Even in Golden Age of Alchemy, Cornelis Drebbel stands alone as a sort of Ben Franklin or Emmett Brown character.
He created the first submarine, red dye, and was famous for him continuous mobile machines that landed him in the courts of the likes of James I of England and Rudolf II of the Holy Roman Empire.
Our podcast on him:
- Move to england
- Prague and Rudolf II
- Back to optics
- Scarlet dye
- first navigable submarine in 1620
- measurement and control systems
Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel (1572 – 7 November 1633)
- Cornelis Drebbel was born in Alkmaar, Holland in an Anabaptist family.
`He lives according to the laws of Nature and believes in nothing. He would not consider himself insulted by the action or word of another in connection with anything that might be done to him. If any one abuses him, he answers not a word, unless they are right and are decent folk, and he does not excite himself in the very least. He carries no sword, neither in the country nor in town and he would not defend himself, were he attacked, although he is powerful and strongly built.’ 1
- After some years at the Latin school in Alkmaar, around 1587,
- he attended the Academy in Haarlem, also located in North-Holland.
- teachers at the Academy were Hendrick Goltzius, engraver, painter, alchemist and humanist
- Cornelis Corneliszoon of Haarlem. — he’s none other than the inventor of the wind-powered saw mill. That’s so dutch.
Same circle as
Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the mathematician26
Henry Briggs (1556–1630) (see Chap. 1, p. 13). Then there were
medical men, who were busily making alchemical experiments, such
as Robert Fludd (1574-1637), Raphael Thorius, Joachim Morsius
(1593–1642), the translator and editor of Drebbel’s works
- 2 – Drebbel’s outward appearance and character
All Drebbel’s contemporaries without, exception agree in
giving a favourable report as to his personal appearance. The secretary of the Duke of Wurtemburg, Wurmsser von Vendenheym writes
in 1609: ‘His Royal Highness went to the park in Eltham to see the
perpetuum mobile. The inventor’s name is Cornelis Drebbel, who
was born in Alkmaar, a very light- haired and handsome man, and of
very gentle manners all together different from such-like characters.’
Constantyn Huygens, informs us that he looked like a Dutch
De Peresc gives us most of the details we possess. According to
his own statement he received them from the Kuffler brothers (about
`He is a man of good understanding, sharp-witted and full of
ideas about great inventions.
Returning to the life of the said Cornelis Drebbel, Kuffler
narrated that as his years increased his inventions also increased. The
latter welled up spontaneously out of his consciousness without benefit from the reading of books, which he always depised, being firmly convinced that the truth and perfection of the sciences lay in the secrets of Nature, in which they are all concealed and it is recalled that he had reached a considerable age before he could understand Latin or speak it, and that he had taught it himself without anybody to teach him. He lives like a philosopher and is interested only in his observations; he despises all the things of this world and also its great men and he will rather greet a poor man than one of worldly position.
Drebbel behaves like a simple and ignorant person. When he is
asked whether he can make this, that or the other thing, he says he
cannot. He only shows his real self to persons he considers intelligent
or to those who desire to become so. For three or four years he has
been smoking tobacco, a thing which he used to hate. He has become
so much the slave of this habit, that he spends whole days and nights
smoking and declares, that they who do not smoke have no sense.
When he meets any one who is a hard smoker he respects and likes
him very much and in such a case he is able to explain his secrets,
whereas otherwise he is very uncomfortable.’ 318
The habit of smoking was introduced into England by Sir
Drebbel became a skilled engraver on copperplate and also took an interest in alchemy.
In 1595 he married Sophia Jansdochter Goltzius, younger sister of Hendrick, and settled at Alkmaar. They had at least six children of which four survived. Drebbel worked initially as a painter, engraver and cartographer. But he was in constant need of money because of the prodigal lifestyle of his wife.
In 1598 he obtained a patent for a water-supply system and a sort of perpetual clockwork. In 1600, Drebbel was in Middelburg where he built a fountain at the Noorderpoort.
There he met a maker of telescopes and learned to grind lenses for optics.
with the construction of a magic lantern and a camera obscura –both sort of projectors.
