Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist



Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic,
and Alchemist
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
Although he served Rudolf II for only a short time,
from 1610 until the Emperor’s death two years later, no picture of the Rudolfine era would be complete without Cornelius Drebbel (1572—1633), an
extraordinarily versatile figure who long continued
to draw attention. One of his technical masterpieces remains an item of interest among scholars to this day. However fascinating the figure of
Drebbel was to 17th century minds, few sources
remained to tell us reliably and in sufficient detail
about this remarkable man. We know that Drebbel was a gifted mechanic, technician, artist, and
alchemist. Tierie1 and Keller,2 whose dissertations
are our main sources for the following text, have
summarized the basic information about his life.
Cornelius Jacobszoon Drebbel was born in
Alkmaar, the Netherlands, into the family of
a well-situated farmer. His father Jacob Jansz
Dremmel died in 1591, and his property was divided equally among his four children.3 Cornelius seems to have received no formal education;
according to contemporary accounts he learned
Latin only in his later years, but in his writings he
preferred to express himself in Dutch, as he does
in his most famous work. At a young age he took
an apprenticeship in Haarlem under renowned
engraver Hendrik Goltzius (1558—1617), a highly
learned man who was deeply interested in alchemy.4 This is probably where Drebbel took up al-
chemy as well. His repute as an alchemist never
compared to his fame as an inventor, mechanic,
and “mage”; however, alchemist Balthasar Van
Rensen, a surgeon in Enkhuizen, always spoke of
Drebbel as his alchemy master.5
In 1595 Drebbel married Goltzius’ sister Sophia and returned with her to Alkmaar, where
he made his living as an engraver of pictures and
maps. Of his engravings 22 survive, of which some
were made according to drawings by Goltzius,
Karl van Mander, and Antwerp artist Sebastian
Vrancx (Fig. 487). One of his most important
works is a copper-engraved map of Alkmaar from
1597; the original plate still survives at the local
museum. In 1598 Drebbel submitted his first patent, which will be discussed in detail later. Other
patents followed, and thanks to all these he became famous as a designer and inventor.
In 1605 he moved to England, probably
hoping to catch on at the court of King James
I (1566—1625), whose interest in various inventions and technical innovations was generally
well-known. In this respect Drebbel was correct; although he did not become the king’s direct employee, he did enter the service of Henry,
Prince of Wales (1594—1612). In England Drebbel produced one of his most famous designs, a
perpetuum mobile, or perpetual motion machine,
which we will also discuss in more detail below.
1 Tierie (1932).
2 Keller (2008).
3 Ibid., p. 51.
4 According to Tierie, Goltzius once almost lost an
eye when he put his face too close to a glass vessel,
which exploded. Tierie (1932), p. 3.
5 Van Rensen (1743). According to the book’s publisher M. D. N. Bidstrup, van Rensen wrote his Van de
Lapide Philosophorum in Alkmaar in 1634. Drebbel was
also in contact with Haarlem alchemist Daniel van
Vlierden, and signed his album amicorum in Alkmaar in
1604. See Keller (2008), pp. 52—53.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
When Duke Friedrich of Württemberg visited England in 1610 he encountered this remarkable apparatus, and after his return reported it to
Emperor Rudolf II, who invited the now-famous
inventor to his court. Drebbel obtained a passport for himself, his wife, and children on 3 October, and fifteen days later arrived in Prague.6
The circumstances of his arrival at Prague
Castle were described by Drebbel in 1613 in a letter to James I, to whom he writes, “Some years
ago, sublime and mighty King, I have journeyd to
Prague in order to make for your Majesty an apparatus according to that which your Majesty had seen,
while with the approval and promise of your Majesty
to the exalted prince Henry, of blessed memory, the
solemn promise being (myself taking this very much to
heart) that I should return within six months. But His
Imperial Majesty found much unusual pleasure in my
inventions, of which he had seen an example so that in
such a short time I could not detach myself from him
hut he retained me up to the time of his death. Meanwhile the Emperor’s death came to the ears of prince
Henry (whose memory can never be fully valued).
Therefore I urged him earnestly by letter to ensure that
I should return to him. In consequence I besought Emperor Matthias urgently that he would give me permission so that I could travel back to Great Britain but he
would not grant my request alleging that he had need
of my help in other things, and under no circumstances
would he let me leave his court, unless I obtained from
prince henry, of blessed memory, a warrant. Finally, I
received this, and gave this letter to his Imperial Majesty to read, and he, after reading it, gave me permission to return home, while he made me happy with a
favourable present of money for my journey.”7 French
scholar de Peiresic (1580—1634) wrote that Drebbel spent most of his time in Prague perfecting
his perpetual motion machine; he was also said
to be producing gold alloys for the mint.8
It was no doubt Rudolf’s friendly relations
with James I that made it possible to get Drebbel to come to Prague. In 1605 an Imperial delegation of some 100 persons visited the court in
London, and as a gift Rudolf sent James a heaven-
ly globe and clock; in return James I dedicated to
Rudolf his theological-polemic treatise Apologia
pro juramento fidelitatis.9
Drebbel’s later fortunes are not fully documented, and we find conflicting information.
According to the information provided to de
Peiresic by the brothers Kuffler,10 Drebbel was
imprisoned in Prague, supposedly prior to the
death of Rudolf II, while other sources say that
this all happened after Rudolf’s death. Drebbel’s house was said to have been ransacked, his
devices destroyed, he himself arrested and according to this source condemned to death. De
Peiresic maintains that the scholar was pardoned
upon the word of the Emperor; that is, Rudolf.
The more accepted version today is that he was
released by intervention of the English king.
Johann Rist also reports Drebbel’s arrest while
Rudolf was still alive, supposedly because “he was
unwilling to reveal all his secrets to His Imperial Majesty.” Here it is clear, however, that recollections of Drebbel are mixed up in the minds of
Rist’s informers with the figure of Edward Kelly,
who – as we know – was interrogated about his
experiments under torture.11 Different information is found in Zedler’s Lexikon,12 where there is
no mention that Drebbel stayed with Rudolf II;
but it does say that Emperor Ferdinand II made
him an “informator,” perhaps meaning teacher
to his son, and named him an advisor. Drebbel
served in this capacity until 1620, when supposedly “in the Bohemian unrest he was captured by
9 Apologia pro iuramento fidelitatis, primum quidem
anonymos: nunc vero ab ipso auctore, serenissimo ac
potentissimo principe, Iacobo, Dei gratia, magnae Britanniae,
Franciae & Hiberniae Rege, fidei defensore, denuo edita. Cui
praemissa est præfatio monitoria, sacratiss. Caesari Rodolpho
II. semper augusto, caeterisque Christiani orbis serenissimis
ac potentissimis monarchis ac regibus: illustrissimis
celsissimiisque liberis principibus, rebus publicis atq[ue]
ordinibus inscripta, eodem auctore, Londoni 1609. Viz
Grundin (1991), p. 184.
