Synopses & Reviews
A marvelous rediscovery: the compelling story of the strange and noble life and dream of nineteenth-century utopian social revolutionary and self-taught engineer Narcís Monturiol, who invented the world's first fully operational steam-powered submarine, not as a weapon of war but as a means of saving human life and spreading democracy.
Matthew Stewart tells the story of Monturiol from his childhood to his years living the dangerous life of a revolutionary. We see him at the bloody barricades and fleeing one step ahead of the Barcelona police to the remote coastline of northern Catalonia. On that shore, watching teams of divers risk their lives gathering coral from the water's depths for use in the making of jewels, candelabras, and crimson pigment, he finds the true purpose of his life. He saves a man presumed dead from drowning and conceives of a craft that will protect the divers who harvest coral a safe, hermetically sealed underwater vessel that will make the ocean's bounty available to the common man.
Stewart writes about the building of Monturiol's submarine: how, without scientific education (he was a lawyer by training), Monturiol read books on physics, chemistry, and biology; how he launched a hand-powered prototype submarine capable of reaching depths of sixty feet; how his efforts to gain government support for building a larger submarine were thwarted (his invention was dismissed by one official as having "no useful applications"). We see Monturiol, unwilling to give up on his dream, turn to the artists, poets, and musicians of Barcelona to help him mobilize the public to fund his project, and how he launched his second, much larger vessel five years later: the most advanced submarine of its day; at more than fifty feet long it displaced seventy-two tons and navigated reliably at depths of up to one hundred feet, with a unique system for eliminating carbon dioxide, replenishing oxygen in the interior cabin, and enabling its crew to remain underwater indefinitely. It had a steam engine for propulsion, a chemical furnace to heat the engine as it generated oxygen for the crew, external lights, portholes, and pincers for harvesting coral and other objects from the deep. It was the first true submarine; the world would not see its equal for another twenty years.
And we watch as Monturiol's revolutionary friends, making use of his utopian ideals and notions of urban planning (a term he originated), forge a new culture for Catalonia and its capital city and create the radical design that resulted in an entirely new Barcelona.
"How do submarines fit into utopia? Stewart (The Truth About Everything: An Irreverent History of Philosophy) recreates the volatile politics and culture of mid 19th-century Barcelona and of a generation of men attempting to throw themselves and their city into the modern age. Of the myriad methods they employed, the most striking is Narcs Monturiol's plan to build a submarine for the betterment of mankind. Having fled the city with the police on his heels one too many times, utopian revolutionary Monturiol had a vision of a submarine to free coral divers from hardship and then free the world from the tumult of the atmosphere. Stewart explores this fantastic connection and comes admirably close to capturing the transcendent weirdness of Monturiol's quest. Equally intriguing is his account of Monturiol's self-education concerning underwater mechanics, conveying the inventiveness and dogged persistence of his work. The reader is filled with relief and almost disbelief when in 1859 the submarine slips safely under water in the Barcelona harbor and confidently rises again. Yet Monturiol's work appears to have been a dead end. Like so much in modern Spanish history, he seems frustratingly invisible to the world at large. Stewart weaves this failure into a meditation on and celebration of Barcelona's own mercurial, passionate, backwards entrance into the modern world. B&w illus. Agent, Andrew Stuart. (June 29)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Stewart vividly and suspensefully narrates the evolution of Monturiol's revolutionary submarines....Strongly recommended." Library Journal
"With cleverness that never slides into cynicism, Stewart creates an absorbing portrait of a unique personality." Booklist
Stewart has rediscovered the compelling story of the strange and noble life and dream of a 19th-century utopian social revolutionary and self-taught engineer, who invented the world's first fully operational submarine.
About the Author
Matthew Stewart graduated from Princeton and received his D.Phil. from Oxford. He is the author of The Truth About Everything: An Irreverent History of Philosophy. He lives in New York City.