Thursday, May 26

In the 19th century, Spain designed the first “torpedo buoy” to defend itself against the US: the Sanjurjo Badía submarine


From his father, Antonio Sanjurjo Badía inherited the surname, the passion for machines, a good eye for business and the nickname by which he was known in his town, Sada, a small town in the north of Galicia: “The Skills”. And skillful he was, of course. If he managed to succeed despite the cards that life had dealt him —he worked in the family watch shop at the age of nine and emigrated to Cuba at 17— it was precisely thanks to his skill and genius with mechanics; the same skills that led him, already older, at 61, to embark on one of the most insane and brilliant projects in Spain at the end of the 19th century: manufacturing your own torpedo submarine.

So that? Very easy. To stand up to the US if it occurred to him to approach Galicia.

In the 1890s the waters of international politics were receding in Spain. The country had been mired in the war in Cuba since 1895, a struggle that was proving difficult, long, costly and with which, moreover, it saw its already weakened status as an empire in danger. The Spanish army faced the island’s independence fighters and a fearsome enemy: the US, which in 1898, after the Maine disaster, had decided to align itself with Cuba and declare war on Spain.

The “torpedo buoy”

Antonio Sanjurjo Badía

Portrait of Antonio Sanjurjo Badía.

Although the war was brewing in the Caribbean, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, having Washington and its battleships against it kept more than one Spaniard awake at night. Among them Sanjurjo, who after making his fortune in emigration had returned to Galicia and opened a factory of steam engines and boilers in Vigo. Instead of sitting idly by or simply following the progress of the war through the newspapers, Sanjurjo, aka “The Skills,” did what he did best: pull his wits. He decided to build a submersible that, if necessary, defend the estuary.

The project was not simple, nor was it cheap, but in 1898 his neighbors in Vigo had ample proof that, when the businessman set himself an objective, he was willing to work his ass off. In addition to the foundry, throughout his life “El Abilities” set up, among other businesses, a bus route, a primitive mobile phone line or a paper factory. The submarine thing might sound crazy; but he approached it with the same determination as the rest of his companies. He drew up the plans, invested around 16,000 pesetas and by August 1898 he had the machine ready.

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Antonio Sanjurjo Badía’s contraption bears little or no resemblance to the submarines we are used to seeing today. It was shaped like a “T” and was relatively small, 5.2 meters long and 3.75 meters wide. The ship was manual propulsioncould move at two miles per hour —3.2 km/h—, reach a depth of twenty meters and accommodate three crew members inside who, it is not hard to imagine, must have traveled like a sardine can: one was in charge rudder and mine control and the other two to actuate the levers of the propulsion system.

As Sanjurjo Badía himself defined it, the apparatus was basically a “torpedo buoy”. Its objective was to transport two contact mines loaded with explosives with which to attack a ship if necessary. To demonstrate that the submarine could help in the defense of the Galician coasts, the businessman decided to offer a public demonstration in style. On August 11, 1898, he took the device to the Ría de Vigo, just in front of his shipyard, submerged it 20 meters and completed a series of tests with —he collected the press the next day— “an excellent result”.

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What he did not check was the launch system, the “weak point” in which, current experts believe, the submersible might have failed. Why weren’t the litmus tests done? Well, for a very simple reason. As the press of the time explained, at the beginning of August 1898, when Sanjurjo finally had his submarine ready, Spain and the US were already negotiating to end the war. They were not wrong. Just the next day, August 12, Madrid and Washington signed an armistice that would lead to the Treaty of Paris.

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Things in history, after four years of battles overseas and several months after the US declaration of war, the calendar played a trick to Sanjurjo. His mini-submarine was ready just when Spain and the US decided to bury the hatchet. The fact that he did not go into combat does not, however, subtract an iota of interest from the project, which —takes Lighthouse of Vigo— was the result of “a patriotic idea that arose in the mind of this modest and industrious industrialist when talking about the military visit that the ships planned to pay us yankees“.

The best thing about Sanjurjo Badía’s submarine is that we don’t have to imagine it or intuit its design using poorly defined photos from more than a century ago —materials, by the way, that we also have—; we can see it directly in the Museo do Mar de Galicia, in Vigo. His descendants were in charge of preserving it for more than 100 years in the factory, protected from the Civil War and even disasters such as the fire that, in 1942, calcined one of the ships of the company founded by Sanjurjo and burned, among other documents, its original plans.

Sanjurjo Badía’s genius not only allowed him to make a fortune and devise a torpedo launcher buoy to stand up to the United States itself. Curiously, over the years, he befriended two of the most important names in the history of diving: the writer Jules Verne, whose yacht is said to have been repaired by “The Skills” during a visit to Vigo; and Issac Peral, a sailor and engineer who in 1888 had launched the first electrically powered submarine with torpedo tube.

Saving the distances and approaches of both projects, Isaac Peral’s is also a clear example of the Spanish genius of the 19th century… and how he was often forced to fight with the bureaucracy and internal enemies. The origin of the Peral submersible is very similar to that of Sanjurjo. The Carthaginian sailor and inventor devised it for the defense of the Spanish coastline and decided to submit his proposal to the Government also at a particularly convulsive moment: the Carolinas Crisis, in which Spain and Germany clashed over the possession of an archipelago in the Pacific.

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Isaac Peral’s submarine.

“In recent days I have invented and have made all the necessary calculations for the construction of a submarine torpedo boat that can carry inside, without the slightest danger, the men necessary for its management, without appearing on the surface of the water or the slightest trace of said ship during its maneuvers. One of these ships would be enough to destroy with impunity a modern squadron in a very short time”, explained Peral in the letter he sent in September 1885 to the Minister Vice Admiral Pezuela y Lobo with the proposal of his submersible .

What Peral proposed was to build a much larger ship than the one that Sanjurjo would later design for the Galician coast. It was 22 meters long and 2.87 meters wide. To submerge, it flooded the double bottoms located in the center and included a “depth apparatus”, the most groundbreaking device of its design. The propulsion was achieved thanks to two propellers driven by a 30 HP motor each that allowed it to reach 7.7 knots. Today his pioneering device is considered to be the first electric submersible equipped with a torpedo tube.

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Peral’s submarine, the “torpedo boat-submarine”, in his own words, came to demonstrate its capacity amply, during 27 tests and maneuvers completed between 1889 and 1890. In one of them, in August 1889, he came to test successfully their torpedoes. Despite that service record, Peral’s prestige and even the interest that the submarine aroused among private patrons and other countries, the Government ended up shelving the Carthaginian inventor’s submersible.

The First War of 1998 and the role of submarines years later, during the First World War, showed that both Peral and Sanjurjo Badía, despite the difficulties, were ahead of their time. Today we still have, yes, their stories and prototypes that make their talent clear.

Pictures | Aprofa and Juan Sáez (Flickr)



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