10 These were Drebbel’s sons-in-law. His older
daughter Anna married Abraham Kuffler in 1623; the
younger Catherina married Dr. Johannes Silbertus
Kuffler (Tierie [1932], p. 19).
11 See the chapter V. Karpenko and I. Purš “Edward
Kelly: A Star of the Rudolfine Era.”
12 Zedler (1739), VII, p. 731.
6 Tierie (1932), p. 5.
7 Harris (1962), pp. 145—146.
8 Tierie (1932), p. 6.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
as it was shown they were not linked in any way to
Rucký.” This information is backed up by a missive sent by Peter de Vischere, an agent of Archduke Albrecht to his patron in Holland on 21
January 1612, a day after Rudolf’s death. Another
archival document contains a report of Drebbel’s
arrest, along with an interesting description:
“Item ein Niderlender, so ein halber goldtmacher gewest, vnd sich vil vnderstanden.” [“Also one Dutchman,
who was half-way an alchemist and very insolent.”]14
It was probably not a direct order from Matthias, but the work of the Emperor’s high officials – the arrest warrant for Rucký was said to
have to be issued by secretary Johann Barvitius.15
When Matthias arrived in Prague in the company of Cardinal Klesl, a severe interrogation of
the prisoners was begun, focused on two sets of
questions: the recent negotiations between the
Emperor Rudolf and the Protestant Union, and
the extent of the Emperor’s treasures. Cardinal
Klesl was especially impatient, and tried to get
information out of Rucký by threatening him
with torture. Rucký took him at his word and
hanged himself the same day. We do not know
how the other detainees were treated, but since
they were not considered as important as the
self-dispatched high chamber servant was, we
can conclude they were not subjected to the
same degree of pressure.16
Matthias, however, may have been interested
in information of another kind: whether Rudolf
had tried to cast a spell on him with the help of
his servants; for such an affair at court had already occurred, although its true nature is unclear – the main figure was the Emperor’s alchemist Dr. Hauser.17
Drebbel left Prague in 1613 and returned to
England, as becomes clear from his above-cited
letter, in which for understandable reasons he
486. C. van Sichem, Portrait of Cornelius Drebbel, 1631.
Palatine troops along with many of the Emperor’s servants.” The soldiers robbed him, and killed some
of the other prisoners. Drebbel was released only
upon intervention by the English king.
As Tierie tells it, Drebbel should have left
Prague already in 1613. This author cites the
chronicler van der Woud, according to whom
Drebbel was back in Prague in 1619, but this
would have been already during the reign of
Friedrich V, Elector Palatine. In November of
that same year Drebbel was definitely in London, and he was there in 1620 as well. He undertook some trips to the Continent that year,
but, evidently, he never considered returning to
Prague. Of his work in the service of Ferdinand
II, Tierie makes no mention.
The greatest confusion in these reports concerns Drebbel’s arrest, but this is easily dispelled.
As the earliest Czech and German sources report, immediately after Rudolf’s death, when
future Emperor Matthias ordered the arrest of
the chamber servant Rucký and Hastell, antiquarians Fröschl and Hanuš Hayden, painter
Marquard, some Kühbach, and also “mechanic
Drebbel.”13 Rucký hanged himself in prison, while
“all the rest of those named were released after a time,
14 Viz, message from
21 January 1612, in: Wien, Österreichisches Staatsarchiv,
Haus-, Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Handschriftensammlung,
W 57 [Böhm 108] Band 3, fol. 43r (H 21r).
15 Gindely (1863–1868), II, p. 329.
16 Ibid., pp. 329—330.
17 See the chapter by I. Purš “Rudolf II’s Patronage of
Alchemy and the Natural Sciences.”
13 For example Pejml (1933), p. 50.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
fails to mention his imprisonment. Given his notvery-encouraging experience with the change in
the Imperial throne, it is unlikely he planned on
any further career in Bohemia, much less continued service at the Imperial court. Rudolf II
remained his debtor, as with so many others,18
and this debt may have been pursued at the Bohemian Chamber during the following years;
though probably not in person.19 It is not out of
the question that Drebbel visited Bohemia even
under the dramatically changed circumstances
after the uprising of the Bohemian Estates and
the death of Matthias in 1619, but the suggestion
that he had a part in raising the son of Matthias’s fiercely Catholic successor Ferdinand II is
entirely implausible.
In England Drebbel worked on his most
renowned technical feat, the construction of a
submarine, which we will examine in detail below. At the same time he was also working on
optical instruments. Later, from around 1625,
he served the English navy constructing various weaponry, particularly during the English
army’s campaign against the French fortifications at La Rochelle. After the campaign failed,
Drebbel was released from the navy’s service.
According to a contemporary record, “he was
very poore, and in his later time kept an Ale-house
below the [London] bridge. He had an invention of
going under water which he used so advantageously,
that many persons were perswaded that he was some
strange Monstar, and that means drew many to see
him and drink of his ale.”20
487. Cornelius Drebbel, Personification of touch, a part
of the cycle of the Five Senses, after Hendrick Goltzius.
empiric and inventor than he was philosopher and
writer, and his fame, real or legendary, as a wonderworker, rested more upon the testimony of others as to
feats which he was supposed actually to have performed
than upon those which he asserted in his writings that
he could perform.”21 We approach the rather sparse
literary work of this Dutch mechanic with this
in mind. His most famous treatise is Ein kurzer
Tractat von der Natur der Elementen22 from 1608,23
which was translated into a number of languages,
and went through twenty printings by the end of
the 18th century. In 1621 Drebbel’s De quinta essentia tractatus was published, and that same year
in a Latin version these two works along with his
Theoretical foundations
It is difficult to precisely trace Drebbel’s activities, because as Thorndyke says, “was more of an
18 He was allegedly owed the large sum of almost
2,500 thalers for instruments and travel expenses. See
the chapter by W. Soukup “Transforming the Whole
Corpus Solis into Liquor Irreducibilis. Laboratory Alchemy
at the Court of Emperor Rudolf II”.
19 The Prague municipal archive contains an entry
from December 31, 1615 in which the Bohemian
Chamber is asked to check whether all of Drebbel’s
claims have been paid. A similar request is recorded on
September 18, 1617. See Tierie (1932), p. 9.
