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.