Move to england
Around 1604 the Drebbel family moved to England, probably at the invitation of the new king, James I of England (VI of Scotland). He was accommodated at Eltham Palace. Drebbel worked there at the masques, that were performed by and for the court. He was attached to the court of young Renaissance crown-prince Henry. He astonished the court with his inventions (a perpetuum mobile, automatic and hydraulkic organs) and his optical instruments.
the Duke of Wurtemburg came to see him at work at Eltham, where his instruments were set up while
Prague and Rudolf II
His fame circulated through the courts of Europe. In October1610 Drebbel and his family moved to Prague on invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, (see our podcast on that)
Here again Drebbel demonstrated his inventions.
Bad timing though:
When in 1611 Rudolf II was stripped of all effective power by his younger brother Archduke Matthias, Drebbel was imprisoned for about a year. After Rudolf’s death in 1612, Drebbel was set free and went back to London.
Prague 18th of Oct 1610 Guglio de Medici, wrote a letter to
Galilei, in which he informs him, that a Fleming has come to Prague, who is able to construct a perpetuum mobile.
Originally he only was supposed to stay in Prague for 6 months. But Rudolf II kept him there until his death.
in prague to
alchemy and to the making of gold alloys for the German mint.
Archduke Matthias may have almost put him to death after rudolf died. but was saved when someone told him “you’re about to kill the greatest man in the world”
who had invented that glass bulb (perpetuum mobile),
which he showed him, and had designed the fountain below.
The Archduke ordered Drebbel to be set free and granted an amnesty;
and when this had been done, he profered apologies for the bad
treatment he had received because he was not known, but said that if
he would be willing to render to him the service he had rendered to
the Emperor and to complete, what he had begun, he would double
the reward the Emperor had promised him. Drebbel answered that
he very much appreciated his offer to take him into service but that
he was in the service of the king of England, without whose order he
could undertake nothing, and who had asked him, when he left him,
to let him know whether he agreed to remain in his service.
The Archduke Matthew then sent an express messenger to England; but
meanwhile Drebble sent a request to the king, begging him not to
give permission for him to stay longer, but to say that on the
contrary, he was commanded to return, for he was too badly treated
here to allow himself to be longer detained. When all this had been
done by the king of England, this king promised the Archduke to
send him back within one or two years to finish for him that which
he had begun. This little trick caused the Archduke to send him back
to England in a fine carriage with a gift of two thousand thalers.’ 5
Official records show that the above mentioned sum was in
reality six hundred thalers.
According to Svatek and
Gindley, two Bohemian historians, Drebbel was mixed up in a case
of embezzlement of money and jewels belonging to the Museum and
Treasury of Prague.
This crime was perpetrated by a gentleman in
waiting named Rucky. Soon after the death of Rudolf II this Rucky
was imprisoned and with him a number of others, among whom was
10 Rucky commited suicide. Svatek and Gindley do
not know what became of the others.
Unfortunately his patron prince Henry had also died and Drebbel was in financial trouble.
Back to optics
He manufactured with his glass-grinding machine optical instruments and compound microscopes with two convex lenses for which there was a constant demand.
In 1622 Constantijn Huyghens stayed as a diplomat for more than one year in England. It have been Cornelis that tought Constantijn Huyghens the art of glass grinding. That’s kind of a big deal because Constantijn later tought his son, the famous scientist and mathematitian Christiaan Huygens,
The English natural philosopher Robert Hooke may have learned the art of glass grinding from his acquaintance Johannes Sibertus Kuffler, the son-in-law of DrebbeL 
Towards the end of his life, in 1633, Drebbel was involved in a plan to drain the Fens around Cambridge, (also very dutch: water!!! drain it!!!)
At this point he was pretty poor running an ale house in England. He died in London.
After this difference of opinion between himself and the
Admiralty concerning the value of his inventions, Drebbel was
obliged to devote himself to other work in order to obtain a living.
