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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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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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Drebbel, Cornelius

Cornelius Drebbel

Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebbel (1572-1633) earned a place in nautical history as the builder of the world's first navigable submarine. A self-taught engineer, Drebbel spent much of his career in the service of two of Europe's most powerful monar chies early in the seventeenth century, and it was for England's King James I that he built and tested sev eral leather-clad, submersible rowboats between 1621 and 1624.

Was Apprentice to an Engraver

Drebbel was born in 1572 in Alkmaar, a town in West Friesland, Netherlands. His father was believed to have been one of the town's burghers, or group of merchants and leading citizens who held political authority in the city. He had little formal education, learning to read and write in English and Latin—the latter the universal language of science, religion, and scholarship at the time—only later in life. In his teens he entered the engraving workshop of Hendrick Goltzius in Haarlem as an apprentice. Goltzius was also an alchemist, an amateur chemist of medieval and Renaissance Europe in the era before the field was fully established as a science. Alchemists were primarily engaged in attempting to transform base metals such as iron, nickel, and zinc into gold. In 1595, Drebbel married Goltzius's younger sister, Sophia Jansdochter, with whom he would have four daughters.

The newlyweds soon returned to Drebbel's hometown of Alkmaar, where he opened an engraving business that made maps and pictures using early printing technology. A tinkerer by nature, he also began working on his own inventions, and in 1598 applied for and received an official patent for a perpetual-motion clock. His device needed no winding, for it was driven by gears that moved on their own via naturally occurring changes in atmospheric pressure. He also devised a way to supply Alkmaar's water needs, and a fountain of his design was constructed in Middelburg, a town in Zeeland, in 1601. In 1602, he received another patent, this one for a new type of chimney.

Word of Drebbel's inventions, especially that of the perpetual-motion clock, began to spread through Europe, and in 1604 he published a book, Een cort Tractat van de Naturae de Elementen (“On the Nature of the Elements”), which outlined his theories about the four elements of life— earth, fire, water, and air. He dedicated the Englishlanguage edition to King James I of England and Scotland (1566–1625), who was known for his devotion to alchemy and the occult. James invited Drebbel and his family to move to England, and gave them living quarters in Eltham Palace in London, where there were also rooms specifically given over to displays of Drebbel's inventions. Drebbel received an annual stipend and was technically a member of the royal court, but had been given responsibility for fireworks displays, which relegated him to the entertainers' section of official pageants, along with musicians and court jesters. One of his novelties was a magic lantern, the demonstration of which he described in a 1608 letter: “I am clad first in black velvet, and in a second, as fast as a man can think, I am clad in green velvet, in red velvet, changing myself into all the colors of the world … and I present myself as a king, adorned in diamonds, and all sorts of precious stones, and then in a moment become a beggar, all my clothes in rags,” he claimed, according to Tom Shachtman's Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold.

Boasted of Secret Powers

Drebbel had confided to James that he was working on a perpetual-motion machine, a mythical device that had intrigued Europe's thinkers for several centuries by then. Scientists and engineers attempted to create a device featuring parts that moved entirely on their own, with no human interaction or source of external energy. Drebbel did manage to produce a timekeeping device, described in a book by his contemporary Thomas Tymme as an enormous globe, mounted atop pillars and ringed by a water chute made of crystal; it provided the time, day, month, year, season, astrological period, phases of the moon, and tide patterns. Like his earlier clock, it was probably powered by atmospheric pressure, but Drebbel apparently claimed that he had uncloaked the mysteries of the universe, and reportedly told only King James the secret of its motion.

Around 1610, Drebbel and his family departed for Prague after receiving an invitation from Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), the Holy Roman Emperor. Like James, Rudolf was intrigued by alchemy, and had become the patron of several of Europe's most notable seekers of the so-called Philosopher's Stone, the mythical substance that was believed to have the power to transform base metals into gold and perhaps even reverse the aging process in human beings. Drebbel became the chief alchemist at Rudolf's court, with quarters at the magnificent Prague Castle that Rudolf enlarged to hold the extensive royal collections of exotic animals and mechanical inventions. During his time in Prague, Drebbel probably worked on a pump device for Rudolf, whose Bohemian kingdom held extensive Central European mountain ranges whose mineral wealth was just being discovered at the time. Devising a method of removing water from mine shafts also occupied several engineers of the era.

In 1611, Rudolf was ousted and Drebbel was taken prisoner by Frederick V's army at the start of the Thirty Years' War. Rudolf died a year later, and Drebbel appealed to James in England for help, who agreed to intercede as well as provide funds for the journey back to England for the inventor and his family. Drebbel seemed to have built an impressive automated fountain for the king, which played music and featured animated statues of sea deities from classical mythology. He also worked on a microscope which had two convex lenses, the first ever to feature a pair of optical lenses.

