Monturiol's Dream: The Extraordinary Story of the Submarine Inventor Who Wanted to Save the Worldby Matthew Stewart
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.
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.96(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.28(d)
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The Fires of Youth
Narcis Monturiol i Estarriol was born in 1819 in Figueres, the capital of the Alt Emporda, the northernmost region of Spanish Catalonia.* The family's home and principal place of business lay on a small street just off the central town square. The Alt Emporda stretches out from Figueres into the peninsula that includes the Cap de Creus and the fishing village of Cadaques. There, among the mountains, forests, and rocky cliffs by the sea, Narcis spent the vacations of his youth.
Narcis's father was a cooper. His job was to make the hermetically sealed barrels that would contain the abundant wines, oil, and milk of the Empordan countryside. In an arrangement typical of the time, Narcis's mother represented the religious faction of the family. It was her duty to pray for her son's "condemned soul" whenever he strayed from the path of true faith. She would have many occasions to pray during the course of her long life.
The family included five children. Narcis's elder brother, Joaquim, was the hereu-the heir-in the family. In accordance with the rigid inheritance laws of the land, he would eventually take over the cooperage business. As the second son of a devout mother, Narcis was destined from childhood for the priesthood.
At the age of ten, Narcis built a wooden model of a clock. It couldn't tell time, but it certainly looked the part, or so his parents thought. Sensing that their boy possessed an uncommon mind, Mr. and Mrs. Monturiol scrimped and saved to pay for his college education. When Narcis turned eleven, they packed his bags with all his things and all their hopes and tearfully put him on a coach for the University of Cervera, far away inthe mountains surrounding the interior provincial capital of Lleida. He was enrolled in courses on Latin, Greek, and all the other subjects that would normally go into the making of a local parish priest.
Despite his mother's prayers, however, Narcis had little intention of entering the Church. Rather, he showed interest in the sciences and the mechanical arts. He also developed a reputation among his fellow students as a warmhearted spirit. So, perhaps naturally, he chose to study medicine, where he might apply his analytical skills to helping others.
The death of the king of Spain disrupted his plans. Ferdinand VII had been a monarch in the old uncompromising sense of the word. The nature of his vision for Spain may be gleaned from the fact that he numbered among his proudest achievements the establishment of a national school for bullfighters in Madrid. In 1833, when Ferdinand finally departed for that great bullring in the sky, he took with him the last great hope for absolutism in Spain.
Upon the king's death, Spain divided itself in two over the matter of succession. In one corner sat Ferdinand's three-year-old daughter, Isabel, in the grasping hands of his widow, Maria Cristina. Liberals throughout Spain seized on the regency of Maria Cristina as an opportunity to begin a transition to a representative and constitutional form of government. Maria Cristina herself was hardly an enlightened political thinker. She proved to be liberal principally in her choice of secret consort: an ex-sergeant and shopkeeper, who was her accomplice in a number of unwanted pregnancies. Her chief ambition was to secure the throne for her one legitimate child, Isabel. When Maria Cristina's support for the progressive cause wavered, the liberals kept her in line by threatening to expose the unbecoming details of her morganatic union.
Over in the other corner, representing those who had no wish to give up the medieval lifestyle, sat the dead king's brother, Carlos. The clergy of the Catholic Church championed Carlos from their pulpits in tens of thousands of village churches across Spain. He returned the favor by promising to create a theocratic state founded on fundamentalist principles of absolute intolerance. Hordes of peasants, egged on by their parish priests, took up arms on behalf of Carlos.
For the next seven years, Spain suffered through its first civil war. Allowing for the inevitable complexities of history, the dividing lines were clear enough. The cities stood for progress, and the villages stood for the Middle Ages. It was a struggle between the new and the old, between the literate and the faithful, between pens and pitchforks. The identities of Spain's leaders for the next generation were made in the course of the conflict. The generals who would trade coups and countercoups over the next thirty years, the liberal politicians who would campaign for democratic reforms, the revolutionaries who would fight for justice, even the writers and the odd inventor who hoped to change the world-all won their medals, made their names, and formed their opinions in the heat of the seven-year civil war.
