Tuesday, November 6, 2007

You've Heard of the Nautilus, How About the Drebbel?

Cornelius Drebbel died on this date, November 7th, in 1633. Who was Cornelius Drebbel? Born in 1572, Drebbel was a prolific Dutch inventor who spent many years in the the court of King James I of England. Drebbel earned the patronage of King James for his invention of a "Perpetual Mobile" which ran without ever needing winding. Drebbel himself explained that the mobile derived its power from a mechanism that depended on differences in atmospheric pressure. Nonetheless, the curious device attracted a lot of attention and even brought him later patronage from the court of Rudolph in Prague.

Drebbel (unlike Ritty who I wrote about a couple of days ago) seems to have been a prolific inventor. He is credited not only with his perpetual mobile but the compound microscope, the thermostat, new dyes, a new thermometer, and the first successful example of a submarine.

Drebbel was not the first to describe a submerged vehicle but he seems to be the first to have actually built one that worked. The largest of his three prototypes actually made a submerged trip down the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich and back. The vessel could carry 16 men. It was basically a modified row boat with the sides of the boat extended upward over the heads of the rowers to form a watertight compartment. The boat's buoyancy was controlled by pig bladders under the rower's seats. The bladders were filled with water to submerge. The water was expelled by hand pressure to re-surface.

While King James seemed to be impressed with the submarine, the admirals of the Royal Navy were not and Drebbel's idea went nowhere. Submarine ideas kept re-surfacing (bad pun, I know) over the next several hundred years with plans from multiple inventors including Robert Fulton of steamboat fame.

Like most inventors, Drebbel never prospered financially from his many inventions and he died a near pauper in 1633. But the idea of a submarine had been demonstrated and it would long outlive him. So you may have heard of the Nautilus (either Jules Verne's version, Fulton's design, or the more recent nuclear powered sub) but Drebbel was where it all began.

(Image from Wikipedia)

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