<<Invention is the talent of youth, as judgement is of age>>
In the quote introduced above, Jonathan Swift (Irish writer, famous for writing “Gulliver’s Travels, among others) describes perfectly why Isaac Peral’s most famous invention, the electric submarine, wasn’t succesful. In this article, I will interconect that story with the end of the Spanish Empire, and we will see how history could have changed.
1880’s: First threats, and Spain reacts
By the 1880’s Spain was still a big international empire, with many territories in America (Cuba, Puerto Rico…), the Pacific Ocean (Philippines) and Africa. But these were only the last belongings of an empire which had controlled almost half of the world some centuries ago.
In 1885, the Caroline Islands, an archipelago of tiny islands in the western Pacific Ocean controlled by Spain, were about to get invaded by Germany. Some people say “war is the motor of invention”, and even when Germany finally did not start the war (as the Pope intervened to avoid the war) in that moment the Spanish Government and the Spanish Army realized that those territories were too far from Madrid to be controlled with the resources they had available at the moment, and started working in many projects from different inventors.
The solution: the electric submarine
Isaac Peral, a Spanish engineer and naval officer, had been working on his idea for ages, and in that moment he had the opportunity to be heard by the people he needed money and approvement from. That idea was the electric-powered submarine: a naval weapon able to go underseas, get closer enough to big boats and launch rockets. This was not the first submarine in history, as Cosme García, in 1860, and Narciso Monturiol, in 1864 (both were Spaniards too), presented their prototypes, which were the first not human-powered in history, and worked using combustion. But combustion was not a reliable or practical way of propulsion, and those prototypes could not feature torpedoes.
Peral went many steps further: his design would use an electric battery technology, including two 30cv motors and five more less powerful motors that worked as auxiliary. It also included a rocket launcher and a system which could maintain the submarine in a determined depth automatically, both systems being designed by Peral.
That was the solution the Spanish Army was looking for: with some units of that weapon they could get close enough to destroy the bigger boats of any enemy army without even being detected. Manuel de la Pezuela, an important Spanish minister in that moment, invested 300,000 pesetas (2,000$ nowadays, but a big amount then) of public funding in Peral’s project. Pezuela was a great champion for the project, that also got the approvement and support of the queen of Spain in that moment, María Cristina de Habsburgo
In one year, Peral managed to launch the prototype. The first tests took place in Cádiz, and many citizens appeared to watch them from the shipyard. Peral protested for this, as it was supposed to be a military secret. But his submarine was a complete success: in its first test it sailed for six miles, exactly ten meters deep, and destroying successfully some rocks underwater with its rockets. Just same days after, it defeated in a simulation a Spanish armored cruiser: the Cristobal Colon.
If all tests obtained great results, why Peral did not succeed?
The news flew and the military secret declared by Pezuela, who was ceased as a minister, was known by the foreign governments, who defending their interests managed to delay and boycott the project. Their best collaborator for this boycott was Zaharoff, a Turk, of Russian origin, and the biggest arms dealer of the time. At that time, Zaharoff was selling many combustion-powered submarines to different governments, so when he heard about the new invention, he tried to buy the patent to Peral. As he refused, Zaharoff started trying to sabotage the electric submarine. He used his enormous influence in the Spanish governors to make them believe that this new weapon was too expensive and not accurate enough to work successfully on a large scale.
And he succeeded: In 1890, the Spanish army decided not to invest on Peral’s submarine. The Spanish inventor died from meningitis five years after, in 1895, but before dying he destroyed the inside of the prototype and burned all the plans to avoid foreign governments copying it (but he couldn’t, as France and England ended up with some models similar to Peral’s). In 1898, Spain lost their last territories (Cuba and Philippines) to the US in the Spanish-American war.
Was the Spanish Government wrong?
Time has demonstrated that the Spanish government didn’t take the right decision, as they lost a big war just a few years after that decision. But it is easy to say that after seeing the results, and how things went. If you had to take the decision at that time, would you have invested all your last gold on building weapons that had never been proved in real combat? I don’t think so.
This is exactly the reason why Peral could not produce on long-scale his invention. When he asked for permission and funding to the Spanish Government, they considered that investing big money in a new weapon which had only worked in simulations was too risky, and they preferred to keep building conventional battleships. Peral was frustrated, but he did not try to produce his weapon to another government: he accepted the decision made by the Spanish Army and he just hoped that they would change their decision.
Anyway, Peral’s submarine is considered to be ahead of its time, and the first big step for the standardization of submarines as war machines. Even when he was never able to commercialize it, just some years after (in the 1900’s), with the diesel electric propulsion, all nations started developing submarines, and their first big impact on a war was on WWI. Nowadays, submarines are a big part of any nation’s army, and there are close to five hundred combat submarines in the world. In addition, submarines are also being used for tourism, exploration, science investigation and even drug trafficking. As a conclusion, to reflex how big is the submarine construction industry nowadays, General Dynamics Electric Boat (primary builder of submarines for the US Navy) earned $36.2 billion in 2018.
Nicolás Varela de Limia Escariz
Universidad Carlos III – San Diego State University