Drebbel, Cornelis Jacobszoon (1572-1633)

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Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel: noted artist, scientist, engineer and inventor; born in Alkmaar, North Holland, Netherlands, in 1572 and died in London on 7 November 1633. Alkmaar at this time held a large community of Mennonites many of whom distinguished themselves in engineering and science particularly in optics, hydraulics and navigation. Cornelis Drebbel was among this number. His father was Jacob Janszoon Drebbel. In 1595 Cornelis Drebbel married Feijtge Jansdochter (Sophia) Goltzius the younger sister of the artist Hendrick Goltzius. They had four children that reached maturity: son Jan, then daughters Anna and Catherine and then son Jacob. In keeping with Mennonite practice on his death each child received an equal portion of his estate. 

Drebbel did not leave a journal or personal account of his life and works but he filed for a number of patents and published several essays and books, while others wrote of his accomplishments. In 1604 in Haarlem he published: Een kort Tractaet van de Natuere der Elementen (A short treatise of the nature of the elements) which was a best seller, translated into several other languages and reprinted for over 100 years. In the book Drebbel gave a sketch of the nature of the four elements: fire, air water and earth. He then pointed out the enormous expansion of air and water when it is heated and connected these with wind and steam. A careful understanding and use of phenomena like these enabled Drebbel to build many of his devices. Drebbel was in life modest. His writings included brief comments on the rejection of war, violence, and church dogmatics and also rejection of the teachings of Aristotle.

Early in his life Drebbel apprenticed to the engraver Hendrick Goltzius after which he made his living at this trade. However, in 1598 Drebbel was granted two patents. One was for a hydraulic pump and fountain, and the other for a clock whose mechanism was powered by changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature. “Perpetuum Mobile” was one of his most intriguing inventions. It was not a true perpetual motion machine for it had a small opening to the atmosphere and required small quantities of water to be added occasionally. To 17th century observers who knew little of atmospheric forces the device was mysterious and attracted important patrons. In those years Drebbel also mastered the technology of glass blowing and lens grinding, which enabled him to make the tubes for his “Perpetuum Mobile” and for the telescopes he made that gained fame. In autumn 1604 Drebbel’s abilities were recognized and he was invited to England, to the court of James I, and housed in Eltham Palace. In 1610 he was invited to the court of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II but in January 1612 Rudolph died and Drebbel was imprisoned. A year later he was rescued and returned to England but without a patron.

In 1620 Drebbel demonstrated his most famous invention to King James I of England--that of the first functioning submarine. Though no details from Drebbel survive, from observer’s accounts it appears the submarine design was based on a rowing boat with a tightly fitting arched roof, covered with water proof leather, a watertight hatch in the middle, a rudder and a number of oars. Under the rowers' seats were large pigskin bladders, connected by pipes to the outside that could be filled with water to dive and emptied to rise. The emptying water would have been either pumped out or a well for open water constructed at the very bottom of the submarine. Drebbel’s submarine could remain submerged for three hours at a depth of 15 feet. How Drebbel maintained an air supply remains a mystery, but some have suggested that he knew how to produce oxygen by heating potassium or sodium nitrate and use the resulting oxide or hydroxide to absorb carbon dioxide. If this was the case then he also invented a crude rebreather.


Drebbel’s fertile mind and technical skills enabled him to gain fame and patronage by designing and building novel devices that entertained and amused the wealthy. These included an automata like harpsichord that played by solar energy, as well as a type of magic lantern and a camera obscura. He designed and constructed practical devices such as optical instruments including compound microscopes and telescopes. For farmers he invented a chicken incubator and a mercury thermostat that automatically kept it at a constant temperature. This was one of the first recorded feedback-controlled devices. He also developed and demonstrated a working air conditioning system. The invention of a working thermometer was also ascribed to Drebbel as was his invention of a bright scarlet dye used in the thermometer that enabled his daughters Anna and Catharina and his sons-in-law Abraham and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler to set up a successful dye works. In later years he designed fountains for English palaces, and became Chief Engineer at the court of England where he worked at novel navel ordnances.

Though not a famous as his contemporaries, Johannes Kepler or Galileo Galilie, Drebbel gained renown in the later quarter of the 20th century’s for his accomplishments and became popularly celebrated. A significant lunar crater was named after Drebbel and he and his submarine were in the 1974 movie The Four Musketeers. Netherlands in 2010 issued a postage stamp honoring him, and several works of popular fiction incorporated his character and name.


"Cornelius Drebbel, Inventor of the Submarine. www.dutchsubmarines.com. Web. 13 April 2015. http://www.dutchsubmarines.com/specials/special_drebbel.htm.

"The First Submarine Rebuild." www.dutchsubmarines.com. Web. 13 April 2015. http://www.dutchsubmarines.com/specials/special_first_submarine.htm.

Harris, Lawrence Ernest. The Two Netherlanders, Humphrey Bradley and Cornelis Drebbel. Cambridge, England, W. Heffer & Sons Ltd., 1961, 227pp.

Jaeger, Frans Maurits. Cornelis Drebbel en zijne tijdgenooten. Groningen : P. Noordhoff, 1922.

Naber, Henri Adrien. De ster van 1572. Amsterdam: Maatschappij voor Goede en Goedkoope Lectuur, 1907.

Additional Information


Cornelis Drebbel website

Original Article from Mennonite Encyclopedia

Copied by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1077. All rights reserved.

Cornelis Jacobsz Drebbel, born in Alkmaar, 1572 and died in London, 7 November 1633, was a noted artist, scientist, engineer, and inventor, among whose inventions was a submarine.  Drebbel was a Dutch Mennonite. -- Nanne van der Zijpp

Author(s) Victor Wiebe
Date Published September 2012

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Wiebe, Victor. "Drebbel, Cornelis Jacobszoon (1572-1633)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. September 2012. Web. 26 Sep 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Drebbel,_Cornelis_Jacobszoon_(1572-1633)&oldid=143145.

APA style

Wiebe, Victor. (September 2012). Drebbel, Cornelis Jacobszoon (1572-1633). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 26 September 2020, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Drebbel,_Cornelis_Jacobszoon_(1572-1633)&oldid=143145.

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