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Drebbel, Cornelius

1. Dates
Born: Alkmaar, 1572
Died: London, 1633
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 61
2. Father
Occupation: Peasant/Small Farmer
His father, a burgher of Alkmaar, was apprently a well-to-do farmer.
I'll list him as prosperous.
3. Nationality
Birth: Dutch
Career: English, Dutch, Czechoslovakian
Death: English
4. Education
Schooling: No University
He probably only had elementary education, which would have included Latin. He had not university education. As a young man he was apprenticed to the famous engraver Hendrik Goltzius (who incidentally practice alchemy and undoubtedly intoduced Drebbel to the Art).
5. Religion
Affiliation: Anabaptist
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Instrumentation, Alchemy
Subordinate: Engineering
In the strict sense he was not a scientist 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.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Engineering, Patronage, Government
Secondary: Art, Instruments
In 1595 he settled at Alkmaar, where he devoted himself to engaving and publishing maps and pictures. He soon turned to mechanical invention, for in 1598 he was a granted a parent for a pump and a clock with perpetual motion. In 1602 he was granted a patent for a chimney. He was also an instrument maker.
About 1605 he went to London, and soon entered the special service of Henry, the Prince of Wales, in the castle at Eltham as a mechanic especially associated with displays of fireworks. He won attention with a perpetual motion device and with other spectacular devices that seized attention. Payments to him of L20 in both 1609 and 1610 are recorded. Nevertheless Jaeger makes a compelling case that Drebbel never quite made it; he remained at the level, not of a Galileo (who produced spectacles of a different order), but or court entertainers (among whom Drebbel walked at the King's funeral).
Largely on the basis of the perpetual motion device, and perhaps his known involvement in alchemy, he was invited to visit Emperor Rudolf II in 1610. Jaeger argues again that he never made it big in Prague. After the death of Rudolph he returned 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 (there is controversy here also as to his role in the development of the microscope), and to the construction of a submarine (one of his most famous projects, about which there is pronouced disagreement). For the next several years he was employed by the British navy, partly in connection with the submarine, but mostly to make explosive devices with which to attack other ships, at a fairly high salary.
He was involved in a drainage project in East Anglia. Again the extent of his involvement and the extent of his technical expertise is under debate.
From 1629 until his death he was extremely poor and earned his living by keeping an alehouse.
8. Patronage
Types: Court Official, Aristrocrat
He was taken into the special service of Henry, the Prince of Wales, and was installed in the castle at Eltham, where he was visited by Emperor Rudolf II (although this is asserted, it seems extremely doubious) and by the Duke of Wurttenberg.
He dedicated his book on the Nature of the Elements to James I.
He was invited to visit Rudolf in 1610. When Rudolf was deposed by his brother, Drebbel was imprisoned. Through the intervention of Prince Henry, he was set free to return to England in 1613. (Again there is disagreement about the particulars.)
Drebbel clearly attracted attention by appearing to work wonders. His case then is instructive as to what patronage was about. Jaeger's argument that he never rose above the level of court entertainers must enter into consideration here.
Buckingham appears to have been the source of Drebbel's employment by the British navy in the late 20's. When the expedition to LaRochelle was a dismal failure and when Buckingham was assassinated, Drebbel went down the tubes.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Chemistry, Hydraulics, Mechanical Devices
Drebbel is hard to categorize, both as to discipline and in regard to this category. He devoted his whole life to practical devices of various sorts; what is hard to determine is the role of science in any of it.
Among his best-known inventions are:
"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 (though I have not succeeded in understanding this).
Thermostats and a thermoscope. He applied the principles used in the perpetual mobile to a temperature regulator for ovens and furnaces. He also applied the same idea to an incubator for hatching duck and chicken eggs.
Optics. He invented (or is said to have 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.
The submarine. He built a submarine that could carry a number of people in 1620s. There is much discussion about this; apparently it was a set of diving bells, and was thus open at the bottom.
Chemical technology. His most important contribution was his discovery of a tin mordant for dyeing scarlet with cochineal. Jaeger argues that in fact Drebbel had no role in this; here I am not sure that I find his case convincing.
Drebbel was involved in a project to drain the fens. Earlier he had taken a patent on a pump, and he had constructed fountains.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
  1. Gerrit Tierie, Cornelius Drebbel (1572-1633), (Amsterdam, 1932).
  2. L.E.Harris, The Two Netherlanders, (Cambridge, 1961). T40 .B8H3 F.M. Jaeger, Cornelis Drebbel en zijne tijdgenooten, (Groningen, 1922). This is the fundamental book on Drebbel. It throws one big bucket of cold water over the legend.
  3. G.C. Gerrits, Grote nederlanders bij de opbouw der natuurwetenschappen, (Leiden, 1948).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

1995 Al Van Helden
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