Subs, Mops and Lollipops: Peral’s Submarine 4

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.

Subs, Mops and Lollipops: Peral’s Submarine 3

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.

Spanish Inventions: Peral’s Submarine 1

It was a Friday evening in October of 1991 and I was hanging out with some friends at a cevercería in the Plaza de Manuel Becerra in Madrid. I don’t think it’s there anymore; bars are continually reinventing themselves in this country. In any event, some of us were already there having a beer when another from the group came in bearing unexpected news. In the days before the widespread use of a spanking new invention known as the cell phone, messages were delivered orally.

Unfortunately, his arrival augured little positive. It was just the kind of tidings you don’t want to hear when you’ve ordered your first caña and are eyeing a plate of potatoes with aioli sauce. Someone had died. And not just anyone. It turned out that one of our friend’s father. He had just passed away that very morning and we were called upon to show our immediate and unfailing support by rushing to the side of the bereaved in her time of need at a funeral home (called tanatorio, in Spanish).

At first I was puzzled by all the hurry. The body was practically still warm. Just why would we be racing to a wake? As it turned out, we had to act fast, because once a person expires in this country, people don’t waste a lot of time keeping them around. You see, the whole death thing was a first for me in Spain. I was used to the customs back home, where you had to take baked hams over to the family as they grieved and worried about the funeral plans. Days could go by. “They bury him tomorrow?!” I was a little taken aback to learn they planned on lowering him into the grave in about the same time it took to send a box of pajamas by Amazon Prime.

“What’s the hurry?! Is there an early bird special or something like that? Do they get a discount on embalming?”

“That’s the way it always is?”

 “Are you kidding me? Don’t you have to wait like five days just to make sure there wasn’t any foul play…?”  Growing up in a murder-ridden country made comments like mine come naturally “…what if he is still alive? You’d be surprised how many coffins have scratch marks on the inside on the lids.”

On average, the deceased are either incinerated or interred between 24 and 48 hours max. It’s both tradition and law. I don’t know if it’s a result of the warm climate and fears decay will set in too fast or just a desire to get everything over and done with as soon as possible, but corpses hang around for less time than recycled trash and it’s unnerving.

It’s also disruptive. It means that kith and kin basically have to drop everything and tear off to the funeral parlor if they want to have a fighting chance at paying their last respects before the corpse gets whisked off to eternity. Mourning is brief and intense, but more brief than anything else.

“Well, if that’s the way you do things here, so be it. When in Rome…let’s go see her,” I proposed.

“Do you really want to go?” They asked. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” It’s true I really want to go. I didn’t know her that well, and I had never met the old man at all, but, what the hell, I wanted to be supportive.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“‘Cause it’s in Cartagena, that’s why.”

As a child of the American educational system where world geography gets about the same amount of attention as nutrition does on a box of Froot Loops, that meant nothing to me, but from the look on their faces, it sounded as if you needed an airline ticket to get there. I wasn’t far off. They laid the truth on thick and it involved making it in record time to a province in the southeastern coast of the country called Murcia, a sizable 250 miles away.

“What?! That’s hours away!” Nowadays Spain’s road network rivals the world’s finest, but back in 1992, the situation was decidedly less conducive to swift, and safe, traveling. I think the word “terrifying” best describes it. They consisted of harrowing journeys on narrow two-lane roads which you shared with fleets of bulky 18-wheelers, commandeered by overworked, under-rested and under-fed drivers. There was no way we were going to make it. We might as well have been crossing the vineyards of La Mancha by dogsled.

But let it be known that futility never got in the way of a Spanish road trip. If anything, it often fuelled it. The more hopeless, the better.

“All right. Let’s go bury someone.” I had nothing better to do that weekend. I might as well go to a funeral. It was as good an excuse as any to get out of town to know more about Spain.

We set off with whatever belongings we had on ourselves and tore down the four-lane highway, which offered comfortable travel for all of 40 miles before tapering to the traditional two-lane national roads. Happiness in my world came to screaming halt in a split second. Tense silence reigned in the car as we jockeyed for position along an open route beneath the dying light of late summer La Mancha. Travel times can double and even triple, depending on the density of traffic. Transit volume that day amounted to a full-scale exodus, with trailer trucks topping the list of those fleeing the capital. That meant we weren’t going to reach our destination that night and had to stop on the way in the often overlooked town of Hellín, Albacete. We sacked out in one of those simple and dodgy hotels built for late-night truck drivers, low-budget lovers, and lost language teachers. Got up the next day, floored it down the highway for another two hours to Cartagena and, without the aid of the yet-to-be-created Google Maps, spent another hour or so actually trying to find the cemetery before they lowered the man into the ground.

