Cornelis Drebbel, secretive submarine pioneer

Cornelis Drebbel is generally seen as the father of all submarines. He laid down the groundwork for submarine basics, the general concepts of which are still in use today.

Cornelis Drebbel was born in 1572 in the town of Alkmaar, in the north-west of what is today known as The Netherlands. Drebbel was born in the midst of the 80 Years War, the long and arduous Dutch war for independence from their Spanish masters.

Drebbel was a jack of many trades. He started out as an engraver, but he had many interests, mainly expanding into the field of physics and alchemy. He wrote a book titled ‘On the Nature of the Elements’, which was widely distributed in Europe, and built an impressive fountain in the town of Middelburg. He started designing and inventing all kinds of things, including the Perpetuum Mobile, which he realized in the shape of a clock that didn’t need to be winded and used atmospheric pressure for motion.

All this, and a number of other discoveries and designs – and a decent bit of networking – gathered the attention of the English king James the First, who invited him and his family to come live in Eltham Palace in London. James gave Drebbel an annual stipend and he could use the rooms in the palace to showcase his inventions and designs.

Drebbel and his family moved into the lavish royal quarters and were considered members of the court. While there, Drebbel amused the king with all kinds of fun inventions, such as a magic lantern and other works in which he bent light to his will. He also built a globe that showed the seasons, astrological phenomena, moon phases and ocean tides, apparently again utilizing atmospheric pressure.

But there was a falling-out of sorts with the English court. It seemed that Drebbel had also designed a hole in his hand, because the Drebbel family spent money like rain falls on an English lawn.

In 1610, Drebbel managed to convince Emperor Rudolf, the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague, to take him into his court. Drebbel pleased him with new inventions, including a kind of pump that could drain mine shafts of water.

Unfortunately, a year after moving to Prague, Emperor Rudolf died. Drebbel was then embroiled in the 30 Years War that ravaged the continent, upon which king James took pity on him and hauled Drebbel and his family back to England. There, Drebbel went on inventing and designing all kinds of peculiar things for James, including a microscope that was ahead of its time.

Apparently, Drebbel also engineered a kind of air conditioning system which he called a ‘cooling machine’, probably using chemicals, that could severely lower the temperature in small rooms during warm summers.

Drebbel’s many secrets
Drebbel was notoriously secretive. Possibly afraid that others might copy his inventions, he hardly ever put any of them in writing and stuck to one-offs which he guarded ferociously. As a result, many of Drebbel’s inventions are mentioned in diaries and books authored by witnesses.

One such invention described by others is his submarine. Again, Drebbel left no paper designs, so everything the world got to know was what was written down by observers close to him.

We don’t know for sure how or when Drebbel got the idea to design a submarine. We know that he built three spherical submarines from 1621 to 1624, all of them made of wood and covered in greased leather and using oars for propulsion.

Ostensibly, the last one was the biggest of the lot and had a crew of 12 rowers. At first, Drebbel used a tube protruding from the water for air, but in the subsequent versions he is believed to have discovered a way of creating oxygen by means of a chemical process.

Explanations on how this worked vary – some sources quote saltpetre as the main ingredient. Others offered that he used hydrogen peroxide. Unfortunately, this process too was kept most secret by Drebbel. Much later it was discovered that heating saltpeter releases oxygen, but unfortunately such a process also releases quite poisonous gases.

However this worked – it seems to have worked. According to substantiated accounts, corroberated by various witnesses, Drebbel’s submarines were able to stay submerged for over three hours, with a maximum depth of 4,5 meters, or 15 feet. Drebbel even managed to get His Royal Higness on board for a submerged trip along the Thames river. The submarines had glass portholes, allowing people to look at the fish outside. Navigation was done by means of a compass.

As to how Drebbel managed buoyancy – well, that too is shrouded in mists thanks to his secrecy. Some reports state that he had bellows installed underneath the seats of his rowers. The bellows were ostenbsibly connected to the water through the hull by means of tubes. The bellows would be emptied of air by sitting on them, creating a vacuum that would be filled by water. Then, by sitting down again on the bellows, the water would be squeezed out of the bellows and somehow the tubes then closed off on the water end and filled with air from other tubes inside the submarine. Throughout the ages, though, engineers have tried to re-enact this, to no avail.

What survived is that Drebbel designed and constructed three submarines that were able to stay submerged for quite a length of time, and that even the English king went along for a ride – and survived. The English king being a clearly very important person meant that his antics in Drebbel’s submarine were widely recorded and distributed thanks to reports and writings filed by scientists working for the Royal Society of London. His renown forever established Drebbel as having constructed the world’s first working submarine.

Drebbel’s submarine on the surface (unknown painter)

Unfortunately for Drebbel, king James died a year after his submarine trip. A plan to further his submarine designs for the burgeoning Royal Navy was binned by James’ successor Charles the First, who ordered Drebbel to focus on designing new methods of attacking enemy ships. Drebbel constructed modern fireships and was party to a failed attempt to help French Huguenots in a mission at the French port city of La Rochelle, on the southwestern coast.

Drebbel slowly but surely fell out of grace at the court and money fell out with him, and so did his wife, who is said to have had a number of adulterous affairs which somehow also cost the Drebbels dearly financially. He bought a pub in England in 1629 and died in 1633 at the age of 61.

Alkmaar is pretty proud of their inventor; some years ago a copy of one of Drebbel’s wooden submarines was built and placed in the town’s center. You can still visit it today. For more information on Drebbel than could possibly be put here, do visit this website, made by a proud Alkmaarder.

Drebbel features prominently on the first podcast episode, ‘Submersibles: The First Submarines’, available on your favourite podcast app and also right here.


Your host, Kaj Leers. 1975, Amsterdam dweller, submarine aficionado.

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