours of the Movida Madrileña (https://www.facebook.com/madridbypetra)
Peral’s submarine was built at a dock in La Carraca, an important naval shipyard and military base in the province of Cadiz. The watercraft was launched on September 8, 1888 and ready for testing. Six months later, in March, 1889, it was subjected to the first round of practical trials. First they lowered it as far as the turret and recorded their impressions. Then they tested its armament and fired dummy torpedoes into some nearby rocks. Eventually, they lowered it to a depth of 25ft (8m) and studied how well it maneuvered. The Peral would eventually go down as far as 100ft (30m) and crawl around the floor of the harbor for up to an hour at a time. The initial results were promising.
Its surface speed was also reasonably impressive for its day, reaching over 8 knots (up to 12 knots when the accumulators were fully charged). Submarines built posteriorly would not surpass that rate until well into World War I, which should give you an idea of just how advanced it was. Underwater, however, it was limited to a more modest 3.5 knots, a drawback exacerbated by the fact the batteries could not be recharged as they went. With speed subject to the strength of the energy source, performance in this category was unfortunately unreliable.
That said, it’s important to take into consideration that just about everything about the Peral was being testing fully for the first time. After all, this was a prototype more than anything else, and one of the main purposes of the studies was to take note of its strong points and troubleshoot for flaws. They generally produced a wide array of results, ranging from better than expected successes to unforeseen mishaps. Sometimes of the kind you don’t want to unfold when trapped inside a metal container underwater. We can imagine it was pretty nerve-racking for the crew. And while Peral described the atmosphere in the cabin as “excellent” and “healthy”, and praised the team’s morale, some members would later recall the experience with a decidedly more harrowing. One quipped he went down the hatch with dark hair and came back up several hours later with white. All things told, it must have been terrifying.
Despite the tension, the uncertainty, and even subversive setbacks, there is some fairly convincing evidence his project was a victim of sabotage, the tests were said to have gone extremely well. The boat was seaworthy, which was something you couldn’t say about most competitors of his day, reliable and, for the most part, lived up to expectations.
There was just one question that needed to be answered: would it do what it was designed to do? That is, would it be an effective sea weapon?
For that, authorities needed to assess just how it would compete against an enemy vessel. The chosen ship for the challenge was the unprotected cruiser called the Cristobal Colón, that’s Spanish for “Christopher Columbus”. The intended target was packed with naval guests, friends and family who had gathered for a social outing and found themselves on board for the sole purpose of snacking on tapas and spotting the U-boat. Obviously, the anticipation took away most, if not all, of the element of surprise, generally a required condition for submarines to be effective. As a result, the turret was seen from a proverbial “mile” away, and any secret attack was thwarted. On top of that, the state of the sea at the time apparently made it especially difficult for the crew to control the submarine, meaning they had to surface more often than they would like. The test was repeated several times that day with essentially identical results.
This fact, this predictability, apparently irked Peral beyond belief. What kind of test was that? Despite his protests, maybe it was not such a bad one, if you think about it. While hiring a regiment of revelers to keep an eye out for any lurking submersibles as they sip cocktails may not be the ideal way to simulate a wartime scenario, you can bet your depth charges any able naval craft on alert would be counting on professional personnel to do the same. If Sra. Sanchez in her Sunday best could scream “Sub off the starboard!” while keeping her hat from flying away in the sea breeze, just imagine the field day a trained naval serviceman on lookout would have.
The nighttime test, however, produced the desired results. The Peral managed to sneak up to within range and fire upon the vessel several times successfully with dummy torpedoes. In theory, the Colón, would have burst into flames and bubbled to the bottom in minutes, several times over. Satisfied with the way things had gone, it was time to return to the office for a review.
