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Cornelius Drebbel
inventor of the submarine
Jolly Roger

 

The First Submarine

The first serious discussion of a "submarine" (a craft designed to be navigated underwater) appeared in 1578 from the pen of William Bourne, a British mathematician and writer on naval subjects. Bourne proposed a completely enclosed boat that could be submerged and rowed underwater. It consisted of a wooden frame covered with waterproof leather; it was to be submerged by reducing its volume by contracting the sides through the use of hand vises. Bourne did not actually construct his boat, and Cornelis Drebbel (or Cornelius van Drebbel), a Dutch inventor, is usually credited with building the first submarine.US cover, posted in 1943 (Cover: Collection of Bob Garlock)

Between 1620 and 1624 he successfully manoeuvred his craft at depths of from 12 to 15 feet (four to five meters) beneath the surface during repeated trials in the Thames River, in England. Van Drebbel’s submarine was powered by oarsmen, the oars protruding through flexible leather seals. Snorkel air tubes were held above the surface by floats, thus permitting a submergence time of several hours.

Van Drebbel followed his first boat with two others. The later models were larger but they relied upon the same principles. It is reported that after repeated tests, King James I of England rode in one of his later models to demonstrate its safety. But even royal favour failed to arouse the interest of the British Navy. It was an age when the possibility of submarine warfare was still far in the future.

Drebbel's submarine resembled that proposed by Bourne in that its outer hull consisted of greased leather over a wooden frame; oars extended through the sides and, sealed with tight-fitting leather flaps, provided a means of propulsion both on the surface and underwater.

It is also said that Van Drebbel developed a chemical which purified the air and allowed the crew to stay submerged for extended periods.

 
A replica of reduced scale of Drebbel's submarine built by the team of the TV-series Building the Impossible. 2002, Eton Dorney near Windsor. (Photo: © www.expedition-engineering.com)

The replica some time in the 2000's (Photo: © Stedelijkmuseum Alkmaar, Netherlands)

A replica of reduced scale of Drebbel's submarine built by the team of the TV-series "Building the Impossible". 2002, Eton Dorney near Windsor. (Photo: © www.expedition-engineering.com) The replica some time in the 2000's (Photo: © Stedelijkmuseum Alkmaar, Netherlands)

 

Read all about the replica of the Drebbel ate the The First Submarine Rebuild page.

 

Cornelius Drebbel and the First Submarine

By Brett McLaughlin

Drebbel's submarine

Drebbel's most phenomenal work was definitely the submarine. In 1620, he made the first "rudimentary" submarine. Drebbel constructed his vessel while working for the British Navy. They never used it, but tested it many times. He had a wooden row boat; it had a wooden hull wrapped tightly in waterproofed leather. His row boat was the first to answer the question of air replenishment underwater. Air tubes with floats went to the surface to provide the craft with oxygen. Oars went through the hull at leather gaskets. Twelve oarsmen and some other passengers were on board. The trip at the Thames River took three hours.

Drebbel cartoon
Drebbel in the Dutch cartoon 'Gilles de Geus'

Biography

Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel was born in Alkmaar (Netherlands) in 1572, the son of a well-to-do farmer. He probably received only an elementary education, which would have included Latin. He had no university education. As a young man he was apprenticed to the famous engraver Hendrick Goltzius in Haarlem. Goltzius incidentally practiced alchemy and undoubtedly introduced Drebbel to the art. Drebbel had little interest in the quest for the Elixir of Life or the Philosopher's Stone, and instead learned chemical ideas and processes. Drebbel married Sophia Jansdochter, one of Goltzius' younger sisters in 1595. One of the reasons for his lack of success is said to have been his wife.

In 1595 he settled at Alkmaar, where he devoted himself to engraving and publishing maps and pictures. He soon turned to mechanical invention, for in 1598 he was a granted a patent for a pump and a clock with perpetual motion. In 1602 he was granted a patent for a chimney. He also made instruments and designed a water-supply system for the town of Alkmaar.

In 1604, King James I received Drebbel at his court in England. Drebbel obtained the attention of the English court through the amazing perpetual motion machine. It actually 'worked' through shiftsCornelis Drebbel after Hendrick Goltzius. The Seven Free Arts: Astronomy. in air temperature and pressure. The King stationed him at the Castle at Eltham, where he entered the special service of Henry, the Prince of Wales, as a mechanic especially associated with displays of fireworks. Payments to him of £ 20 in both 1609 and 1610 are recorded. Many times Drebbel shuttled across the English Channel back to the Netherlands. Nevertheless Drebbel never quite made it; he remained at the level, not of a Galileo who produced spectacles of a different order, but of court entertainers among whom Drebbel walked at the King's funeral.