20 Tierie (1932), p. 12.
21 Thorndyke (1958), VII, p. 493.
22 Subtitled “durch C. D. in Nederlandisch gechrieben
unnd […] ins Hochteutsch getreulich übergesetzt”.
23 Thorndyke (1958), VII, p. 492.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
and worked strictly from his own experience.
In his writings he did not cite older authors, as
was the custom, because he had not read them;
he presented to his readers only what he himself discovered or invented. From time to time
he came up with plans that, while illustrating
his passion for contraptions, often exceeded the
bounds of the rational. One such plan was his
idea to build an artificial sun, based on his hypothesis that the Sun consists of seven spheres
whose collisions produce heat. He was not alone
in such speculations; King James of England had
a plan to cool India, while Prince Charles seems
to have considered the idea of artificially heating London.26 Naturally, none of this was ever
accomplished. As his biography says, Drebbel
never attended university, and was in opposition
to the academic community. He refused even to
send his children to school.27
As for the theory behind his work, Drebbel
mainly combined alchemy, the study of gases,
and the chemical nature of fire. The last of
these interests led to his research on fulminating
gold,28 as well as on various types of “chemical
cold.” We will talk about chemical cooling below in relation to saltpeter, or potassium nitrate.
Drebbel’s theory of the elements differs from
Aristotelian ideas; Kircher calls it the “magnetic” theory,29 identifying it as a variation on the
idea of “magnetism” which was popular at the
time.30 As Drebbel wrote, his elements were not
the four types of simple bodies: they were not
488. Cornelius Drebbel, Tractatus duo: prior De natura
elementorum […] posterior De quinta essentia […] Accedit Ejusdem Epistola ad sapientissimum Britaniae
Monarcham Iacobum, De perpetui mobilis invetione,
Hamburgi 1621,
letter to James I in which he discusses the perpetual motion machine (Fig. 488).24
Vera Keller has recently studied the broader
social and cultural-historical contexts associated
with Drebbel. This author bases her conclusions
on the idea that Drebbel was what might be
called a Liebhaber,25 perhaps better translated as
“fanatic” than “lover” because, as Keller writes,
this “model stressed passion, not reason, and excess, not
restraint.” Drebbel did indeed live for his work,
26 Ibid., p. 79.
27 Ibid., p. 362.
28 Aurum fulminans, Au2O3.3NH3, an easily
explosive compound. The discoverer is not known
for sure; instructions on how to make it appear in the
Testamentum of Basilius Valentinus, said to have been a
Benedictine monk from Erfurt, which was published in
1626 (Karpenko [2007a], p. 404).
29 Keller (2008), pp. 43f.
30 In the 17th century ideas about magnetism were
stimulated by William Gilbert (1544—1603) and his
work De magnete (1600), which was the fundamental
text about the properties of electricity, magnetism,
and the earth’s magnetic field. At that time the term
“magnetism” was used to mean all things that had an
effect over distance, not only the effect of a magnet on
iron, and some of which things were non-existent.
24 Cornelii Drebbeli, chemici et mechanici summi,
Tractatus duo: De natura elementorum […] De quinta essentia
[…] accedit Epistola […] De perpetui mobilis, Hamburgi 1621
25 Keller (2008), p. 30, which first gives the Dutch
expression liefhebber.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
simple; one was contained within the other. He
merely used the term “element”, he said, because
it was understandable to his audience.
His elements explained why the universe
works in cycles; the weather, rain, and life itself.
These elements “carried hidden content within them,
which could be forced into action through chemical
processes. Thus earth, for instance, carried impurities
causing the sparks and explosions engendering ligthning
and thunder in the macrocosmos and generation, vital
heat, and nutrition in living things.”31 Moreover, the
earth contained salt, which enabled all things to
live. Many have interpreted this saline earth as
nitre32 in discussing Drebbel’s “quintessence of
air,” which he used in his submarine. The idea of
an “airy nitre” was widespread at that time; one
of its pioneers was Michael Sendivogius, who
was on the track of what would turn out to be
oxygen, before its nature as an element was understood.33 He wrote of the possibility of cleansing the earth in order to obtain salt: this would
be the key step in Drebbel’s idea of conception,
nourishment, and growth, “could be accomplished
equally well… through the power of fire or the purification of Nature.”34
These ideas naturally led Drebbel to study
the air itself;35 he was convinced that air was the
carrier of this life-giving quintessence; he also
speculated that the air is what moves all things.
This takes place in two ways, he theorized, the
first of which was “the corporeal expansion of bodies
of air masses of grosser or ligther air rise, fall, clash, and
explode.” The second is based on quintessence: as
the very chemical content of air maintains fire
within it, fire’s heat causes the expansion of
fluids, changing them into air. Air can move as
a material body, and thus continues in the cycle
in which the material mass is the first of its possible forms.
Drebbel speculated over the mutual transformation of elements36 and their constant cyclical transmutation within the macrocosmos, and
the occurrence of rain, thunder, wind, lightning,
snow, and hail as the consequence of the meeting of warm and cold air of differing densities.
In this sense we can see a certain resemblance
to Aristotle’s Meteorologia. Yet, as Keller37 points
out, between Aristotle’s and Drebbel’s concepts
there was a fundamental difference: while Aristotle imagined a harmonious and orderly universe in which everything had its place, none of
this was true in Drebbel’s world. For him the
universe was infinite; any part of nature could
transmute into another and move with great
force through the cosmos. Heat and cold, which
Aristotle thought of as balanced, Drebbel saw as
uncontrolled; thus we can think of it rather as
energy, and not something with the properties
of Aristotle’s elements.
Drebbel, with his linking of meteorology
and alchemy, blurred even further the boundaries between artifice and nature by distinguishing between “natural” events and much stronger
chemical events. He believed that when nature
works softly and gently warms the elements, the
elements transform themselves together to create wind and rain. On the other hand, dramatic
phenomena such as thunder and lightning in his
opinion are chemical reactions within the element earth.
At the same time Drebbel made no distinction between elemental sublunar and supralunar
region, so from his perspective fire was always
the same, whether it be on the Sun or the Earth,
artificial or natural. In this sense, his cosmology
overlapped with that developed by the Paracelsians.38 Later, he refuted the Tomist distinction
between the vital warmth of nature and the ar-
31 Keller (2008), p. 44.
32 The term nitre went through many changes; in classical times it meant the sodium carbonate found in dry
salt lakes (particularly in Egypt, where it was called nete-r); later, from the High Middle Ages onward, it began
to denote sal nitrum (potassium nitrate), but it is still
not known exactly when the shift in meaning occurred
(Feldman [1980]).
