Smithsonian Magazine

The Writer Who Built the World’s First Engine-Powered Submarine

A man cannot one day just decide to build a submarine, much less the first powered submarine, much less if that man is a writer. Yet that is just what Narcis Monturiol did.

As a young firebrand of the mid-19th century, Monturiol flirted with inflammatory subjects including feminism and Communism, placing him under the watchful eye of an oppressive regime. When he fled to Cadaqués, an isolated town on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, he found a peaceful fishing village where he could expand on his ideas of a Utopian world. It turned out that Cadaqués would also be the inspiration for his biggest idea.

In Cadaqués, the few locals mostly fished from the shore or from boats. Others dove for coral and returned with a magical diversity of things—fish, crabs, snails and, of course, great and wondrous corals, sold as decoration for local homes. Monturiol became transfixed by these treasures, seeing them as baubles befitting a Utopia. He admired the coral divers for their quest—a quest for discovery in an the unknown realm beneath the waters that he called “the new continent”—but was troubled by an accident in 1857 that left one diver dead by drowning.

He was so affected by the sight that he wanted to do something to make the life of coral divers easier. As Robert Roberts, one of Monturiol’s later collaborators put it, “The harvesting of valuable coral and the relatively scarce fruits born to those that dedicate their livelihood to this miserable industry…incited Narcís Monturiol.”

Munturiol had always been a dreamer. He was born in 1819 in Figueres, a town in Catalonia, the region that would later give birth to eminent artists including Salvador Dali, Antony Gaudi, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.

Monturiol’s father was a cooper, designing and building barrels for the wine industry. Monturiol could have continued in his father’s footsteps but instead chose to become a writer and socialist revolutionary. At an early age, Monturiol began to write about feminism, pacifism, Communism and a new future for Catalonia, all of which are the sort of things that make dictatorships, such as that of then Spanish statesman Ramón María Narváez, uncomfortable. Persecuted for his beliefs, Monturiol fled to France for a while before returning to Spain. When his writings got in trouble again, this time in France, he came to Cadaqués, the coastal town just a few miles from Figueres.

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Why I Like Science

No one can tell you for sure what the appendix does. No one knows how deep into the Earth life goes. No one knows how high into the sky life goes. No one is sure what the mites that live on human foreheads do, though they are there while you are reading.

Most species on Earth remain unnamed, not to mention totally unstudied. New species are easy to find in Manhattan, walking around alongside celebrities. No one can tell me what the species of bacteria living on my body, hundreds of species, are doing. No one can say for sure if there is another, yet to be discovered, domain of life. Parasites in my body might be affecting my behavior, and even the sorts of things I write late at night.

The Mystery of Singing Mice

In late 1925, one J. L. Clark discovered an unusual mouse in a house in Detroit. It could sing. And so he did what anyone might have done: he captured the mouse and put it in a cage. There it produced a lyrical tune as if it were a bird. A musician named Martha Grim visited the mouse, commented on the impurity of its tones and left, musical standards being high in Detroit. Clark gave the mouse to scientists at the University of Michigan. The scientists confirmed that the mouse could sing and then bred it with laboratory house mice. Some offspring produced a faint “chitter,” but none inherited the father’s melodic chops. These observations were all noted in a scientific article in 1932 and mostly forgotten.