From the Rawlinson Manuscript we learn that he became a brewer
`He was very poore, and in his later time kept an Ale-house
below the [London] bridge. He had an invention of going under
water which he used so advantageously, that many persons were 13
perswaded that he was some strange Monstar, and that means drew
many to see him and drink of his ale.’ 1
A part of the collection `for the understanding of brewing,
baking, making of cider and meade, ordering and preserving all sorts
of wines, cooking,’ preserved in the Cambridge MS. (see Chap. III, p.
35) probably dates from this time.
Drebbel perhaps acquired a part of his knowledge of these
matters from his brother-in-law, the brewer, Jacob Goltzius, during
the time that he still lived in Holland.
In keeping with traditional Mennonite practice, Drebbel’s estate was split between his four living children at the time of his death.
He was sort of a Nikola Tesla, or Emmit Brown of his time.
In some ways it’s hard to compare him to others in the 17th century!
and whose inventions were worked out later by others, especially after the foundation of the Royal Society of London.
he was a brilliant empiric researcher and innovator. Drebbel’s constructions and innovations cover in particular
- measurement and control technology,
the royal society was later interested in his ovens and furnaces, we’ll get back to that in a second.
- and pyrotechnics.
With Staten General he registered several patents.
‘Measurement- and control technology/pneumatics’: Famous for his perpetual motion machine
builds and navigates with a submarine.
Builds an incubator for eggs and
a portable stove/oven with an optimal use of fuel, able to keep the heat on a constant temperature by means of a regulator/thermostat.
Designs a solar energy system for London (perpetual fire), demonstrates air-conditioning, let it rain, makes lightning and thunder ‘on command’, develops fountains, fresh water supply for the city of Middelburg. Involved in the draining of the moors around Cambridge (the Fens). Develops predecessors of the barometer and thermometer, the “Drebbeliaensch instrument”, harpsichords that play on solar energy.
but a patent granted him in 1598 for a pump and a clock with ‘a perpetual motion,’ shows us, that he very soon began his career of inventor.
From this description we learn, that the regulation of
temperature in this furnace was based on the same principle as that
on which Drebbel’s perpetuum mobile must have been constructed.
When the fire began to burn quicker, the ashes got warmer, the air in
the retort expanded and pushed the quicksilver further up into the
neck of the retort, whereby a damper, to which a spring was attached
closed down on the surface of the quicksilver, so that as a result less
air was admitted than before and the temperature of the fire and the
ashes were once more reduced.
Optics: Develops an automatic precision lens-grinding machine, builds improved telescopes, constructs the first microscope (‘lunette de Dreubells’), camera obscura, laterna magica, manufactures Dutch or Batavian tears
Maybe created the first to
construct a composite microscope consisting of two convex lenses.
Chemistry: Develops an innovative way to improve and produce scarlet red dye, establishes a dye works in Stratford-at-Bow-on-Lea. Develops a methodology to re-gain silver ore. Makes –probably- oxygen for his submarine.
Hydraulics: Makes theater props, moving statues. Is involved in plans to build a new theater in London
Pyrotechnics: produces torpedo’s and seamines and a detonator with Batavian tears, uses fulminating mercury –aurum fulminarum- as an explosive.
In 1619 Drebbel designed and built telescopes and microscopes and was, with Gerbier, involved in a building project for the Duke of Buckingham. William Boreel, the Dutch Ambassador to England, mentions the microscope that was developed by Drebbel. Drebbel became famous for his invention in 1621 of a microscope with two convex lenses. Several authors, including Christiaan Huygens assign the invention of the compound microscope to Drebbel. However, a Neapolitan, named Fontana, claimed the discovery for himself in 1618. Other sources attribute the invention of the compound microscope directly to Hans Jansen and his son Zacharias around 1595. In 1624 Galileo sent a Drebbel-type microscope to Federico Cesi (1585–1630), a wealthy noble man in Rome who used it to illustrate Apiarum, his book about bees.
Drebbel’s most famous written work was Een kort Tractaet van de Natuere der Elementen (A short treatise of the nature of the elements) (Haarlem, 1621). He was also involved in the invention of mercury fulminate. He had found out that mixtures of “spiritus vini” with mercury and silver in “aqua fortis” could explode.
