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Subs, Mops and Lollipops: Peral’s Submarine 5

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.

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