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Drebbel, Cornelius

Drebbel, Cornelius

(b. Alkmaar, Netherlands, 1572; d. London, England, 1633)

mechanics, optics, technology.

Drebbel’s father, Jacob Jansz, a burgher of Alkmaar, was a landowner or farmer. Nothing is known of his mother. He probably had only an elementary education, learning to read and write Latin in his later years. As a young man Drebbel was apprenticed to the famous engraver Hendrik Goltzius and lived in his home in Haarlem. Drebbel proved to be an apt pupil, as is shown by a number of extant engravings from his hand. In addition, he probably acquired an interest in and some knowledge of alchemy from Goltzius, who was an adept.

After his marriage in 1595 to one of Goltzius’ younger sisters, Sophia Jansdocther, he settled at Alkmaar, where he devoted himself to engraving and publishing maps and pictures. He soon turned to mechanical inventions, for in 1598 a patent was granted to him for a pump and a clock with a perpetual motion. He is mentioned as having built a fountain for the city of Middelburg, in the province of Zeeland, in 1601; and in 1602 he was granted a patent for a chimney. About 1605 Drebbel moved to London. Apparently some of his mechanical inventions appealed to James I, and he was soon taken into the special service of Henry, prince of Wales, and was installed in the castle at Elpham.

Drebbel’s fame as an inventor became well known on the Continent, and he was visited at Elpham by Emperor Rudolf II and by the duke of Württemberg. He was invited to visit Rudolf, and by October 1610 he was in Prague with his family. Drebbel spent his time at the court of Rudolf showing off his “perpetuum mobile” and probably devoting himself to alchemy. After Matthias, Rudolf’s brother, had conquered Prague and deposed Rudolf, Drebbel was imprisoned; through the intervention of Prince Henry, however, he was set free to return to England in 1613.

During the next several years Drebbel lived mostly in London, although there are indications that at various times he was on the Continent and again in Prague. About 1620 he began to devote himself to the manufacture of microscopes and to the construction of a submarine. He became acquainted with Abraham and Jacob Kuffler, who with their two other brothers were to become his disciples. Abraham soon married Drebbel’s daughter Anna; and Johannes, another brother, married Katherina Drebbel in 1627. The four Kuffler brothers became agents and promoters for the microscopes and other instruments developed by Drebbel, Johannes being the one who did the most to promote Drebbel’s inventions after his death.

For the next several years Drebbel was employed by the British navy and was concerned mainly with the famous expedition to La Rochelle. In spite of the failure of the expedition to raise the siege, Drebbel continued to work for the navy for some time at a fairly high salary. From 1629 until his death Drebbel was extremely poor and earned his living by keeping an alehouse. He was also engaged in various schemes for draining land near London, but apparently none was successful.

According to most of Drebbel’s contemporaries, he was a light-haired and handsome man of gentle manners, considered to possess good intelligence, to be sharp-witted, and to have many ideas about various inventions. No absolute information on his religion is available; but his biographers have concluded that he was most likely an Anabaptist, since most of his friends and relatives were.

Drebbel left very few writings of his own, and none of them is concerned with his inventions. His most famous work was Ein kurzer Tractat von der Natur der Elementum (Leiden, 1608), an alchemical tract on the transmutation of the elements. Later editions contain a description of his “perpetuum mobile.” Another treatise, De quinta essentia (Hamburg, 1621), is also alchemical in outlook and was written with the help of a friend. In it Drebbel discusses extracts from metals, minerals, plants, and other materials and their use in medicine.

In the strict sense Drebbel was not a scientist but an inventor or practicing technologist. In certain inventions he made use, however, of well-established scientific principles. Unlike many of his predecessors who had been interested in technological inventions, he actually brought his inventions to the practical state, and his finished models worked.

Among Drebbel’s best-known inventions are the following.

(1) “Perpetuum mobile.” This elaborate toy operated on the basis of changes in atmospheric temperature and pressure. Many models of it were used, and Drebbel extended the basic idea to the operation of clocks. Probably his initial fame in England and Europe rested on this invention, which delighted the people of the time.

(2) Thermostats. Drebbel apparently learned to apply the principles used in the “perpetuum mobile” to temperature regulators for ovens and furnaces. The principle involved was that as the temperature rose, the air expanded and pushed a column of quicksilver to the point at which it would close a damper. As the temperature fell, the damper would be opened. Drebbel applied the same idea to an incubator for hatching duck and chicken eggs.

(3) Optics. Drebbel was an expert lens grinder; and records indicate that his instruments were bought by several well-known persons, including Constantin Huygens. He made compound microscopes as early as 1619; and some of his biographers insist that he was the actual inventor of the microscope with two sets of convex lenses.

(4) The submarine. While living in London, according to many reliable accounts, Drebbel built a submarine that could carry a number of people. It was based on the principle of a diving bell: the bottom was open, and a rower sitting above the water level controlled the submarine. There was apparently no connection between the submarine and the atmosphere. Such reliable authorities as Robert Boyle have said that Drebbel had some means of purifying the air within the submarine.

(5) Chemical technology. Undoubtedly, Drebbel’s most important contribution in this field was his discovery of a tin mordant for dyeing scarlet with cochineal. This process was communicated to his son-in-law, Abraham Kuffler, who had a dyehouse in Bow, London; and for many years the scarlet made with tin was known as “color Kufflerianus.” The famous scarlets of the Gobelins made use of Drebbel’s invention, and the method soon spread to all parts of the Continent. It is said that the discovery was made by accident when some tin dissolved in aqua regia happened to fall into a solution of cochineal that Drebbel was planning to use for a thermometer. Although not a dyer, he quickly recognized the importance of his fortunate discovery and his family made good use of it. Among other chemical achievements attributed to Drebbel are the introduction into England of the manufacture of sulfuric acid by burning sulfur with saltpeter and the discovery of mercury and silver fulminates.


I. Original Works. Drebbel’s most important books are cited in the text.

II. Secondary Literature. On Drebbel or his work, see (listed chronologically): F. M. Jaeger, Cornelis Drebbel en zijne tijdgenooten (Groningen, 1922); Gerrit Tierie, Cornelius Drebbel (1572–1633) (Amsterdam, 1932); L. E. Harris, The Two Netherlanders (Cambridge, 1961); and J. R. Partington, A History of Chemistry, II (London, 1961), 321–324.

Sidney Edelstein

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Drebbel, Cornelis Jacobszoon

Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel (kôrnā´lĬs yä´kôpsōn drĕb´əl), 1572–1634, Dutch inventor, physicist, and mechanician. His major inventions were an atmospherically driven clock and the first navigable submarine; the first voyage was in 1620. His other inventions include thermostats used to make self-regulating ovens, as well as various optical instruments. He also discovered a process for making scarlet dye that was used for many years by the dye industry.

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