33 The term chemical element appeared only around
the end of the 18th century with the emergence of
modern chemistry.
34 Keller (2008), p. 371.
35 Ibid., p. 45.
36 Ibid., p. 370.
37 Ibid., p. 376.
38 See the chapter by V. Karpenko and I. Purš “Tycho
Brahe: Between Astronomy and Alchemy.”
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
tificial heat of the hearth by hatching chicks in
an incubator. This was the context of Drebbel’s
experiments with different forms of fire, and obtaining heat or cold through chemical reactions,
either by burning sulfur, or dissolving potassium
nitrate in water.
In his text on chemical operations Drebbel
concludes significantly that “if Alchemists correctly understood these processes, they would not struggle
so pitifully to find the material for the Philosophers’
Stone.”39 This does not mean he was opposed to
alchemy; he was only criticizing the alchemists’
erroneous approach. He believed that alchemists were not merely recreating the chemical
reactions of nature, but perfecting and creating
something cleaner than what is found in nature.
In other words, he placed himself on the side
of those who believe that it is within our power
to surpass nature. This debate had dragged on
in Europe since the high Middle Ages, as it also
touched on a major theological issue – what is
within the power of man, and what is reserved
to God alone.40 Drebbel foresaw himself being
asked: “How can we through fire clarify more than
God can through the Sun?”41 To this he replied that
God began the process of cleansing through nature, and we continue in this where nature left
off. It is to be noted that the idea of cleansing,
separating the clean from the unclean, is one of
the basic principles of Paracelsianism.
The perspective on Drebbel supplied by one
of the era’s most important figures in alchemy
and “chymie,” Andreas Libavius (after 1555—
1616) is very interesting.42 This German scholar
referred to Drebbel as one of the seven modern
“chymists,” or Monads, whom he cited in his
writings. He had a deep respect for Drebbel, regarding his work on the elements as a classic in
the area of transmutation of metals, and praised
the Dutch scholar as an authority comparable
to Hermes.43 However, Libavius also disagreed
with Drebbel on some points. He did not accept
Drebbel’s assertion that the macrocosm can be
known with certainty by observing the microcosm. As Keller points out,44 what Drebbel was
trying do was to unify all knowledge of nature
into one chemical-mechanical microcosm, one
all-encompassing machine, rather in accordance,
we would add, with the contemporary ideal of
the universe as a machina mundi.45
Instruments and chemical discoveries
Of Drebbel’s many mechanical instruments
and chemical discoveries, two main items have
drawn the most interest: an alleged perpetual
motion machine, and the submarine. We will
therefore look at them in more depth. Drebbel
built more than one model of his perpetual motion machine; the largest models were built for
King James I of England and Emperor Rudolf II.
The machine, which was described by a number
of authors,46 drew a great deal of justified attention. One description survives in a letter from
Italian scholar Daniel Antonini of February 1612,
addressed to Galileo Galilei. In it, he says that
the English king owns a perpetual motion machine in which a fluid moves within a glass tube
so that the surface rises and falls like the ebb and
flow of the tide. Antonini decided to try to reproduce this machine, and in his next letter he
described the basic details of its construction.
There were two concentric circular tubes, the inner one metallic, the outer one made from glass;
connected together by a small tube. The tubes
were positioned vertically; the external glass
tube was partly filled with fluid; its upper part,
where there was a small hole which would allow
air to enter, was covered with a thin metal plate.
44 Keller (2008), p. 416.
45 The expression machina mundi was introduced to
medieval thought by Sacrobosco in his very widely read
astronomical handbook Sphaera (c. 1220). It expressed
the idea of order and regularity set into the universe by
God. The machina mundi was seen as a visible manifestation of God; however, Johannes Kepler, for whom the
“heavenly instrument” is not a living divinity, but something like a vast clock, rejected this.
46 Tierie (1932), pp. 37f.
39 Keller (2008), p. 371.
40 More about this problem in Newman (2004).
41 Keller (2008), p. 372.
42 Ibid., pp. 404f.
43 According to tradition, the founder of alchemy was
thought to be Hermes Trismegistus.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
489. Depiction of the perpetuum mobile of Cornelius Drebbel, in: Cestopis Jindřicha Hýzrleho [Travelogue of Heinrich
Hiesserle], manuscript NML, shelf mark VI A 12, fol. 49r.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
The surface of the fluid in this tube moved from
one side to the other, which Antonini says was
caused by the expansion or contraction of the
gas in the internal metallic tube. Descriptions of
the instrument differ; others wrote of a glass spiral, and most accounts contained no explanation
for how the device actually worked.
Poet and statesman Constantijn Huygens
(1596—1687)47 described Drebbel’s perpetual
motion machine in 1630, and concluded that it
was in essence “something of the same sort as that,
which no longer astonishes us, where in a similar glass
the enclosed liquid enables us to judge of the temperature of the day by the instability or or mobility of the
liquid. It is quite certain that the water is forced to rise
to fill the empty space, when the air is pressed together
by the surrounding cold and that the water is pressed
down again and is chased away, as if by the ebbing of
the tide, when the air expands by warmth.”48
What was important was that Drebbel succeeded in transforming the irregular rise and fall
of the fluid into a more or less regular pattern.
Herein lay the originality of his design, as with
his 1598 patent for a special pump and a clock
featuring “eternal motion.”49 Many scientists,
for example renowned French physicist Marin
Mersenne (1588—1648), reckoned that Drebbel’s
perpetuum mobile was actually a kind of air thermometer. Most interesting for us is how Huygens continues: “However this may be, if I am not
mistaken, this invention was the first thing that bound
Drebbel to the Emperor Rudolf II, a king, who is
much interested in such things. Growing very intimate
with him, Drebbel has often entertained him, while he
looked on, with a number of ever changing instruments
and machines.”
The most detailed description of Drebbel’s
instrument was left by Czech nobleman and
Imperial officer Heinrich Hiesserle of Chodaw
(1575—1665), who on his travels around Western
Europe visited England in 1607. After his reception, at which he was allowed to kiss the hand
of James I, he remained at the royal court for
a four-month period; during that time he witnessed Drebbel demonstrating his perpetual
motion machine, heard his presentation, and
observed James’s interest in this unusual man
and his invention. Not only that: Hiesserle had
the perpetuum mobile professionally drawn (Fig.