The first official reports on the Peral were not quite stellar but encouraging. The submarine had passed most of the main trials satisfactorily, but discrepancy arose over the sub’s range and autonomy. There were claims it could roam for up to 511 kilometers and that the 600-plus accumulators could run for 66 hours without recharging. This was met with skepticism, and rightfully so. Conditions would have to have been close to ideal to have a shot at meeting those standards; but, as many sailors will tell you, conditions are rarely ideal out at sea. Plus, as anyone who has had a battery-run toy or a tape recorder will attest to, energy levels don’t go full throttle until they suddenly shut off; instead they slowly lose their oomph before coming to a complete stop. An internal combustion engine which kept the batteries charged would have solved that issue, but unfortunately it hadn’t been incorporated. To be fair, the vision Peral had in mind was that of a vessel that would defend the coasts of Spain, not make transatlantic crossings. The weapon was designed to be more defensive in purpose. It didn’t need a great range.
Other issues that needed addressing included complications involving the electrical network and the vessel’s troublesome tendency to rock unstably underwater. Peral himself was the first to admit these problems and already had plans to remedy them. Unfortunately, trying to correct them with the existing submarine would have proved both complex and unsatisfactory in the end. The easiest solution would be to start all over with a new sub and the needed corrections in place.
So, the board, while not overly enthralled, must have seen enough potential to order a second one, with the necessary improvements, naturally. It even toyed with the idea of creating an entire fleet to be deployed in pairs and trios around the country’s staggering 6,000 kilometers of coastline. The next submarine would be larger, faster, with a hybrid motor of combustion for surface and electric batteries below. That way they wouldn’t have to return to base to recharge. The sub’s design would be modified, too, to adhere to better specifications that would make it more stable. The officials also planned on equipping it with two torpedo tubes instead of one and a gun fitted on the deck to increase its attacking capabilities. By including these, they just might have a vessel worth investing it. Peral agreed and went straight to work.
In the meantime, the country went deliriously crazy.
Most people today know little or nothing about Isaac Peral, but in Spain in 1889 his fame had rocketed to celebrity status. Even polkas were composed in his honor. If that isn’t the ultimate consummation of recognition for a job well done, I don’t know what is. His resounding success struck pride nationwide and earned him an invitation by the queen to visit the royal palace. She was one of his most loyal supporters and admirers, and it was only fitting that her protégé be given a hero’s welcome.
His trip to Madrid was met with much anticipation and it illustrates the inventor’s seemingly boundless popularity. He and his wife arrived by train on July 22 at Atocha Station (known as Mediodía Station back then) in the center of the capital, where they were mobbed by a crowd that ran into the thousands. It reportedly took them over an hour just to reach the hotel where they were staying on the Calle San Jeromino, a mere half a mile away. Once at the accommodation, hordes gathered outside like teenagers waiting anxiously to get a glimpse at a pop influencer. They refused to leave until their newfound idol appeared on the balcony and delivered a speech of gratitude and appreciation for their support. He acquiesced and the reaction was said to have been delirious.
Ensuing banquets and celebrations were held in his honor, and the queen herself bequeathed her deceased husband’s gala sword to him, a gesture of appreciation and affection difficult to match. The festivities brought the capital to a near standstill. The frenzy was mindboggling. Lindbergh’s victory tour comes to mind as a comparison. It was a great time to be an inventor, that’s for sure. One of those few moments in history when they got the attention they deserved. The future looked bright; the project showed promise. It seemed like for the first time in many, many years, the Spanish navy was ready to retake center stage.
Peral was at the height of his career.
The Last Chance
So timing was on Peral’s side. It was his moment to convince the military command that he was on to something. That is, a solution to Spain’s naval woes. His solid reputation as a serviceman and researcher worked in his favor, as well as his connections with people in high places, Queen Regent María Cristina of Spain no less. She was a said to have been a big fan of his project. Eventually, he swept his plans up off the table and headed for Madrid for a private interview with Vice Admiral Manuel de la Pezuela y Lobo, the Minister of the Navy at the time. Born in 1817, the aging official had spent the better part of his long career witnessing first hand the descent of his beloved navy into the abyss and was intrigued but not entirely convinced. He needed to see more. So he agreed to finance the preliminary tests before going all out.
The government initially allotted Peral 5,000 pesetas to conduct a set of experiments to see if going through with construction of a full-scale submersible was even worth it. These tests included, among other things, ensuring the survival of the crew for extended periods of time in an enclosed area. This is, and has always been, a clear and present danger for anyone daring to close themselves into a confined airtight space and plod around the bottom of the sea. Even H.G. Welles, the creative literary giant who seemed to envision just about anything as being possible, once said rather fatalistically, “I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.”
