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02 July 2013

Mónico Sánchez, Innovation in Spain 100 Years Ago

Estimated reading time Time 3 to read

The great Mónico, the unusual adventure of an engineer from La Mancha in times of crisis” is a book by Manuel Lozano Leyva that I particularly enjoyed. Perhaps because it brings a little optimism at a time when optimism is much needed. Perhaps because it tells the story of an engineer, self-taught and without official qualifications, who managed to succeed in Spain when the country was even worse off than it is today. I, like so many others, have faced redundancy and wondered how to move forward with my life.

This book was generously sent to me by the Debate publishing house. It’s short, just 170 pages, and features a fascinating protagonist. While not a conventional biography, the book covers the key events in the life of Mónico Sánchez Moreno, a Spanish inventor and millionaire(!) who lived from 1880 to 1961. The story begins by introducing the reader to a simple errand boy, born in a small town of Castilla-La Mancha. He didn’t speak English, but his inquisitive mind led him to sign up for a distance learning course offered by the British school  “Electrical Engineer Institute of Correspondence”. At the time electricity was still a recent phenomenon and a surprising discovery for which useful applications were needed. This same inquisitiveness, and no small amount of ambition, saw Mónico travel to New York at the age of just 23. There he learned how to put electricity to practical use, even working in the nascent field of wireless communications. But he soon became captivated by an even more recent and mysterious discovery, X-rays. His interest was not a scientific one; he was seeking practical applications. His main achievement was to develop portable X-ray equipment that was far more advanced than any that had existed before. He was able to patent his equipment and sell it around half the world.

Nine years later, and now a millionaire, he decided to bring his technology home to Spain. He wanted to produce his equipment on a large scale in his native town of Piedrabuena. It was thanks to his “Laboratorio Eléctrico Sánchez” that the small town of just over 3,000 inhabitants soon grew and prospered. But he had to start from scratch. The town had no running water, electricity, auxiliary industry or communications, and its inhabitants were largely illiterate. His success was driven by the First World War, when portable X-ray machines were in high demand to help treat the wounded. The machine was designed to fit French Army field ambulances and it helped save lives during the war. For a while Piedrabuena was a major hub of what we would now call biomedical engineering.

As I have said, the book is short and can be read in a single sitting. I won’t tell you everything that happens, but I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that Mónico Sánchez’s story ends in failure. And it’s no surprise that today, unfortunately, he is largely unknown. His story was another casualty of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. A devastated Spain was subject to decades of autarchy and iron-fisted dictatorship. Mónico’s own personality did not help either. And yet his story deserves to be remembered.

When the topic of Spanish science comes up, we always lament the lack of Spanish Nobel prize laureates, except in the field of literature. As an engineer, I am also saddened by the fact that great inventors and engineers have now been forgotten because their work could not be continued. Probably because in the past Spain lacked the industry required to support such work. But I don’t want to end on a negative note. As Mónico Sánchez’s story proves, success is possible, even in the hardest of circumstances. Even if you have to emigrate to get the required training, it is also possible to return home and build a world-leading industry.

Ambrosio Liceaga

Founder of the weblog Ciencia de Bolsillo and collaborator of, Pamplona (Spain)

More publications about Ambrosio Liceaga

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