489), to the picture he attached a legend, and he
even left us two versions. He began to write his
memoirs in German in 1611—1613, while living in
obscurity with his family. In 1613, he entered the
service of Leopold of Styria, where he remained
for a year. Afterward he returned to his family
and launched into a longer, Czech version of his
memoirs, which he never finished. We cite the
earliest translation of the passage about Drebbel from the German version of Hiesserle’s memoirs; and then from the Czech version, which
brings out some interesting details that do not
appear in the German :
“Alda [in Windsor] ist zu Ihrer Maijt: (Majestät) ein Niderlendischer, gahr schlechter Mann anzusehen, kommen vnnd vor der Tafel da man gessen / nider gekniet / vnnd Ihr Maijt: seine dienst diser gestalt
anpraesentirt / mit vermelden / er habe das mobile
perpetuum gefunden / davon alle Philosophi sovil
discurirt und nachgesetzet haben, unnd Ihnen doch
solches von Gott nicht geoffenbahret worden als Ihme
/ solches wolle er Ihr Maijt bey verlust seines Lebens
darthuen vnnd deroselben zusehen vnnd zuverstehen
geben, also das man ihme glauben werde / dar ob der
König als ein gelerter Herz sich verwundert vnnd zu
lachen angefangen doch dise Antwortt geben, er wunderte der Rede nicht / sondern der grossen geheimnis /
die so lange von anfang der Welt, allen hochgelerten
Leuthen verborgen, und die allein vor Ihme aufgehaben worden, Jedoch weil er sie erbotten solchs darzuthun solle er mit der sachen forttfahren / wurde er
seinem vorbringen gnug thun solle ers wol geniessen /
darauf er sich bedanckht / vnnd alsbald nam er von seinem Diener under dem Mantel herfur einen Globum
dar innen das mobile perpetuum, so er Ihr Maijt: in
beijwesen viler Cauagliri / dabei ich auch gestanden
/ offerirt. Weilen es wurdig zu halten, ich es, neben
disem weitern bericht wie vornemblich der Globus
formirt / wie allhie nach den Buechstaben zusehen /
hierein mahlen lassen. A A. ist ein runde Kugel / vergulttet / zaiget durch zway underschiedliche Zaiger /
47 Father of physicist and mathematician Christian
Huygens (1629—1695).
48 Tierie (1932), p. 40.
49 Thorndyke (1958), VII, p. 495.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
was Monath vnnd was Tag von Monat vnnd in was
Zaichen die Sonne ist / auch in was zaichen der Monde
ist / B. ist eine runde Kugel praesentiert dê Monde /
wie der wechst und abnimbt / wievil tage er alt ist /
vnnd die Stundt von hohen und niedrigen wasser. C
D. ist ein glazener Ring C. ist oben / und D. ist unden
vom Wasser / welches allzeit sich bewegt / auf: vnnd
nidergehet / alle 24 stunden zweymal / wie das meer /
alle dise bewegungen gehe allzeit von sich selbst / und
das man nichts darzue thut / welches für das wunderbahrlichste ding auf der Welt zusehen ist.
Hierauf Ihne der König fragte, was für ein Wasser in dem Kristall were / antworttet er es were ein
gemeines Wasser / wol gesalzen / damit es nicht verderben solle / der Konig fragte weiter / was dem wasser und himlischen gestirn , macht den fortgang haben
/ da antworttet er das dassselbige were / das mobile
perpetuum welches darinnen in offenbarer Kunst
verborgen ligt und vorhanden ist / so diss alles movirn
macht / vnnd Ihr Maijt: sollen alle Philosophi kommen lassen / die sollen hierüber studiren vnnd speculiren und zusagen wohero die macht kombt / vnnd was
das mobile perpetuum were / wolte auch dasselbe so
bald nicht offenbahren / allein Ihr Maijt: sollen das
vorpetschiren / vnnd einschliessen so lang sie wollen
/ damit kein Mensch darzu könte wurden Sij sehen /
das es einen steten forttgang haben soll. Da fragt ihn
der König weiter auf wie lang, gab er die Antwortt
/ so lang die Welt stehet oder so lang mans nicht zubricht / Der König fragt noch weiter durch was macht
das mobile perpetuum sein macht hett, gab er kurze
antwortt vnnd sagt die Lufft welches das vornembste
Element ist / vnnd alle sachen beweglichen macht /
Hierauf fraget abermals der König ob das mobile zu
was anders nutzvnnd dienstlich were. Darauf er ach
antwort gab, es seije nutz vnnd dienstlich zu allen sachen und er wolle das zu einem Monstro dem Jüngen
Prinzen ein Instrument machen / welches so lange wehret weil die Welt stehet, soll allein in der Nacht von
dem Mond musicirt werden / und das ander beij tage
von der Sonnen / dassselbige solle so lang schlagen als
mans gehen lesset I Item einen Pflug wolle er aufs Feldt
stellen der soll sich von dem ackhern nicht zurwegen
/ auch eine Mühle ohne verletz weil die Welt stehet /
Hernach wurd er auch gefragt / ob er das Wasser ohne
Instrumenta einführen könte, wo er wolte / sagt er
Ja, ein fliessendes Wasser wolte er über den höchsten
490. Depiction of the perpetuum mobile of Cornelius
Drebbel, in: Thomas Tymme, Dialogue Philosophicall,
London 1612.
491. Depiction of the perpetuum mobile of Cornelius
Drebbel, detail, in: Thomas Tymme, Dialogue Philosophicall, London 1612.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
rina Die zu Londen fürfleust / ab vnnd zunimbt, eben
messig auch das Gestirn, die Sonne der Mond, Stern
vnnd alle Planeten in dem Globo gleicher gestalt als
am Himmel / darüber sich der König hoch vnnd sehr
verwündert vnnd nicht nachgelassen von dem Mann,
solches wo es herkomme zu erforschen, derohalben er
alsbaldt umb Ihne geschickhet / vnnd von demselben
genugsahmer bericht dem König gegeben worden, deme
dan der König geglaubet und vermeldet / das er diss in
einem solchen Menschen nie gesuchet / es wurde auch
am ganzen Hof erschollen / das dis mobile perpetuu
dem König in effectu gezaiget worden / Mein mainung ist / das derselbe dem Könige geoffenbaret doch
mit Condition, das solches verschwigen behalten werden möchte. Also vil was ich in praesente von dem mobile perpetuo gehört vnnd gesehen habe.”50
Now we will draw from the Czech version of
Hiesserle’s memoirs, summarizing the passages
that are identical to the German version, and
quoting only the passages that differ.
After Drebbel hails King James I at the feast
and praises him as one of “the most learned potentates,” he presents him with the perpetual motion machine, which was “inset in ebony wood and
made of brass.” James marveled that God, who
“from the beginning of the world had hidden such a
thing from the eyes of so many scholarly, pious, and
distinguished people, has been holding it for you, and
caused it to appear only now in this most recent age.”