Drebbel also invented a chicken incubator and a mercury thermostat that automatically kept it at a constant temperature.This is one of the first recorded feedback-controlled devices. He also developed and demonstrated a working air conditioning system. The invention of a working thermometer is also ascribed to Drebbel
Credit must be given to Drebbel for making a contribution to
the science of explosives and kindred subjects and their development.
First of all, he made use of the knowledge of pyrotechnics,
which he possessed as an alchemist, in connection with the many
entertainments given at the court of James I and Prince Henry.
He also built the first navigable submarine in 1620 while working for the English Royal Navy. Using William Bourne’s design from 1578, he manufactured a steerable submarine with a leather-covered wooden frame. Between 1620 and 1624 Drebbel successfully built and tested two more submarines, each one bigger than the last. The final (third) model had 6 oars and could carry 16 passengers. This model was demonstrated to King James I in person and several thousand Londoners. The submarine stayed submerged for three hours and could travel fromWestminster to Greenwich and back, cruising at a depth of from 12 to 15 feet (4 to 5 metres). Drebbel even took James in this submarine on a test dive beneath the Thames, making James I the first monarch to travel underwater. but it couldn’t attract enough enthusiasm from the Admiralty and was never used in combat.
After successfully demonstrating his submarine on the Thames,
Drebbel found his services gradually more and more requisitioned
for the English navy, it being clear to the authorities how useful his
invention would be in time of war.
Also his skill in the contructing of ‘watermines’ and ‘waterpetards’ made him valuable to the Admiralty.
More recently it has been suggested that the contemporary accounts of the craft contained significant elements of exaggeration and it was at most a semi-submersible which was able to travel down the Thames by the force of the current
Faber, a German savant
living in Italy (1625).
`Persons who have sailed under the sea in that ship, invented
by the remarkable genius of the Dutchman, Cornelis Dreb-60
bel and constructed in London, England — where it may be seen
even today — have sworn to me solemnly, that while a storm was
raging on the surface, deep down in the sea they experienced not the
slightest difficulty. The ship carries 24 people, eight of whom row,
while the rest remain in their little cubicles; for 24 hours they suffer
from no lack of air and live contentedly on that which is locked in
the little vessel; after this period of time has elapsed, they go up to
the surf ace of the sea, and when the cover of the boat has been
unbolted and left open for a short time, they take in fresh air, upon
which they are able, after putting the lid on the ship again, to dive
down as deep into the water as the captain wishes to do — even to
the depth of fifty fathoms, should he so desire. And what will
surprise you still more — they steer by the compass and know where
they are and they move the ship with the greatest ease by means of
oars. But what almost passes belief is this: that that part of the ship
where the rowers sit has no bottom, so that the water is visible all the
time to these rowers, who are nevertheless not in the very least
afraid, as sitting on their seats a little above the water, they never
touch it with their feet.
Constantyn Huygens writes in his autobiography (1631) :
`Worth all the rest put together is the little ship, in which he
calmly dived under the water, while he kept the king and several
thousand Londoners in the greatest suspense. The great majority of
these already thought that the man who had very cleverly remained
invisible to them – for three hours, as rumour has it – had perished,
when he suddenly rose to the surface a considerable distance from
where he had dived down, bringing with him the several companions
of his dangerous adventure to witness to the fact that they had
experienced no trouble or fear under the water, but had sat on the
bottom, when they so desired, and had ascended when they wished to
do so; that they had sailed whithersoever they had a mind, rising as
much nearer the surface or again diving as much deeper as it pleased
them to do, without even being deprived of light; yea, even that they
had done in the belly of that whale all the things people are used 61
to do in the air, and this without any trouble. From all this it is not
hard to imagine what would be the usefulness of this bold invention
in time of war, if in this manner (a thing which I have repeatedly
heard Drebbel assert) enemy ships lying safely at anchor could be
secretly attacked and sunk unexpectedly by means of a battering ram
— an instrument of which hideous use is made now- a-days in the
capturing of the gates and bridges of towns.’
In 1645 we find Cornelis van der Woude of Alkmaar telling the
`He made a ship, with which one could row under water and sail
from Westminster to Greenwich — a distance of two Dutch miles.
