1889 - 2013

Isaac Peral and the Invention of the First Electric Submarine

Naval Museum

The disappearance into obscurity of one of the greatest revolutions in naval engineering.

Origins and History of the Peral Submarine
US Admiral George Dewey once said, "If Spain had used even one submarine like those invented by Peral, I would not have been able to sustain the blockade for even 24 hours." This was in reference to the 1898 war between Spain and the United States, which resulted in the loss of the last Spanish colonies. The "Peral Submarine" was one of the greatest achievements in the history of global navigation: the creation of an underwater vessel powered by electricity. This photograph from the Cartagena Naval Museum archive shows the submarine as it is today.

Submarines were originally invented in order to improve human understanding of the marine environment. Despite these exploratory origins, the vessels were soon seen as potential naval weapons.

Attempts to learn more about the seabed first took place in ancient times, although vessels were only able to dive underwater from the 17th century onward.

The man behind this revolutionary innovation was Spanish Navy Lieutenant Isaac Peral y Caballero.

He was born in Cartagena in 1851 and trained at the Naval Military College of San Fernando, later joining the Royal Company of Midshipmen where he received scientific training.

Isaac Peral's interests made him a scientist who carried out research into various fields including geography and engineering, but his main focus was the use of electricity. He invented a variety of items such as the electric storage battery, an elevator, and an electric machine gun.

Here we can see the design of the total use light projector. This was Peral's solution to the problem of light scattering from spotlights, using particular electric arcs and adjustable parabola-shaped reflectors.

Peral became interested in the idea of building a submarine around 1884.

After the famous Caroline Islands Crisis of 1885, where Spain and Germany almost came to blows over the Caroline Islands in the Pacific Ocean, mathematicians Cecilio Pujazón and Juan Viniegra turned their attention to Peral's work.

He showed his superiors his idea for a torpedo submarine which would be powered by electricity.

Peral developed the basics of his submarine, helped by his mentor José Luis Diez and the support of the Minister of the Navy, Admiral Manuel de la Pezuela. His work attracted the attention of Queen Regent María Cristina, who issued a royal order funding the submarine's construction.

In 1888 construction started on the submarine at the Naval Station of La Carraca's dock number one, with materials collected from all over Europe, including optical devices acquired in Paris and torpedoes from Berlin.

Technical Innovation
Isaac Peral's work included a range of innovations that earned him the title "inventor of the submarine." This drawing is currently in the Spanish National Historical Archive and shows the plan and profile of the submarine designed by Isaac Peral.

The ship had a fusiform steel hull which was 22 meters long and 2.87 meters wide at its midship section. The central turret housed the entrance hatches and a modern periscope.

Peral took a range of internal elements into account, including insulating the inside using rubber flooring and installing covered electrical conduits, internal electric lighting, and oxygen supply systems.

The main innovation was the use of electric power to propel the submarine. The electric motors moved the system of propellers that allowed to advance to the submarine.

One key innovation was the inclusion of weaponry.

Previously, attacking vessels could not remain hidden underwater. However, the Peral Submarine had a torpedo tube that could fire up to 3 torpedoes and be reloaded from inside.

Behind the central turret and at the prow was something called a depth device. The system controlled the propellers to steer the submarine, submerge it, and maintain its depth.

It also filled and emptied the tanks automatically for diving and surfacing.

Another new feature was the periscope, which worked in the same way that modern versions do.

Inside a tube protruding through the turret was a set of prisms that projected the outside view onto the table in the chart room.

The Submarine Launch: From Success to Boycott
On September 8, 1888, a huge ceremony was held at the La Carraca Naval Base to mark the launch of the Peral Submarine. Work to recruit the crew then continued, and Peral was summoned to Madrid to set up a sea trial program to begin in 1889. This photograph, now held in a private collection, shows the launch.

This was the flag used by the Peral Submarine.

Both Isaac Peral and his submarine faced a series of challenges including hurdles and time-wasting measures introduced by the new Minister of the Navy José María Beránger, who wanted to derail the project.

The Spanish Navy Board decided to shelve the project despite the efforts of Peral, who even suggested developing a larger submarine.

Despite the success of the trials, the technical board responsible for supervising them rejected the submarine project. Isaac Peral left the Navy and the vessel was abandoned for years at the Naval Station of La Carraca.

The image shows the Peral Submarine abandoned at the Naval Station of La Carraca in 1915.

Moving the Submarine to the Cartagena Naval Museum
In 1929 Admiral Mateo García de los Reyes, founder of the Spanish Navy Submarine Force, had the submarine towed to Cartagena. At the beginning of 2012, a technical committee was created to advise on the measures needed to transfer the submarine safely from the seafront to the Cartagena Naval Museum to avoid it deteriorating. This photograph from the Cartagena Naval Museum archive shows the submarine as it is today.

The vessel's prolonged exposure to various risk factors, including humidity, sea salt, inclement weather, pollution, and water, caused damage that meant its location had to be rethought.

The image shows restoration and preparation work under way.

In its new location, several formerly lost external elements have been re-added where enough documentation is available, such as horizontal rudders and anchors, the upper turret enclosure, the optical turret, the stanchions, the platform, and the air intake.

Whitehead-Schwarzkopf 350 m/m-40 Torpedo.

This was the first torpedo ever launched underwater by the Spanish Navy Submarine Force. It was launched by Isaac Peral in waters off Cádiz on June 20, 1890.

Museo Naval de Cartagena
Credits: Story

Based on the Final Voyage of the Peral Submarine exhibition organized to mark the vessel's move from the Cartagena seafront to the Naval Museum.

Organized By
Naval History and Culture Authority. Cartagena Naval Museum

Juanelo Turriano Foundation
Repsol Foundation

Board of Technical Experts
Juan Ignacio Chacón Bulnes
José Manuel Chacón Bulnes
José Antonio Martínez López
Diego Quevedo Carmona
Bernardo Revuelta Pol
Javier San Mateo Isaac-Peral

Online Adaptation
Second Lieutenant Eduardo Farré Gomés
Naval Museum Communications Department:
Xián Rodríguez, Alicia Suárez

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.