In this sentence it is noteworthy that the King,
or the memoir’s writer, took a chiliastic vision
of the age they were living in: the last era of
man, an age of “revelation” (apokalypsis), with the
Paracelsians predicting the advent of a prophet
named Elijah the Artist (Elias Artista) who would
reveal the secret of the Philosophers’ Stone.51
Hiesserle also included a description, and the
legend to the letters in the drawing, which the
German version left out: “And the heavenly pla-
492. Depiction of the perpetuum mobile of Cornelius
Drebbel, detail, in: Hieronymus Francken the Younger,
Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting a Collector’s
Cabinet, 1621–1623.
Berg, ohne einiges Instrument führen, vnnd wolle Ihr
Maijt: wan sie wöllen, offenbaren / doch mit seinem
profito, und werden Ihr Mttk: sehen / das kein betrug
darinnen / seije allein nattürlich wesen, und die Ihme
allein von Gott gegebene gnad. Hierüber sich der König hoch verwunderet / derowegen das mobile perpetuum auf Lonnden in sein palatium führen lassen,
vnnd dem Jungen Prinzen bevohlen / solchs selbst mit
seiner aignen Hannd in seine Camer zuverpettschiren /
vnnd einschliessen / welches auch geschahe.
Nach 2. Monathen da der Progres aus war, kam
der König auf das mobile zusehen / ob es forttgehet
oder stehet / hat er gefunden, das es unverletzt seinen
forttgang mit dem wasser in dem Kristall, wie die Ma-
50 Heinrich Hiesserle von Chodaw, Rais-Buch und
Leben, 1612. National Museum Library in Prague,
manuscript VI A 12, fols. 72—76. Copy and transcript
by Francis Franck, September 2009. See http://www. Czech translation see
Příběhy Jindřicha Hýzrla z Chodů [Stories of Heinrich
Hiesserle von Chodaw] (1979), pp. 228—231.
51 Corpus Paracelsisticum I (2001), pp. 459—466.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
nets, and what sign they are in and when, is shown by
the hand, F are 2 shorter mounts [?] on which the globus stands, G is the clock, which goes constantly and
invariably, as well as all the other things that have no
wheels, keys, or instruments to wind them up with.” In
one conversation Drebbel explained to the king
that “the foremost element, the air, causes everything
ad efectum”, and offered for his son “to make an
instrument that all by itself with the help of the sun
would play and have 30 motets, and whatever motet
it should play, this [motet] should be marked by putting a nail [in the appropriate position] and when
the sun comes out, it will play.” This was followed
by an important addition: “To prove his words he
made such an instrument, but I did not see it, for I did
not stay there that long, but people afterward who saw
it gave me a true report, as did he himself (when he
came to Emperor Rudolf).”52 Hiesserle therefore
met Drebbel in Prague at least once, which – we
might add – makes his drawing of the perpetual
motion machine Drebbel made for Rudolf II
all the more credible, as he most likely had the
drawing made in Prague, where he had more opportunities to have contact with court artists.
No less remarkable and worthy of citation is the
following passage describing the circumstances
under which Drebbel revealed the machine’s
working principle:
“The King, then, yearning greatly to know, never
stopped asking him every time he thought about it,
wanting to learn something, but all inquiries were in
vain. Then Cornelius, seeing that the king in his great
desire to finally learn, and to actually see it (whether it
be a natural thing or not) even though suspicious that
it might be magic, agreed to be received by the King,
and if His Grace the King, so hungry for knowledge,
would finally like to know whether it is the very air
with its natural power at work, and he being a poor
person, if His Grace the King would compensate him,
then he would be happy to show the king that the
natural power of the air guides and powers all these
things. Upon which the King graciously promised him
that if he would tell, then he would be glad to endow
him richly. And thus we were all ordered to absent
ourselves. The King then, remaining two hours in the
closed cabinet with him and emerging thereafter, said
thusly: ‘Certainly such great inquisitiveness and such a
great art from the Lord God displayed through such a
simple person (by appearances) I had never imagined
or expected. And the truth is, that he has discovered
the perpetuum mobile, and such a great talent to
conceive of and make things was given to him by the
Lord God.’”53
Here we have a telling example of the strategy the scholar used in respect to the “secrets of
nature” when dealing with such a highly-standing
patron: first a spectacular presentation of the invention, then stimulating the sovereign’s curiosity, and at precisely the right moment, right on
the cusp between possible accusations of witchcraft by a king beset by fear of witches, and being
made wealthy by a generous patron burning with
curiosity and determination – he finally reveals
his secret. Of course Drebbel could not “swear
the king to silence” as Hiesserle writes in the German version of his memoirs; it was nevertheless
privileged and exclusive information. A very similar approach was taken by Tycho Brahe, who,
in order to gain the best position he could at
court, tantalized his future patron Emperor Rudolf II with curiosity by first sending his emissary Franz Tengnagel on a tour of the aristocratic courts of Europe.
We can rigthly assume that the above-described pattern of communication between the
inventor and alchemist on one hand, and a powerful ruler and learned patron on the other, likewise took place at Rudolf’s court in Prague.
The preceding descriptions of the perpetual
motion machine given by Antonini and Hiesserle differ somewhat, which tells us that there
existed more such devices. Drebbel seems to
have been a truly excellent designer, a skilled
hand who found a way to harness the thermal
expansion of gasses; but, from the contemporary
records, we cannot clearly fathom the detailed
workings of his ingenious machines. The perpetuum mobile, an instrument that “works by itself”
without needing any added energy, was a popu-
52 Příběhy Jindřicha Hýzrla z Chodů [Stories of Heinrich
Hiesserle von Chodaw] (1979), pp. 151—153.
53 Ibid., pp. 151—153.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
lar idea in Drebbel’s time.54 Only the science of
thermodynamics, which took shape in the second half of the 19th century, proved the impossibility of such devices.
It is no wonder, then, that Drebbel’s perpetuum mobile provoked lively discussion; it was
used as an argument against scholars who held
that it could not exist.55 Drebbel’s natural philosophy was admired by Johann Hartmann as
well as by his sworn opponent Andreas Libavius;
for English cleric Thomas Tymm the perpetuum
mobile was an argument in favor of a geocentric
universe, while Drebbel’s friend G. P. Schagen
saw in it support for Copernicus’s ideas.
