Cornelis Drebbel Biography

(Inventor of world’s first navigable submarine)

Born: 1572

Born In: Alkmaar

Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel was a Dutch builder best remembered as the inventor of the world’s first navigable submarine. He worked initially as a painter, engraver and cartographer before developing a keen interest in mechanics, alchemy and designing optical instruments. Born to a burgher in Netherlands, he studied at the Academy of Harleem after receiving his primary education from a local Latin school and became a student of the famous engraver, Hendrick Goltzius. Although initially apprenticed to an engraver, he soon developed an interest in alchemy and mechanical inventions. Subsequently, he was granted a patent for a ‘perpetual motion machine’ actuated by changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature, an invention which established his reputation in scientific and aristocratic circles in Europe. Later, he journeyed to England upon the invitation of King James I who encouraged him to continue his scientific works. Among the numerous inventions attributed to his name are: construction of the first compound microscope using two sets of convex lenses, a variety of optical instruments, an improved thermometer, a scarlet dye, and self-regulating ovens. But undoubtedly, his most famous and magnificent invention was the first ever navigational submarine which he designed and built while working for the English Royal Navy. A great innovator and a brilliant empiric researcher, Cornelis Drebbel was a spirited man who contributed towards the advancement of mechanics, pneumatics, optics, chemistry, hydraulics and pyrotechnics
Quick Facts

Also Known As: Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel

Died At Age: 61


Spouse/Ex-: Sofia Goltzius, Sophia Jansdochter Goltzius

Dutch Men Dutch Inventors & Discoverers

Died on: November 8, 1633

place of death: London

discoveries/inventions: Submarine, Perpetual Motion, Incubator, Scarlet Dye

Childhood & Early Life
Cornelis Drebbel was born in 1572 in Alkmaar, Netherlands, to Jacob Janszoon Drebbel, a burgher of Alkmaar who was a landowner or farmer.
After receiving an elementary education, he studied at the Latin school in Alkmaar and later attended the Academy in Haarlem, located in North-Holland. There, he became an apprentice to the famous engraver, Hendrick Goltzius.
Gradually, he became a skilled engraver, which is evident through a number of extant engravings which he created. In addition to it, he also developed an interest in alchemy from Hendrick and gained knowledge about it.
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After his marriage in 1595, he devoted himself to engraving and publishing maps and pictures. Soon, he developed a fascination towards mechanical inventions and in 1598 obtained a patent for a water-supply system and a sort of perpetual clockwork.
In 1601, he built a fountain for the city of Middelburg, in the province of Zeeland. The following year, he was granted a patent for a chimney which he had designed.
After getting acquainted with Hans Lippershey, a spectacle maker and constructor of telescopes, and his colleague Zacharias Jansen, he became interested in optics. Subsequently, he learned about lens grinding and optics.
Some of his mechanical inventions appealed to King James I of England, and soon the Drebbel family moved to England at the invitation of the king where he was taken into the special service of Henry, Prince of Wales. There, he astonished the court with his creations such as a perpetuum mobile, automatic and hydraulic organs, and optical instruments.
In 1610, upon the invitation of Emperor Rudolf II, Drebbel and his family moved to Prague where he once again demonstrated his inventions.
After Matthias, Rudolf’s brother, had conquered Prague and deposed Rudolf, Drebbel faced imprisonment for some time. Later, through the intervention of Prince Henry, he was released and was given permission to return to England in 1613.
For the next several years, Drebbel devoted himself to the manufacturing of microscopes and to the construction of a submarine. He manufactured optical instruments and compound microscopes with two convex lenses which became quite famous in scientific research works.
In 1620, while working for the English Royal Navy, he built the first navigable submarine. Over the next four years, he successfully built and tested two more submarines, each one bigger than its predecessor.
He lived his later years in near-poverty and earned his living by running an alehouse. He left very few writings and his most famous work was ‘Ein kurzer Tractat von der Natur der Elementum’ (1608), an alchemical tract on the transmutation of the elements.

Major Works
During the early 1620s, Drebbel designed and built his most famous invention, the navigational submarine. Propelled by oars and sealed against the water by a covering of greased leather, the wooden vessel travelled the River Thames at a depth of 12 to 15 feet from Westminster to Greenwich.
Drebbel invented the first thermostat, which used a column of mercury and a system of floats and levers to maintain a steady temperature within a furnace. He also discovered the first permanent scarlet fabric dye, and developed a process for manufacturing sulfuric acid from sulfur and saltpeter.
Awards & Achievements
‘Drebbel’, a small lunar crater has been named in his honor.
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1595, Cornelis Drebbel married Sophia Jansdochter Goltzius, younger sister of Hendrick Goltzius. The couple had several children of which four survived.
Throughout his life, he faced financial trouble and remained in constant need of money due to the dissolute lifestyle of his wife. He died on November 7, 1633, in London while living in near-poverty conditions.

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