The writer was wrong, of course, but his views were not entirely off base. Submarines are tricky machines and have a lot of natural laws working against their success. In fact, it’s a wonder they work at all.
For example, even after you have found a way to ensure breathing and can get rid of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide, since it doesn’t just disappear magically, there’s a whole slew of challenges to overcome, like getting the vessel to sink. We all know that air keeps boats afloat, but how can we make them go under…on purpose? Anyone who has tried to plunge a beach ball under water for a sustained period of time can relate to this complication first hand.
And, you will want it to submerge in a controlled fashion, which the laws of physics dictate is easier said than done. Round oblong shaped objects tend to rock and roll, or on occasion just dive headfirst onto the floor of the ocean. It’s achieving a steady and balanced descent that sailors struggle with.
Next comes forward motion, almost blindly, without bumping into anything. And you’ll need to know how to generate the power to propel it mechanically on its own. Finally, as the voyage comes to an end, you’ll have to make sure you can get the vessel back up to the surface.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A handful in a myriad of obstacles. To say Issac Peral had not set the bar high for himself is an understatement. Still, one gets the feeling that it was his passion for his project that carried him and it through.
The first tests concerning survivability proved successful; very successful, in fact. The ministry nodded with approval and allocated the team another 25,000 pesetas to get the program up and running.
Peral went straight to work, making use of the grant to travel personally to various points in Europe to obtain the materials and instruments needed to see his dream come true. He returned with everything he thought he needed and began the assembly.
Just what, might you ask, did Peral and his team design? Well, quite possibly the most advanced vessel of its kind the world had ever seen. Let’s take a closer look at some of the genius behind the Spaniard’s plans.
The sub was 72 feet long and weighed nearly 80 tons. One of its most innovative features was the inclusion of electricity as a system for propulsion. This would allow for independent mobility underwater and it would free up the crew from manual labor and allow them to focus on other tasks. To power the massive sub, the Peral required 613 batteries (known as accumulators) weighing 50kg each, which the inventor had purchased in Belgium. This source of energy ran the two 30hp electric engines he combined to turn the two large screws at the back. These had been acquired in England.
To help the sub to lower under water, Peral came up with a brilliant idea. He called it a “caja de profundidades” or “depth device” and it consisted of two vertical screws placed on the bottom of the hull, one each end of the sub. Once turned on, they assisted in the descent. This machine allowed the submarine to dive in a stable manner, thus overcoming one of the most challenging obstacles of underwater navigation. It also kept the vessel steady when firing the torpedoes.
Additionally, ballast tanks were installed on the bottom of the hull. Ballast tanks are containers which can fill up with water so that the submarine can submerge. The water is then pumped out when it’s time to surface. They also controlled buoyancy.
Oxygen was provided thanks to four tanks of compressed air and was regenerated through an engine that pumped air through a sodium hydroxide (or soda lime) filter to control the levels of CO2 and avoid air poisoning. The same motor injected oxygen when necessary and also powered the bilge pump to expel excess water. It was a very useful machine, indeed.
Oxygen supply was reported to last for up to two days underwwater, though that was never fully tested. At the same time, when the Peral was at the surface, air could also be recycled thanks to two air vents (he described them as “snorkels”) which drew in fresh air and sent it to the galley.
To improve underwater navigation, Peral stuck a bronze magnetic needle on the ceiling of the sub’s turret to act as a compass. He placed it as far away from the electrical equipment to avoid interference with the readings. It was an addition that had gone untried up until then and proved very helpful. An electric light was attached to the hull giving the visibility of up to an impressive 150 meters. When moving close to or at the surface, the Peral could also count on its tower as well as a periscope in order to see without being seen. The periscope in practice presented problems for the Peral, but the innovation as an idea would live on to this day.
The final touch, probably the one that interested his superiors the most, was the inclusion of a torpedo tube at the bow. It literally made up the nose of the vessel. Two watertight hatches on each end of the tube enabled the crew to launch them underwater. All you had to do was raised the hatch, launch the torpedo, close it, and quickly replace it with another. There was room for three additional projectiles. The ammunition of choice was the German-made Schwarzkopf. If all went according to plan, the Peral and its future sister ships would form a serious threat to any menace enemy.