Yes, even five or six miles, as far as one wished; and in the ship it is
possible to see without a candle and to read the Bible or any other
book; which ship was to be seen lying in the Thames — London’s
river — until a few years ago.’
Drebbel determined the depth to which his boat had descended
by means of a quicksilver barometer
Tymme writes in 1612 in his little work on perpetual motion
that the bulb of the perpetuum mobile was filled with ‘a fierie spirit
extracted out of a mineral matter.’ 2
This expression suggests the preparation
of oxygen from saltpetre.
Kepler also heard and wrote of this in 1607:
‘If he can create a new spirit, by means of which he can move
and keep in motion his instrument without weights or propelling
power, he will be Apollo in my opinion.’
Robert Boyle (1627- 1691),
that it is not the
whole body of the air, but a certain quintessence (as Chymists speak)
or spirituous part of it, that makes it fit for respiration; which being
spent, the remaining grosser body or carcase, if I may so call it, of
the air, is unable to cherish the vital flame residing in the heart; so
that for aught I could gather, besides the mechanical contrivance of
his vessel, he had a chymical liquor, which he accounted the chief
secret of his submarine navigation. For when, from time to time, he
perceived that the finer and purer part of the air was consumed, or
over-clogged by the respiration and steams of those that went in his
ship, he would by unstopping a vessel full of his liquor, speedily
restore the troubled air such a proportion of vital parts, as would
make it again, for a good while, fit for respiration, whether by
dissipating, or precipitating 67
the grosser exhalations, or by some other intelligible way,
…having made it my business to learn,
what this strange liquor might be, they constantly affirmed me, that
Drebell would never disclose the liquor to any, nor so much as tell
the matter wherof he made it, to above one person, who himself
assured me, what it was.
In the minutes of the Royal Society we find the following
dated May 6th, 1669:
`Mr Daniel Coxe mentioned, that Cornelius Drebbel pretended
to have a certain liquor, to supply the want of fresh air in the boat,
which he had made to go under water with;
The story goes that, while making a coloured liquid for a thermometer Cornelis dropped a flask of Aqua regia on a tin window sill, and discovered that stannous chloride makes the colour of carmine much brighter and more durable. Although Cornelis did not make much money from his work, his daughters Anna and Catharina and his sons-in-law Abraham and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler set up a very successful dye works. One was set up in 1643 inBow, London, and the resulting colour was called bow dye. The recipe for “colour Kufflerianus” was kept a family secret, and the new bright red colour was very popular in Europe.
But remember he was also an engraver: Drebbel wrote some interesting essays about his experiments with air pressure. He made beautiful engravings; the subject was The Seven Liberal Arts on a map of the city of Alkmaar.
- A small lunar crater has been named after him.
- Cornelis Drebbel has been honoured on postage stamps issued by the postal services of both Mali and the Netherlands in 2010.
A portrayal of Cornelis Drebbel and his submarine can be briefly seen in the film The Four Musketeers (1974). A small leatherclad submersible surfaces off the coast of England, and the top opens clamshell-wise revealing Cornelis Drebbel and the Duke of Buckingham.
Drebbel was honoured in an episode of the cartoon Sealab 2021 during a submarine rescue of workers on a research station in the Arctic. A German U-boat captain fired a pistol in celebration at the mention of Drebbel, to shouts of, “Sieg Heil! Cornelis Drebbel!” Also, on the Sealab 2021 Season 3 DVD, Cornelis Drebbel has two DVD commentaries devoted to the story of his life.
In the Dutch Eighty Years’ War comic Gilles de Geus, Drebbel is a supporting character to the warhero Gilles. He is drawn as a crazy inventor, similar to Q in the James Bond series. His submarine plays a role in the comic.
Richard SantaColoma has speculated that the Voynich Manuscript may be connected to Drebbel, initially suggesting it was Drebbel’s cipher notebook on microscopy and alchemy, and then later hypothesising it is a fictional “tie in” to Francis Bacon’s utopian novel New Atlantis in which some Drebbel-related items (submarine, perpetual clock) are said to appear.