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Cornelis Drebbel

Cornelis Drebbel
Cornelis Drebbel
Born 1572
Died 7 November 1633
Education Hendrick Goltzius
Occupation inventor & innovator
Spouse(s) Sophia Jansdochter Goltzius
Children six
Parent(s) Jacob Janszoon Drebbel

Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel[1] (1572 – 7 November 1633) was the Dutch builder of the first navigable submarine in 1620. Drebbel was an innovator who contributed to the development of measurement and control systems, optics and chemistry.

A small lunar crater has been named after him. The street "Cornelis Drebbelweg" in Delft, the Netherlands has been named after him.


  • Life 1
  • Works 2
    • Chemistry 2.1
    • Submarine 2.2
    • Scarlet dye 2.3
  • Cultural references 3
  • References 4
  • Sources 5
  • External links 6


Cornelis Drebbel was born in Alkmaar, Holland in an Anabaptist family in 1572. 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, Karel van Mander, painter, writer, humanist and Cornelis Corneliszoon of Haarlem. 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. He met there with Hans Lippershey, spectacle maker and constructor of telescopes, and his colleague Zacharias Jansen. There Drebbel learned lens grinding and optics, with the construction of a magic lantern and a camera obscura.

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.[2] He astonished the court with his inventions (a perpetuum mobile, automatic and hydraulic organs) and his optical instruments.

"Perpetuum mobile" clock by Drebbel

His fame circulated through the courts of Europe. In October 1610 Drebbel and his family moved to Prague on invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, who was preoccupied with the arts, alchemy and occult sciences. Here again Drebbel demonstrated his inventions. 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. Unfortunately his patron prince Henry had also died and Drebbel was in financial trouble.

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 Huygens stayed as a diplomat for more than one year in England. It is quite possible that he learned the art of glass grinding at this time from Drebbel, and that he passed this knowledge to his second son Christiaan Huygens, who became a prominent Dutch mathematician and scientist. 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.[3]

Towards the end of his life, in 1633, Drebbel was involved in a plan to drain the Fens around Cambridge, while living in near-poverty running an ale house in England. He died in London.[4]

In keeping with traditional Mennonite practice, Drebbel's estate was split between his four living children at the time of his death.[5]


Drebbel: A great innovator! The Edison of his time, he was a brilliant empiric researcher and innovator. Drebbel’s constructions and innovations cover in particular measurement and control technology, pneumatics, optics, chemistry, hydraulics and pyrotechnics. With Staten General he registered several patents. 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.

'Measurement- and control technology/pneumatics': Famous for his Perpetuum Mobile, 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.

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

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.[6] 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.[7] Other sources attribute the invention of the compound microscope directly to Hans Jansen and his son Zacharias around 1595.[8] 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.[9]


Drebbel's most famous written work was Een kort Tractaet van de Natuere der Elementen[10] (A short treatise of the nature of the elements) (Haarlem, 1621). He was also involved in the invention of mercury fulminate.[11] He had found out that mixtures of “spiritus vini” with mercury and silver in “aqua fortis” could explode.[12]

Drebbel also invented a chicken incubator and a mercury thermostat that automatically kept it at a constant temperature.[13] 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.[14]


First navigable submarine
Reconstruction of the Drebbel, Richmond upon Thames

He also built the first navigable submarine in 1620 while working for the English Royal Navy.[15][16] 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 from Westminster to Greenwich and back, cruising at a depth between 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.[17] This submarine was tested many times in the Thames,[18] but it couldn't attract enough enthusiasm from the Admiralty and was never used in combat.

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.[19]

Scarlet dye

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 in Bow, London, and the resulting colour was called bow dye.[20] The recipe for "colour Kufflerianus" was kept a family secret, and the new bright red colour was very popular in Europe.[21][22]

Cultural references

Cornelis Drebbel has been honoured on postage stamps issued by the postal services of both Mali and the Netherlands in 2010.[23]

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.[24]


  1. ^ "Drebbel's website". Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  2. ^ "Tierie, Gerrit. Cornelis Drebbel. Amsterdam: HJ Paris, 1932." (PDF). Retrieved 2013-06-22. 
  3. ^ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Cornelis Drebbel
  4. ^ Drebbel's will from 7 November 1633: Memorand that Cornelius :Dreble
  5. ^ "my following children viz. John Dreble, Jacob Dreble, Cathryne Kiffler and Ann Kiffler"
  6. ^ The Microscope – Its Design, Construction and Applications by F. S. Spiers. 2008-11-30.  
  7. ^ A Practical treatise on the use of the microscope by John Quekett, John Thomas Quekett. 1852. Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  8. ^ Under the microscope by William J. Croft. 2006.  
  9. ^ The Dawn of Microscopy, by David Bardell © 2005 National Association of Biology Teachers.
  10. ^ Een Kort Tractaet van de Natuere der Elementen C. Drebbel, 1621
  11. ^ "Advanced Main Group Chemistry (I) – Rings, Chains, Clusters". 2000-01-27. Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  12. ^ F. Kurzer: “Fulminic Acid in the History of Organic Chemistry“, J. Chem. Educ. 2000, 77, 851
  13. ^ "Tierie, Gerrit. Cornelis Drebbel. Amsterdam: HJ Paris, 1932." (PDF). Retrieved 2013-05-03. 
  14. ^ : "Scientific American. / Volume 5, Issue 50, August 31, 1850". Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  15. ^  
  16. ^ Acott, C. (1999). "A brief history of diving and decompression illness.". South Pacific Underwater Medicine Society Journal 29 (2).  
  17. ^ "King James VI and I". Retrieved 2010-08-06. 
  18. ^ Kronyk der stad Alkmaer, Cornelis van der Woude - E. J. Visscher, 1725, p.191-192
  19. ^  
  20. ^ A history of inventions and discoveries, Volume 2,Johann Beckmann,1817
  21. ^ Amy Butler Greenfield,A Perfect Red,Harper Collins 2005,ISBN 0-06-052275-5
  22. ^ Diary of Samuel Pepys
  23. ^
  24. ^ H. Richard SantaColoma. "New Atlantis Voynich Theory". Retrieved January 27, 2013. 


  • BBC bio
  • Andrew Szydlo, Water that does not wet hands, (Polish Academy of Sciences, 1994)
  • Brett McLaughlin, Cornelis Drebbel and the First Submarine (1997)
  • L.E. Harris, The Two Netherlanders, Humphrey Bradley and Cornelis Drebbel (Cambridge, 1961)
  • F.M. Jaeger, Cornelis Drebbel en zijne tijdgenooten, (Groningen, 1922)(Dutch)
  • Who was Cornelis J. Drebbel ?

External links

  • Cornelis Drebbel (1572–1633)
  • Drebbel on Freebase
  • Cornelis Drebbel: inventor of the submarine
  • The Voynich Manuscript: Drebbel's lost notebook?
  • Drebbel's website
  • Wiki about Drebbel
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