In the sweltering summer of 1835, Barcelona erupted in riots. While liberal politicians sought to unseat the reactionaries, the working classes-unhappy with the whole political process-set fire to a number of convents and factories. The authorities sent in the army. But the masses were in an exceptionally surly mood, so they killed the commanding general, dragged his body through the streets, and then burned it too.
The distant rumbles from Barcelona carried all the way up into the hills of Cervera, and politics captured Narcis's imagination-not to let go for some time. He had little difficulty deciding whose side to take in the epic political struggle. His origins in the class of urban artisans, his career as a student, and his youth itself would have made him a natural progressive anyway, even if his generous disposition had not already made the choice inevitable. In a burst of revolutionary fervor, he switched from medicine to law, figuring that the bar would provide a better platform from which to change society, and applied for a transfer from Cervera to the University of Barcelona, because he wanted to be where the action was.
Once in Barcelona, Narcis took up digs with a fellow student in a tiny top-floor studio apartment on a narrow lane near the center of the city. In order to earn his keep, he tutored his landlord's daughter, a clever and sprightly girl ten years his junior.
Narcis went out and bought some law books and registered with the law school, but that was about as far as his legal career went. He promptly set the books aside and fell in with all the wrong friends: revolutionary journalists, student demonstrators, radicalized workers. He threw himself into the fight for social justice. He took up smoking.
It was a furtive, caffeine-driven life, brimming with whispered discussions and clandestine meetings in the cafes and private houses of Barcelona. The topic of the day was the overthrow of the existing political order. For the young Narcis, Barcelona was a problem to be solved. He was sixteen years old.
The Problem of Barcelona
"A city is like an ancient hieroglyph," or so said Ildefons Cerda i Sunyer, a young civil engineer and friend of Monturiol, as he surveyed the city of Barcelona in the middle years of the nineteenth century. Properly deciphered, the roads and alleys, bricks and stones, and buildings and monuments tell the story of a city's people. It is a story that, as Cerda put it, spans "the past with its traditions, the present with its vested interests, and the future with its noble aspirations and initiatives."
The past with its traditions figured prominently in the hieroglyph of nineteenth-century Barcelona. Dominating the city center was the greatest concentration of Gothic architecture in Europe.
In the first half of the fourteenth century, Barcelona was the seat of the Catalan empire, a mercantile dominion that extended across the Mediterranean to the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Sicily, parts of the Italian peninsula, and even out to Greece and Turkey. The wealth of conquest poured in through the port of Barcelona and congealed in the form of spectacular cathedrals, hospitals, convents, and a ring of thick stone walls, ten meters high, that turned the city into an impregnable bastion. But by the second half of the fourteenth century it was all over. The Venetians, the Ottomans, and others divvied up Barcelona's Mediterranean holdings. Then the central powers of the Iberian peninsula in Madrid began to draw a reluctant Catalonia into their orbit. Barcelona never regained its imperial grandeur, so it never had the occasion to replace its medieval structures. Instead, the elaborately carved piles of Gothic glory remained, like a stone-gray memory of the city's all too brief moment in the sun.
On the northern side of town, occupying an area nearly a third as large as the city itself, lay the star-shaped fortress of the Ciutadella, a monument to Barcelona's final futile attempt to free itself from its tutelage to Madrid. In the early eighteenth century, Catalonia chose the wrong side in the Spanish War of Succession. (Siding with history's losers soon became a Catalan national habit.) As punishment for this act of retrospective treachery, the man who eventually did succeed to the throne, Felipe V, effectively destroyed the state of Catalonia. Then he razed an entire neighborhood of Barcelona and slapped this gigantic citadel atop the remains. In order to house the displaced neighbors, the chastised city built a narrow grid of tenements on the triangular peninsula that lines the northern boundary of the harbor. The Barceloneta, as it is called, became the home of the city's seafaring population and was the only neighborhood of Barcelona that lay outside its walls. Over on the southern side of the harbor, high atop a craggy cliff, the peeved Felipe reinforced the panoptic fortress of Montjuic. The fortress supposedly guarded the entrance to the port, but more often than not it cast a glowering eye over the querulous city instead. "Catalonia is best ruled by the stick," a Spanish general famously explained.