As we have shown in previous chapters of this
book, one of the goals of sovereigns in the late
16th century was to demonstrate the universality
of their rule, which was not complete unless it
included dominion over nature. They supported
research on the natural sciences which, besides
its economic significance, was also a matter of
prestige. This culminated in the phenomenon of
the Kunstkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities,” representing a microcosmos, a magic universe built
on the principle of pars pro toto, over which its
owner exercised absolute power.56 As reported
by contemporary witnesses, including Drebbel himself, Rudolf was quite taken by Drebbel. Considering the fame Drebbel’s inventions
had earned throughout much of Europe, it is no
wonder. The reasons for Rudolf’s fascination
with the inventor and alchemist go even deeper
than that, however. Drebbel’s perpetual motion
machine was the most advanced demonstration
of this “microcosmos” ever fashioned up to that
time; in Rudolf’s symbolic vision of the world,
it was a perfect analogy for his entire chamber
of curiosities. Probably because of this, the per-
petual motion machine was not housed with the
rest of the collection – it may have been among
Rudolf’s most treasured possessions, kept in his
personal chambers as part of his “privatissimum.”
Like his support for alchemy, Rudolf’s interest in perpetual motion was no frivolity, but
part of his conception of government, an important attribute of power. Such globes bore a
great deal of symbolic significance in the realm
of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1541 Rudolf’s
grandfather Ferdinand I was said to have sent a
silver globe that previously belonged to the Holy
Roman Emperor Maximilian I as a present to
the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.57 It took
twelve men to carry it, and it was accompanied
by an instruction book on how to operate it and
set it into never-ending motion.58 Again, this
was a bit of statesmanship by which Ferdinand
I – a ruler much less mystically inclined than
his grandson – sent the sultan an excellent gift
that both conveyed his respects, and at the same
time demonstrated his own wealth and power.
Ferdinand’s gift was part of a classic tradition of
important globes (sphaerae), of which the most
important was that of Archimedes, and another
one which belonged to Persian king Shapur. Archimedes was said to be the first to construct a
“sphere,” a machine or device that showed the
movements of the planets. According to classical reports, Archimedes’ globe was an automatic
device set in motion by spirits, was intended to
depict the entire universe. The instrument represented a philosophical riddle, and at the same
time man’s challenge to the gods; according to
Cicero man was capable of approaching divinity,
for he had created his own microcosmos. The instrument thus demonstrated humanity’s general
rise in the hierarchy of being, especially by those
who wielded the greatest power; that is, the sovereigns.59
54 Speculation about perpetual motion dates back
even further. For example Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt attempted to construct a perpetual motion machine based on the principle of magnetism, as he describes in his work Epistola de magnete (1269). See Sturlese – Thomson (eds.) (1995).
55 Keller (2008), p. 98.
56 See the chapter by I. Purš “The Habsburgs on the
Bohemian Throne and Their Interest in Alchemy and
the Occult.”
57 Necipoglu (1989), p. 416.
58 Thomas Powell, Humane Industrie or, A history of most
manual arts deducing the original, progress, and improvement
of them: furnished with variety of instances and examples,
shewing forth the excellency of humane wit, London 1661,
p. 22 (Ref. Keller [2008]).
59 Keller (2008), pp. 324—325.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
“As every scholar knows, since time out of mind
mathematicians, mechanics, and physicists have endeavored to achieve spontaneous motion by means of
some kind of artificial machine. Mortals were tempted
by the innate desire to compete with the Creator: so that
he who is made in God’s image would not lack a picture made by his own hands of the eternally rotating
Olympus. But various uses were expected of it as well;
just as the heavens with their own movements keep
life and everything here below in motion; thus it was
undoubtable that this artificial constant motion, if discovered, would serve to bring about many other smaller
movements – which would contribute then in no small
measure to almost every human activity, because everything that happens, happens through motion.”64 Comenius based his remarks on a number of reports
he had read about Drebbel’s instrument, in particular in Drebbel’s letter to King James I, which
Comenius’s teacher and professor at Herborn
Academy Johann Heinrich Alsted (1588—1638)
printed in his Encyclopedia. At first, he believed
that Drebbel had actually discovered perpetual
motion, but when he heard Petrus Mormi’s opinion that the machine was a fraud, he began to
imagine himself as its discoverer instead.65 According to Comenius’s description, his perpetual motion machine actually worked, but when
he gave the instructions for making it to some
Dutch artisans, the models they prepared failed
to function. According to Jiří Beneš, Comenius’s
search for a perpetual motion machine gradually
became a “touchstone” to his own philosophical
efforts and ambitions: “A self-propelling machine
[…] could serve as a mirror in which people could observe and understand how necessary it is that everything must take place according to a certain order. […]
For educated people dedicated to the observation, study,
and improvement of the world, it will be an excellent
proof that with diligence nothing is unattainable if we
wish to create artificially all that is created before our
eyes by nature; provided we take an approach based on
reason and do not set about the work of God without
God. Finally, spontaneous motion should be the herald
of pansophism, exemplifying its deepest principles – that
No less famous, if not more famous was the
Opus sphaericum of Persian king Shapur, said to
have been fashioned in an “artistic” manner by
a certain Arab. It was basically a large planetarium: when the king took his seat at its center,
he could follow the movements of the stars and
planets. Based on this, the king in his correspondence with other rulers would refer to himself
as Son of the Sun and Brother of the Moon.60
This sphere and its successors demonstrated the
divine nature of earthly rule and the sovereign’s
dominance over nature and universe. As Pierre
Boaistuau wrote in 1558, can the king’s power be
any better demonstrated then by his dominion
over not only land and sea, but the very stars?61
Drebbel was at the Imperial court during the last
two years of Rudolf’s life; therefore it’s no wonder given the symbolic connotation of such inventions that Rudolf remained fascinated by the
idea of perpetual motion even on his deathbed.62
A remarkable commentary on the philosophical import of perpetual motion is found
later in the works of the most important Czech
scholar of the 17th century Jan Amos Comenius
(1592—1670). In 1639 he wrote for his most trusted friend an anonymous report entitled On the
Art of Spontaneous Motion (De Arte Spontanei Motus quem Perpetuum vocant),63 which begins:
60 Weidler (1741), pp. 136—137. The author presents
a long list of artificial “spheres,” among which he places
Achilles’ mythical shield (kósmos mímema) made by Vulcan, and Nero’s Hall, which rotated once every 24 hours.
61 “Quel Miracle en nature se peut trouver plus grand
que ceste machine de vitre que fist construire Sator Roy des
Persiens? Laquelle estoit si grande, qu’il estoit assis au centre
d’icelle, comme en la sphere et rondeur de la terre, voyant soubs
ses pieds les astres, et estoilles, qui se couchoient et levoient: en
sorte que combien qu’il fust mortel, il sembloit estre sur toute la
haultesse et expectation d’immortalité. Quelle chose plus grande
et divine peut tomber au sens des hommes, specialement à un
Roy qui possede tout le monde, qu’après la possession des terres
et mers, il semble posseder les astres, le ciel, et le domicile de
Dieu.” Boaistuau (1982), p. 16.