We failed.

Just as we got there, we spotted our friend and the rest of her family advancing towards us in a semi-huddled manner and clutching onto each other as they departed. I guess it wasn’t our day, but, on the other hand, it was markedly better than the one the dead guy was having.

“Now what do we do?” I said out loud. In the middle of Cartagena with no funeral to go to and yesterday’s boxers stiffening by the second as if they were entering a stage of rigor mortis. Just what the hell can a person do in this city under these circumstances? We weren’t invited to the luncheon, that was for sure, so a free meal was out of the question. There had to be something we could do to bide our time before we went all the way back for nothing.

“Come on,” said my friend Pepe, who had grown up in the city. “I want to show you something. You’re never going to believe it.”

“I can’t believe I’m in this city for a funeral I just missed, so I’m ready to believe just about anything at this point.”

The name Cartagena comes from “Cartago Nova” or “New Carthage”. The adjective is relative because the community was founded in 227 BC by Hasdrubal the Fair, brother-in-law of the one-and-only Hannibal, the alpine-crossing, elephant-loving Carthaginian general who shredded the Roman army for much of the Second Punic War, only to drop the ball when it came to finishing off the job. In any event, Cartagena has proven itself ideally suited for harboring ships ever since its founding and it’s still a major port for both Spain and its allies. Currently it’s Spain’s fourth largest in terms of freight traffic and the main naval base in the Mediterranean.

My friend Pepe had decided to take me down to the harbor to show me first hand an American frigate which was docked there. I thought that was cool enough idea. I had grown up on the western end of Long Island Sound, where the only vessel of size worth mentioning was a ferry so wide and bulky it looked like a floating pound cake. It used to take us to a beach on an island, unimaginatively called Island Beach. How’s that for inventiveness. And while I don’t exactly consider myself to be a seafaring individual, a chance to take a peek at a sleek, for-real, American warship certainly did have its appeal.

Pepe was extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of sharing the moment with me. My guess is that he either wanted to make up for funeral debacle (After all, I had been hoping to at least see a coffin) or he meant to further fuse the bond in our friendship by showing what our navies had in common. What the hell; I appreciated the effort.

As I looked at the vessel from a distance, I mean a real long way, I regarded its irrefutable naval features –it was gray and had guns. That pretty much summed it up. So, I agreed it was nice and impressive and employed all the right words that one does to convey gratitude, until the well of intelligent observations went dry. Then I suggested we go for a beer, which was always popular with the masses.

As we returned to where the others were, I noticed a large object shaped like a cheap cigar. It was near the dock and mounted on concrete posts to give the effect that it sort of “floated” in the middle of bed of flowers with tiny fountains of water dancing in the air. I enquired and Pepe got to the point.

“Know what this is? It’s a submarine.”

His first comment made me wonder just what it was about my face that suggested I would not easily recognize a sub. On the other hand, not only did people from my country write, finance, produce and release films like “Dumb and Dumber”, we actually made sequels.

“I can see it’s a submarine. Why is it there?”

“It’s the world’s first submarine. And we invented it!”

“Really?” That was not how I recalled my history. The voice of dissent burst out of me. “Says who?”

“The history books.” The Spanish could be so adorably naive. How was I going to break it to him and ensure I had a safe ride back to Madrid?

“Are you serious? Haven’t you people heard of the Turtle?”

“Yes, but that’s an animal. This is a manmade submergible. They’re different.”

“I know they’re different! Why do you keep talking to me as if I dropped out in kindergarten?”

“Why do you confuse military vessels with an amphibian?”

“I’m not. The Turtle is the name of the first submarine. And we invented it.”

“That’s impossible. Besides, who would think of such a ridiculous name for such a great invention?”

“Us?” I was taking a wild guess.

“Well I’m sorry to say that you’re wrong. You’re staring at the first submarine yourself.”

“That’s what you think.”

“Oh, you Americans can be so arrogant.” He was calling me arrogant? How arrogant can you get?!

It is important to recall that this was well before your average citizen possessed the on-the-spot disagreement fixer called Wikipedia. Instead, we were each treated with the power of spending weeks, months and even years comforted by the thought that each of us was right and that no smart-ass was going to whip out a device and call us out in a split second.

As a show of courtesy, I gave up trying to convince him, as if I ever had a chance in the first place, and let him show me the purpose of his admiration. It was impressive enough, I have to admit, and it certainly had all the features of a bona fide submarine.  It was called the Peral, and to my knowledge, no one on the planet had ever heard of it. Just what was it all about? And what was behind Pepe’s claim?

To find out, we have to rewind some one hundred years in time.