Barcelona, the general might have added, is best ruled by its walls. In order to contain the obnoxious Catalans, the central government in Madrid decided to confine the city of Barcelona to the space defined by its medieval ramparts. Outside the stone curtain was little but farmland and meadows, vacant lots stretching toward the nearby mountains like an open stage. Inside, the city squirmed and chafed under house arrest. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Barcelona was a city besieged by its own walls.
Trapped within this topography of oppression, Barcelona turned inward and devoted its restless energy to the pursuit of private gain. Under the blind eye of its military guardians, the city surreptitiously lit the flames of the industrial revolution. The smokestacks of steam-powered factories sprouted like smoldering barnacles inside the walls of the ancient urb. By mid-century, Catalonia had become the industrial heartland of Spain and the fourth largest textile manufacturer in the world, after only the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
As their experiment with industrialization progressed, Catalans won fame and even notoriety for their seny: their practical penny-pinching common sense. This seny was canny, full of cunning, what we might call smarts. It was reason with a small r, the kind of intelligence that survives the muddy mess of real reality. Seny built the machines and factories that turned the city into a giant profit-making enterprise, because seny was mainly about money. The very name of the peseta, Spain's currency until 2002, was an invention of the tight-fisted Catalans, or so it was said. Barcelona es bona quan la bossa sona, began a standard refrain: Barcelona is great when the purse jingles.
As mechanization spread to the agricultural sector, thousands of landless peasants streamed in from the countryside to fill the factory jobs. Between 1825 and 1850, the population of Barcelona nearly doubled, to approximately 200,000, while the geographical size of the city remained largely unchanged. The buildings grew taller, the streets darker, and the air thicker. At 859 inhabitants per hectare, the population density of Barcelona was double that of Paris and four times that of Dickensian London. In the crush for space, new archways covered the streets and overhanging floors pushed out on top of each other, to the point where inhabitants of the upper stories could sometimes reach outside their windows and touch their neighbors' laundry.
Life inside the hieroglyph was cramped, smelly, and short. Ildefons Cerda, the civil engineer, grew livid as he described the living conditions of the new working masses, which cannot be described as housing that meets the standards established by civilization. This is no more and no less than the stacking of rational human beings on shelves, one on top of the other. The air, the light, the space, the water that nature has provided around us in such abundance . . . are disbursed in the dwellings of the rich as well as those of the poor with a niggardliness that is truly criminal.
Actually, Cerda elaborated, the dwellings of the rich were different from those of the poor. According to his meticulously tabulated statistics, the rich had an average of 3.6 cubic meters of space per person in their bedrooms, for example, whereas the poor had to make do with as little as 0.9-hardly enough to lie down in. Further-more, Cerda exclaimed indignantly, after developers reduced room size for the poor, they took "the next logical step" and reduced the number of rooms. In a typical unit, they put a bed in the sitting room and thus saved themselves an unnecessary bedroom. Then they took out the larder, since poor people "had no food to put in it," and they eliminated the dining room as well, on the theory that whatever food was available could be eaten straight from the stovetop in the kitchen. Next, they decided that the lavatory didn't require a separate room, it only required a drain; so they put it in the kitchen to save on plumbing. Upon further reflection, they concluded that a group of poor families in a single apartment building didn't really need separate kitchens, so they built a common kitchen to serve multiple apartments. Naturally, the astute developers put the lavatory next to the common kitchen, in the stairwell, where it might "perfume every dwelling."
In the crowded bed-sitting rooms of Barcelona, physical privacy was a scarce commodity. "Rare is the Barcelonan," commented one observer, "who before learning to speak has not already learned graphically the manner in which he was conceived." Cerda writes, with biting sarcasm, "Decorum, hygiene, all are trifles that should have no place in construction."
The statistics support the rage. Cerda's carefully aligned rows and columns of numbers show a significant correlation between life expectancy and the floor on which an individual lived; the higher the floor, the shorter the life span. In the days before elevators, top floors were always reserved for the poor.
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