In 1610 Drebbel visited the court of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, at the Emperor's invitation. Rudolf gave him the title of Chief Alchemist after seeing his remarkable perpetual motion machine; Drebbel really only claimed that it could rewind constantly by atmospheric pressure changes. It had a sealed glass tub where liquid contracted and expanded to enable the clock to constantly rewind.

He lingered a decade and instructed the son of Archduke Ferdinand of Bohemia who would later become Holy Roman Emperor. At the beginning of the Thirty Years' War, Ferdinand V's forces imprisoned Drebbel and took all his possessions, for he was affluent at this time. Rudolf's brother Matthias ousted Rudolf from his authority and conquered Prague. Through the intervention of Prince Henry, Drebbel was set free to return to England in 1613.

During the next several years he lived mostly in London. About 1620 he began to devote himself to the manufacture of microscopes and to the construction of a submarine (one of his most famous projects). For the next several years he was employed by the British Navy,Cornelis Drebbel after Hendrick Goltzius. The Seven Free Arts: Geometry. partly in connection with the submarine, but mostly to make explosive devices with which to attack other ships, at a fairly high salary. During 1626 to 1628, he advised the military on how to relieve the French Huguenots under siege at La Rochelle. In 1627, they put him in charge of fireships at La Rochelle. Buckingham was his source of employment and his career plummeted after someone assassinated Buckingham after La Rochelle failed . His weapons were criticized when he failed.
He was involved in a drainage project in East Anglia. The extent of his involvement and the extent of his technical expertise is under debate. From 1629 until his death in 1633 he was extremely poor and earned his living by keeping an alehouse.

Technological Involvement

He was not a scientist in the strict sense but an inventor or practicing technologist. He left very few writings of his own, and none of them is concerned with his invention. His most famous work was Ein kurzer Tractac von der Natur der Elemetum (Leiden, 1608), an alchemical tract on the transmutation of the elements. Engineering seems the best category for his general activity.

Among his best-known inventions are:Artist impression of Drebbel's submarine (Image: www.rnsubmus.co.uk).

Submarine: Drebbel's most phenomenal work was definitely the submarine. In 1620, he made the first "rudimentary" submarine. Drebbel constructed his vessel while working for the British Navy. They never used it, but tested it many times. He had a wooden row boat; it had a wooden hull wrapped tightly in waterproofed leather. His row boat was the first to answer the question of air replenishment underwater. Air tubes with floats went to the surface to provide the craft with oxygen. Oars went through the hull at leather gaskets. Twelve oarsmen and some other passengers were on board. The trip at the Thames River took three hours.

"Perpetual mobile": The elaborate toy operated on the basis of changes in atmospheric temperature and pressure. He extended the basic idea to the operation of clocks.

Thermostats and thermoscope: He applied the principles used in the perpetual mobile to thermostatic regulators that controlled ovens, furnaces, and incubators. As the temperature rose, air expanded, forcing quicksilver toCornelis Drebbel after Hendrick Goltzius. The Seven Free Arts: Grammar. close a damper. When it cooled, the damper opened. The incubator he made hatched both duck and chicken eggs

Optics: He invented the microscope with two sets of convex lenses. He made compound microscopes as early as 1619. He also made telescopes, and he developed a machine for grinding lenses. He constructed a camera obscura with a lens in the aperture, and he had some sort of magic lantern that projected images.

Dyeing: Drebbel made a new tin mordant process for dyeing the colour scarlet with cochineal. Treated mild red dye, cochineal, mixed with tin or pewter dissolved in nitric acid made this new colour. This process happened by accident when tin mixed with aqua regia fell into cochineal Drebbel had prepared for a thermometer. He then grasped how significant this was and told his son-in-law, Abraham Kuffler. Abraham had a dyehouse and made "colour Kufflerianus" as the new scarlet was called.

Chemical Technology: Drebbel did two more chemical processes. He oxidized sulphur for sulphuric acid, through heating sulphur and potassium nitrate (saltpetre). He made it more efficiently than any other way at that time. It became the basis for John Roebuck's work for production in the lead chamber. He also found a way to make oxygen from heating saltpetre, which is now one of the standard way to produce it.

The Drebbel Lunar CraterLunar crater

This picture shows the lunar crater that is named after Cornelis Drebbel. In this figure 1 pixel corresponds to 1 km. (The size of the picture is 256 x 256 pixels.) The diameter of the crater is about 30 kilometres.
The coordinates at which the crater can be found are 40.9S latitude, 49.0W longitude.

 

By Brett McLaughlin

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

 

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