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date: 08 December 2023

Drebbel, Cornelisfree


Drebbel, Cornelisfree

  • H. A. M. Snelders

Cornelis Drebbel (1572–1633)

by unknown engraver, pubd 1628

Drebbel, Cornelis (1572–1633), inventor and mechanical engineer, was born in Alkmaar in the Netherlands, the son of Jacob Janszoon Drebbel (d. 1591). His father, whose family name was originally Dremmel, was a well-to-do burgher of Alkmaar, a town in the province of North Holland, and in all probability a landowner or farmer. Nothing is known of Drebbel's mother. He was an Anabaptist, and attended the Latin school in his home town. About 1587 he went to Haarlem, where he was apprenticed to the well-known painter and engraver Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617). Here Drebbel was instructed in drawing and copperplate-engraving, and became an excellent etcher. He also assisted Goltzius, an expert in alchemy, in his experiments, and from him acquired an interest in and a knowledge of the subject.

In 1595 Drebbel married Sophia Jansdochter, Goltzius's younger sister, who was a little older than Drebbel. They settled at Alkmaar, where their first-born son was buried on 6 November 1596. The couple had at least six more children: two sons, Jan and Jacob, two daughters, Anna and Catharina, and twins, who died in 1602. The marriage seems to have been very unhappy, and Sophia's prodigal way of life led to Drebbel's constant lack of money and finally to bitter poverty. Drebbel worked as an engraver, painter, and cartographer, and also as an instrument maker and an engineer. That he was a competent pupil of Goltzius is shown by a number of extant engravings in his hand.

On 21 June 1598 the states general granted to Drebbel a patent for a water-supply system and for a perpetual clockwork (a self-winding and -regulating clockwork); on 16 February 1602 he obtained a patent for a chimney with a good draught. We know that about 1600–01 he built a fountain for the city of Middelburg. His patents indicate that Drebbel was primarily an inventor. Perpetual motion machines and ingenious devices played an important part throughout his life. In particular, his perpetuum mobile appeared to be pre-eminently suitable to spread his reputation elsewhere. His inventions were mainly based on the recently known works of the Alexandrian engineers Philo of Byzantium (fl. c.250 bc) and Hero of Alexandria (fl. ad 62), and of the Roman writer Vitruvius (d. c.25 bc). In these years he worked on the grinding of lenses and the construction of optical instruments (the magic lantern and camera obscura), so that when he later came to England he was a skilled optical worker.

At the end of 1604 or in early 1605 Drebbel moved to London, where he came into the service of James I and soon into the special service of the ten-year-old Henry, prince of Wales. He was installed at Eltham Palace and assisted in the technical preparations of the theatrical performances and innumerable entertainments at the Stuart court. Soon Drebbel drew attention with his perpetuum mobile, automatic and hydraulic organs, optical instruments, and the like. In December 1607 he demonstrated to James I his perpetuum mobile, a kind of air thermometer, which operated on fluctuations in atmospheric temperature and pressure. It made such a deep impression that Ben Jonson refers to it in his Silent Woman (1609), when he makes Morose say: 'My very house turns round with the tumult! I dwell in a Windmill! The Perpetual Motion is here, and not at Eltham' (act 5, scene 3).

Drebbel's fame as an inventor soon became well known outside Britain. In 1607 Emperor Rudolf II invited him to Prague, and Drebbel and his family moved to the city in October 1610. He demonstrated to Rudolf his perpetuum mobile, constructed pumps for mining, and devoted himself to alchemy. After Rudolf's brother Matthias conquered Prague in 1611, Drebbel was imprisoned; late in 1612 he was set free. At some time after February 1613 Drebbel returned to England, where he occupied himself with the manufacture of telescopes and compound microscopes, and with the construction of thermostats (temperature regulators for ovens and furnaces) and an incubator for hatching duck and chicken eggs.

Drebbel's compound microscopes with two convex lenses were known over western and southern Europe and bought by several eminent persons, among them Constantijn Huygens. At his house near London, Drebbel had a glass-grinding machine. In 1620 he was experimenting to prepare glass that would be a substitute for rock crystal. It is probable that in 1622 he taught Constantijn Huygens how to grind glass, and that Huygens passed his knowledge to his son Christiaan. Robert Hooke may have learnt glass-grinding from Drebbel's son-in-law Johannes Sibertus Kuffler, with whom he was acquainted.