Peral didn’t invent most of these components. He didn’t invent the battery. He didn’t invent the ballast. He didn’t invent the electric motor, the air purifier or even the torpedo. And he certainly didn’t invent the compass or the screw. His ingenuity lay in the fact he knew how to put them all together so that he could construct a solid and reliable submarine. That required vision and, let’s be honest with ourselves, a lot of inventiveness. It meant modifying existing components to adapt to his necessities, as well as plenty of tweaking as they went.
And if you think about it, isn’t that how these things so often work? Aren’t most sophisticated inventions an accumulation of previous ones that required that one blob of magical mental glue to stick them together? The result, in this case, was a tremendously resourceful and imaginative submersible vessel. To many, nothing like it had been created before.
The final price tag was something along the lines of 300,000 pesetas, more than ten times the original budget. That too, is just the way most projects work!
It was now time to put it to the test.
Enter Isaac Peral
In 1884, a man by the name of Isaac Peral met with naval authorities and discussed the incalculable benefits of constructing a self-propelled submarine powered by an electric-battery which, if successful, would enhance the navy’s otherwise deficient status to that of a force to be reckoned with. If unable to compete directly with the feverish arms race carried out by other nations with greater means, in the very least it would act as a deterrent against any wanton aggression. It would, the officer argued, make rivals think twice about screwing with Spain, though I’m sure he probably worded it more elegantly.
At the time of the proposal, Peral was far from a no-name in his sector. Born in Cartagena in 1851 into a family with a military tradition, he was destined for a career in service to his country. His parents soon moved to the naval port of San Fernando, Cadiz, where he grew up until he entered the navy at the tender age of 14. He took to the sea for the first time when he was just 16. It would the beginning of fifteen very active formative years during which he would distinguish himself for his commitment and bravery in an array of areas, from combat to academic investigation.
His maiden voyage took him to the Philippines where he conducted scientific research on the behavior of hurricanes and typhoons. He then was stationed in Cuba and fought local insurgents who were leading the fight for independence against Spain. It was there the young officer earned praise from his superiors for his courage and dedication, as well as a spot on the enemy’s hit list for pretty much the same reasons. He is also rumored to have been challenged to a duel with an individual whom he felt had insulted Spain. If this occurred at all, we can assume the outcome turned out favorably for the young and dashing Peral.
Then he returned to his homeland where missions included high profile assignments such as escorting Amadeo of Saboya, an Italian prince, to Spain to become king for a very brief reign of two and a half years. He also participated in the Third Carlist War (1872-1876), a domestic conflict over succession rights. Here, his fleet, representing the national government, anchored off the coast of Bilbao and kept supplies from reaching the Basque Carlistas, who were supporting Charles VII as the rightful pretender to the throne.
Peral would make one more voyage to the Philippines, but his stay was cut short when he was forced to repatriate for health reasons. Some say it was cholera, others claim it was from a head wound. The oddest story recounts how a barber cut a mole off his temple accidentally, but for some reason the lesion never fully healed. I tend to buy this explanation because, when you think about it, who would make something like that up?
The long and short of it was that Isaac’s active duty had reached its conclusion. And “active” it had been. In 15 years, he had served on 32 different ships and spent over 1,300 days at sea (that’s approximately 3.5 years on board a vessel), participated in at least two theaters of war, and also found the time to get married had have children.
Once back in Cadiz, he was awarded the chair of physics and chemistry at the naval academy and settled into the more sedentary life of teaching, where you can make money and not really do anything in particular. As was true of many academics of his day, his new job allowed him to devote part of his time to other disciplines, such as research and development. In Peral’s case, just about anything scientific would do, but it was a burgeoning interest in all things electric that really got him charged up. Couple that with an insatiable thirst for solving a nagging naval conundrum about successful underwater navigation, and, presto, in 1884 you had the initial sketches of a major technological breakthrough that would awe the naval world: the first true military submarine.
