Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Drebbel, Cornelis

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DREBBEL, CORNELIS (1572–1634), philosopher and scientific inventor, born in 1572 at Alkmaar in Holland, was the son of Jacob Drebbel, of a family of good position. He shared a house at one time with Hubert Goltzius, whose sister he married. In early life he executed some etchings, including a set of the ‘Seven Liberal Arts’ after Hendrik Goltzius, the ‘Judgment of Solomon’ after Karel van Mander, &c., and a bird's-eye view of Alkmaar, the original plate of which was preserved in the town hall there, permission being given in 1747 to Gysbert Boomkamp to publish it in his ‘Alkmaer en derzelfs Geschiedenissen.’ Drebbel, however, devoted most of his time to philosophy, i.e. science and mathematics, and soon gained great repute. About 1604 he came to England, perhaps accompanying his friend Constantyn Huygens, or at the instance of Sir William Boreel. He was favourably received by James I, who took a great interest in his experiments, and gave him an annuity and, apparently, lodgings in Eltham Palace. Drebbel here perfected an ingenious machine for producing perpetual motion, which he presented to the king, and which became one of the wonderful sights of the day. It is alluded to by Ben Jonson in one of his Epigrams,and in his comedy of ‘The Silent Woman’ (act v. scene 3), and also by Peacham in his ‘Sights and Exhibitions in England’ (prefixed to Coryat's ‘Crudities,’ 1611). Drebbel's machine is described and figured by Thomas Tymme in ‘A Dialogue Philosophicall, wherein Nature's secret closet is opened, &c., together with the wittie invention of an artificial perpetuall motion, presented to the King's most excellent Maiestie,’ 1612. On 1 May 1610 the Duke of Würtemberg, then on a tour in England, went to Eltham to see the machine, and his secretary describes Drebbel as ‘a very fair and handsome man, and of very gentle manners, altogether different from such like characters.’ Drebbel's fame reached the ears of the emperor of Germany, Rudolph II, himself an ardent student of science and philosophy, who entreated James I to allow Drebbel to come to his court at Prague to exhibit his inventions. After the emperor's death, in 1612, Drebbel seems to have again returned to England; but he revisited Prague, having been appointed tutor to the son of the emperor Ferdinand II. He had just settled down in great prosperity when Prague was captured by the elector palatine, Frederick V, in 1620, and Drebbel not only lost all his possessions, but was thrown into prison, from which he was only released at the personal intercession of the king of England. He then returned to England, and in 1625 attended James's funeral. In 1626 he was employed by the office of ordnance to construct water engines. He was also sent out by the Duke of Buckingham in the expedition to La Rochelle, being in charge of several fireships, at a salary of 150l. per month. He was one of a company formed to drain the fens and levels of eastern England. He died in London in 1634. Drebbel, who has been styled by some critics as a mere alchemist and charlatan, was highly thought of by such scientific authorities as Peiresc, Boyle, and others. Besides the machine for perpetual motion, he has been credited with the invention of the microscope, telescope, and thermometer, but he was more probably the first to introduce these important discoveries into England. He also invented a submarine boat, which was navigable, without the use of artificial light, from Westminster to Greenwich, and machines for producing rain, lightning, thunder, or extreme cold at any time. The last-named experiment he is reported to have performed on a summer's day in Westminster Hall before the king, with the result of driving all his audience hastily from the building. He is further credited with the invention of an extraordinary pump, an ‘incubator’ for hatching fowls, an instrument for showing pictures or portraits of people not present at the time—possibly a magic lantern—and other ingenious arrangements for light or reflection of light. He is also stated to have discovered the art of dyeing scarlet, which he communicated to his son-in-law, Dr. Kufler, from whom it was called ‘Color Kuflerianus.’ Pepys (Diary, 14 March 1662) mentions that Kufler and Drebbel's son Jacob tried to induce the admiralty to adopt an invention by Drebbel for sinking an enemy's ship. This they alleged had been tried with success in Cromwell's time. It seems to have been an explosive acting directly in a downward direction. Drebbel wrote, in Dutch, a treatise on the ‘Nature of the Elements’ (Leyden, 1608, German translation; Haerlem, 1621, Dutch; Frankfort, 1628, Latin translation). This work and a tract on the ‘Fifth Essence,’ together with a letter to James I on ‘Perpetual Motion,’ were issued in Latin at Hamburg, 1621, and Lyons, 1628. His portrait was engraved on wood by C. von Sichem, and on copper by P. Velyn, and is to be found in some editions of his works.

[W. B. Rye's England as seen by Foreigners temp. Eliz. and James; Biographie Universelle; the Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography; Karel van Mander's Vies des Peintres (ed. Hymans), ii. 270; Immerzeel (and Kramm), Levens en Werken der Hollandsche en Vlaamsche Kunstschilders, &c.]

L. C.