About 1620 Drebbel constructed an oar-driven submarine, which was based on the principle of a diving bell: the bottom was open, and a rower sitting above the water level controlled the submarine. In this boat Drebbel travelled down the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich under the surface of the water, and in a short time the story of his submarine became grossly exaggerated. Drebbel did not invent the submarine, nor did he discover oxygen, which he obviously needed to stay in the boat under water. He refreshed the air in the boat by heating saltpetre in a retort, which—as was known—gave an ‘air’ in which one could breathe. Drebbel's two sons-in-law promoted his discoveries and inventions so strongly that today it is hardly possible to reconstruct exactly the true facts of the matter.

These sons-in-law, Abraham Kuffler (1598–1657) and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler (1595–1677), were sons of a Dutchman who had taken up residence in Cologne. About 1620 they came to England, where they became closely associated with Drebbel as his assistants. Abraham married Drebbel's eldest daughter, Anna, in 1623 and Johannes Sibertus the second daughter, Catharina, in 1627. The dyeworks operated by Drebbel, probably since 1607, in Stratford-le-Bow (4 miles from London) was not flourishing. About 1622 the brothers Kuffler became Drebbel's business partners, but only after their father-in-law's death did they succeed in bringing the factory to prosperity.

During this time (1622–33) Drebbel made his most important contribution in the field of chemical technology, namely his discovery of a tin mordant for dyeing scarlet with cochineal. It is said that he also introduced into England the manufacture of sulphuric acid by burning sulphur with saltpetre, and that he discovered the mercury and silver fulminates.

From 1626 until 1629 Drebbel was in the service of the Royal Navy, concerning himself mainly with the famous expedition to La Rochelle to assist the Huguenots being besieged by French troops. He manufactured explosives and fireships, and participated in the last English expedition of 1628. This ended in failure, and Drebbel was dismissed from the service. In 1630 we find him involved in planning an extensive drainage scheme, which was carried out under the direction of the Dutch engineer Sir Charles Vermuyden (c.1590–1677), who with Dutch colonists had been trying since 1627 to reclaim the marshlands north of London and round Cambridge and Huntingdon.

Drebbel left very few writings of his own, and none of them was concerned with his inventions. His perpetuum mobile was described in Thomas Tymme's Dialogue philosophicall, wherein natures secret closet is opened and the cause of all motion in nature shewed out of manner and forme: together with the wittie invention of an artificiall perpetual motion (1612). Drebbel's most famous work was Van de natuyre der elementen (1604), which was reprinted and translated many times and mainly dealt with the transmutation of the four elements fire, air, water, and earth. A second edition appeared in 1607 with a new title, Wondervondt van de eeuwighe beweging die den Alcmaarschen philosooph Cornelis Drebbel … te weghe gebracht heeft ('The wonderful discovery of perpetual motion which the philosopher of Alkmaar had contrived …'); the book was dedicated to James I, who—as noted above—witnessed Drebbel's demonstrations. His De quinta essentia tractatus (1621) described the alchemical process in vague and general terms.

The last years of Drebbel's life were far from easy. From 1629 until his death he was extremely poor and earned his living by keeping an alehouse beside the Thames below London Bridge. He died in the parish of Holy Trinity, in the Minories, London, where he was buried on 16 October 1633.


  • F. M. Jaeger, Cornelis Drebbel en zijne tijdgenooten (1922)
  • G. Tierie, Cornelis Drebbel (1572–1633) (Amsterdam, 1932)
  • L. E. Harris, The two Netherlanders: Humphrey Bradley and Cornelis Drebbel (1961)
  • H. A. M. Snelders, ‘Alkmaarse natuurwetenschappers uit de 16de en 17de eeuw’, Alkmaarse Historische Reeks, 4 (1980), 101–22
  • F. W. Gibbs, ‘The furnaces and thermometers of Cornelius Drebbel’, Annals of Science, 6 (1948–50), 32–43
  • R. L. Colie, ‘Cornelis Drebbel and Salomon de Caus: two Jacobean models for Salomon's house’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 18 (1954–5), 245–60
  • J. R. Partington, A history of chemistry, 2 (1961), 321–4
  • H. Michel, ‘Le mouvement perpetuel de Drebbel’, Physis, 13 (1971), 289–94
  • municipal archives, Alkmaar
  • Parish Register, Holy Trinity Minories, City of London
  • Private Information (2017) [J. Cox]


  • engraving, pubd 1628, NPG [see illus.]
  • C. von Swichem, wood-engraving, repro. in Jaeger, Cornelis Drebbel
  • P. Velyn, copper engraving, repro. in Jaeger, Cornelis Drebbel
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National Portrait Gallery, London