At least that was the idea on paper. The intense, energetic, intelligent, tirelessly investigative Peral had become passionate about his brainchild and was eager to get his project off the ground. All he needed now was three crucial elements to see his dream through: time and money and, as is the case of many inventions, a little unexpected luck.
That bit of fortune would come in the form of an international incident which, at first glance, seemed totally unrelated to underwater vessels, but would act as the catalyst to get the attention of the upper tiers of the Ministry of the Navy.
In 1885, a crisis arose between Spain and the German Empire over the sovereignty of the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The Carolines are a vast sub-region of mostly uninhabitable islands and atolls in what is now known as the Federated States of Micronesia. The Spanish claimed to be the first Europeans to land there in 1526 (the Portuguese disagree) and regarded them as part of Spanish territory under the premise of “finders, keepers”, though it never really exercised full control. It was this very vagueness that would lead to problems down the road.
The Carolines didn’t really have much to offer in terms of natural resources; they didn’t have much of anything. But they did possess a singular attribute that major powers in general find particularly seductive: strategic positioning. The Spanish knew that better than anyone. Why else, otherwise, would the British be keeping a toehold on a hunk of rock on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula if it weren’t for the fact Gibraltar forms the gateway to the Mediterranean?
The Carolines, in a similar fashion, acted as a kind of crossroads between different Asian spheres of economic influence, so as trade routes between the East and the West increased, so did the desire to have a better hold on them. One rising world power of the late 19th century, Germany, was particularly interested, and it brought this to the attention of the Spanish government. Not much came of it until word got out that the Spanish were planning on formally controlling what had been mainly a de facto territory of theirs. That was when German chancellor Otto von Bismarck decided to beat them to it and had a flag raised on Yap and Palau, two of the few usable islands in the whole chain, in an attempt to claim ownership.
That was a big mistake, if you know anything about Spanish protectiveness of small, mainly meaningless, international possessions. In 2002, 12 Moroccan soldiers landed on a tiny 40 acre land mass known as La Isla de Perejil, or Parsley Island. Perejil is only 500 feet off the coast of Morocco and anyone taking a quick glimpse at a map would immediately assume it belongs to that country. While the name suggests lush vegetation, it can better be described as barren boulder decorated sparingly with a few lonely shrubs and a terrain suitable only for creatures donning exoskeletons. The “invaders” pitched a tent and raised the Moroccan flag nice and high for everyone, especially the Spanish, to see, and waited to see what happened.
The Spanish were not amused. The government figured their neighbors from the south were testing Spain’s resolve to defend the territory. And defend it they did. The island has no value whatsoever, unless you are a goat, smuggle drugs or enjoy suicidal solitude, but that didn’t stop Madrid from taking swift action to return it to its rightful owners. In a military operation reminiscent of the Falkland’s, though a lot less bloody or costly, the Spanish armed forces swept in and took the island back. The United States would intervene and act as a mediator in the crisis, establishing a status quo ante bellum agreement between the two parties.
The Germans, without the benefit of fortunetelling, did not foresee an angry reaction and probably figured that if the Spanish hadn’t bothered to settle there in 350 years, they really wouldn’t care if they set up a trading post. They were as wrong as the Moroccans. The Spanish did care. A lot. It was like what happens to you when you decide to throw out that toy shark your child left on the shelf three year before and make the mistake of announcing it out loud. Before you know it, the kid has flopped on the floor and is kicking and pounding the parquet, screaming it’s their favorite and that they’ll die if they lose it.
The confrontation amounted to little more than several weeks of a tense diplomatic standoff, with the Spanish being especially vociferous in their outrage. Thousands in Madrid vehemently protested outside the German embassy, and similar demonstrations broke out around the country. The German government was apparently taken aback by the fierce criticism. They clearly figured it wasn’t such a big deal. Eventually, Bismarck sought the intervention of the Pope Leo XIII, which was a poor choice, because the Holy Father naturally sided with Catholic Spain and declared the territory to be Spanish. A treaty was drawn up and signed.
Not much changed, but the incident did bring to light a reality which most had already known about but were unwilling to admit: had the German navy wanted to impose its will, it could have and there would have been little Spain could have done to stop it. Nothing at all, in fact.
Something needed to be done.