World's First Air Conditioner

In the summer of 1620, Drebbel demonstrated what he called a cooling machine—the prototype for the world's first air conditioner—to a royal audience in the Great Hall of Westminster Abbey. The site of the presentation is notable, for it was literally the largest room in all of the British Isles at the time, with a massive vaulted ceiling and a length of 332 feet. Inside the sacrarium, a smaller chamber, Drebbel chilled the air by unknown artificial means so well that the king began shivering and quickly exited back into the July heat.

Drebbel was already working on his next impressive feat of entertainment magic, the world's first navigable submarine, which he demonstrated on the Thames River in 1621. The design for a submersible vessel dated back to a proposal by English mathematician William Bourne in his 1578 work Inventions and Devises, but the problem of maintaining enough of an air supply to keep the crew alive proved the most daunting obstacle. But Drebbel's craft made a round trip from Westminster to Greenwich and back, which took three hours, as James and a crowd estimated in the thousands watched. He had modified a rowboat into upper and lower chambers, with its wooden exterior clad in greased leather to promote buoyancy.

Intensely secretive and always cautious to protect his position at court from usurpers, Drebbel kept no scientific notebooks, and left no drawings behind of any of his devices, so there are only educated guesses—some made hundreds of years later—on how his marvels actually functioned. There are two theories of how Drebbel solved the oxygen question on the submarine. One is that his submarine had pigskin bladders stashed underneath the seats where the crew of twelve rowers were stationed, and these bags were attached by pipe to the exterior. “Rope was used to tie off the empty bladders,” a BBC report explained, and “in order to dive, the rope was untied and the bladders filled. To surface the crew squashed the bladders flat, squeezing out the water.” But this seems an inadequate explanation for how the 13 humans had enough air to last three hours, and it is thought that Drebbel's more impressive feat was the isolation of the element of oxygen. His writings hint that he devised a way to produce it by heating saltpeter, a nitrate, and he probably worked on this during his time in Prague with another alchemist at Rudolf's court, Michael Sendivogius (1566–1636). His isolation and manufacture of oxygen—the element necessary to sustain human life— took place 150 years before a British scientist, Joseph Priestley (1733–1804), officially discovered it.

Worked for Royal Navy

Drebbel built three craft, each one larger than the previous, between 1621 and 1624, and was given a position with the British Royal Navy to develop his ideas further. But the court magician lost his most important patron when King James died in 1625. James's successor, Charles I (1600–1649) gave Drebbel a post with the Office of Ordnance, where he worked on developing a floating bomb. In 1627 he was put in charge of the British Navy's fireships. This was a most spectacular form of floating bomb, and was loaded up with even more combustible materials then the average warship of the era, which contained sails, grease, tar, and gunpowder. The fireships were then set aflame by a skeleton crew near the enemy's ships, an act that could destroy an entire flotilla in a harbor. There was an attempt to use this tactic to help the Huguenots (French Protestants) at their enclave of La Rochelle, a port in the Bay of Biscay. But the English effort to aid La Rochelle in its defiance of the French king and Roman Catholic Church ended disastrously. The mission had been led by George Villiers (1592–1628), the first Duke of Buckingham, who was also a patron of Drebbel's. Villiers was assassinated by a disgruntled wounded army officer while attempting to organize a second campaign, and with the death Drebbel lost another influential patron.

Some accounts note that Drebbel may have been involved in one of the first serious schemes to drain the fenlands, or wetlands, of East Anglia, a project headed by a noted Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden (1590–1677). Drebbel had earned significant amounts of money in his lifetime, but both he and his wife were said to have squandered their income, she on a series of adulterous affairs. In 1629, he took over the management of an ale house, and died four years later on November 7, 1633. Two of his daughters married Abraham and Johannes Kuffler, a pair of German brothers who founded a dye house in the Dutch city of Leiden. The manufacture of their popular bright red dye known as “color Kufflerianus” was a closely guarded trade secret discovered accidentally by Drebbel years before. In crafting one of his thermometer devices, he realized that tin chloride made from naturally occurring carmine (at the time, ground-up insects known as cochineal) made the color much brighter and more durable.

Books

Science and Its Times, Volume 3: 1450–1699, Gale, 2001.

Shachtman, Tom, Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Online

“Cornelius Drebbel,” BBC Historic Figures, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/drebbel_cornelis.shtml (December 1, 2007).

“Who Was Cornelius J. Drebbel?” (Based on a text of Brett McLaughlin), University of Twente, http://www.drebbel.utwente.nl/main_en/Information/History/History.htm (December 1, 2007).

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