Kings and Lovers (Part 1)

Charles I of Spain doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself very much in this picture as he listens to the German singer Barbara Blomberg perform. It looks more like his gout is acting up. Nevertheless, the two would have an affair and a son, John of Austria, one of the most charismatic figures of the 16th Century. Barbara wasn’t his only lover, nor was Charles the only king to have one. In fact, the world of monarchs and mistresses seemed commonplace in most courts over the centuries, even to this day. In today’s podcast we look at how much of that was true, starting with the Ferdinand and Isabella all the way to the last Habsburg king, Charles II.

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Kings and Killers: The Assassination Attempts of Alfonsos XII and XIII

The photo you see for this podcast just may be the first image in history of a terrorist attack in progress. It happened in Madrid on the very day King Alfonso XIII and his bride Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg got married. They were returning from the church. The vividness of the chaos captured on film makes it one of the most extraordinary pictures ever taken. Listen to the podcast about three assassination attempts that took place during the turbulent days of the turn of the 20th Century. Enjoy.

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The Man Who Would Never Be King: the tragic life and death of Carlos, Prince of Asturias (1545-1568)

This podcast takes us through the life of Carlos, Prince of Asturias, the first son of King Philip II (1527-1598), who was originally destined to succeed his father as ruler of the Spanish Empire. But inbreeding, a childhood full of emotional turmoil, mental health issues and a rivalry with his dad would force Philip to imprison his own son and heir, precipitating his death. It’s a story that would make it to stages and opera houses centuries later. Largely forgotten today, Carlos’ life somehow represents the bizarre and complex practices and inner-workings of this powerful 16th-century dynasty. In today’s podcast, we will mention Charles I of Spain, but mainly his son Philip II, and Philip’s son, Carlos. We will also include María Manuela of Portugal (Carlos’ mother), Philip’s second wife, Mary Tudor (Queen Mary of England), third wife, Elizabeth of Valois and a few others. Hope you enjoy it!

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Is it possible to condense 1 million years of Spanish history into 20 minutes? Let’s give it a try.

Marisa Estivill/Shutterstock

Some people like to get just a general overview of what Spanish history is like so that it’s easier to understand the specifics. Today, I’m going to do just that. Do the impossible; pack 1 million years into twenty minutes. It wasn’t an easy task, but I think we pulled it off! Enjoy and let us know what you think!

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.

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.