62 See chapter by I. Purš and J. Smolka “Martin
Ruland the Elder, Martin Ruland the Younger, and the
Milieu of Emperor’s Personal Doctors.”
63 The only known facsimile of Comenius’s report
is preserved in the literary inheritance of Dutch poet
Constantijn Huygens.
64 Ref. Beneš (2006), p. 37.
65 Keller (2008), p. 289, n. 674.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
493. Depiction of the perpetuum mobile of Cornelius Drebbel, in: Hieronymus Francken the Younger, Archdukes Albert
and Isabella Visiting a Collector’s Cabinet, 1621–1623. Drebbel’s perpetuum mobile is depicted on the table on the
left at the window.
the mystery of eternal truth cannot be correctly understood unless all reality forms a whole; that is, until all of
the multitude of things merge into unity, diversity into
identity, counterpoint into harmony. […] At the end of
his life, Comenius conditioned the subjective certainty
of his prophetic mission in part upon the successful
construction of a perpetual motion machine; the workings of perpetual motion […] he understood to be a sign
from God, a miracle after the manner of Moses’s staff,
which turned into a serpent before the eyes of Pharaoh.
Because he never achieved this certainty, as a sincerely
believing person he came to doubt his redeeming vision
and his own role in attaining it.”66
But let us return once again to Rudolf II,
because Comenius’s understanding of perpetual
motion can illustrate to us some philosophical
attitudes close to the Emperor’s own, although
Rudolf would have understood this “general redemption” on the level of “renovatio imperii,“ the
revival of the Empire under his leadership, as
the result of millenarian hope and Divine Holy
Drebbel is reported to have built the Emperor
a perpetual motion machine not only in the form
previously described, but also as a fountain with
moving statues. According to the description by
Johann Rist “Ferner ist hiebei eine Springbrunne gewesen welcher allezeit von sich selber zwehne Ströhme
66 Beneš (2006), p. 37.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
herfür gegeben wenn aber die Sonne geschienen haben
hundert und mehr Röhren gesprungen. Disem nach ist
Neptunus aus einer Kluft kommen mit Geselschaft seiner See Göttinnen und Trompetter welche sich under
den Strahlen und Tropfen des Wassers gewaschen so
bald aber die Sonne widrum hinter die Wolken kommen haben die Strahlen afgehöhret zu lauffen Neptunus
hat sich auch widrum under die Kluft verstekket und
gleichsahm getrauret das sich der güldene Sonnenglantz
verlohren. Ferner ist Phebus aus den Wolken kommen
sitzend und spielend auf einem Wagen mit vier Pferden
welche durch die Bewegung jhrer Flügel in der Luft geschwebet und den Wagen fohrt gezogen wie sich denn
auch die Räder an dem Wagen in der Luft bewegend
herüm gedrehet. So bald aber die Sonne aufgehöhret zu
scheinen hat sich Phebus widrum unter die Wolken verborgen. Endlich ist ein Glas gestanden auf dem Altar
des Neptunus, darin alle 24 Stunden und ungefehr 40
Minuten ein Wasser zweimahl zu rechter Zeit auf und
nieder gestiegen also das man die Stunden und Viertheile des Tages durch dis Auf-und niedersteigen vollen
kömlich hat sehen können. Alle dise Bewegunge haben
sich von sich selbst durch einen Ewigen motum beweget
also das man auch niemahl bedörft hat etwas dazu zu
helffen. Wenn aber die Sonne nicht geschienen und man
nur das Glas mit der Hand etwas warm gemachet sind
alle die vorbesagte Bewegunge geschehen welches mines
Bedünkens eine solche hohe Sache über welche man sich
billig zum allerhöhesten hat zu verwunderen und solte
Jch schier daran zweifelen ob derogleichen Sinnreiche
Erfindunge den Alten bekant gewesen.”67 It is unlikely that the fountain for Rudolf was ever actually
built. According to Keller, Drebbel did build a
fountain for the Duke of Buckingham’s garden
at New Hall, and designed one for the town of
Given the type of scientists and scholars that
Rudolf surrounded himself with during his entire
reign, it is quite symptomatic that Drebbel was
a non-conformist not only in stubbornly following his own paths of inquiry, but probably in his
religion as well. As Tiere deduces, Drebbel and
his family were Anabaptists, and it was precisely
the fact that he was not religiously grounded in
Calvinism, for example, which allowed him a free
hand to study the natural sciences. In this sense,
he was no isolated phenomenon in Holland, but
one of a circle of talented men, mostly Anabaptists, who contributed each in his own field to
the development of theoretical or applied sciences. According to de Peiresic’s testimony, “he
lives according to the laws of Nature and believes in
nothing. He would not consider himself insulted by the
action or word of another […] He carries no sword,
[…] and he would not defend himself, were he attacked, although he is powerful and strongly built.”69
He ends his previously-cited letter to James I
with a passage in which he condemns war and
praises James for giving his subjects the blessings
of peace. It is surprising, then, that Drebbel was
later employed by the British admiralty during
military operations before La Rochelle in 1628;
less surprising is that his efforts ended in fiasco.
Drebbel’s pacifism may indeed have sprung
from his religious convictions, but only if we
understand the expression “he believed in nothing” to mean that he believed in no official denomination. We have no reason to doubt his
mystically-laden belief in Christ, for in the first
chapter of his writing on the elements he says
that investigation and understanding of nature
should lead to the revelation of Divine gifts hidden within our very selves, which will be bathed
in the glory of God’s light. Through nature, God
shows his one law, which is love for God and
man. The fifth essence, of which he speaks with
the religious enthusiasm of a preacher, likewise
has a purely divine basis: “Unhappy mortals, we
waste our life in useless arguments and disputes. Outstanding treasures of nature, in which medicines for
the worst diseases are sent from heaven, we do not seek
at all. Not only that we leave them laying there, but
those that seek them, we forbid them, we hinder them
and we indict them with ridicule; we stupidly laugh
at the one who dedicated himself to truth and Divine
69 Tierie (1932), pp. 18—19.
70 Drebbel (1621): “Infoelices mortales, inutilibus
quaestionibus & disputationibus vitam traducimus. Naturae
praecipuos thesauros in quibus gravissimorum morborum
medicinae, ab altissimo collocata sunt, intactos relinquimus.
67 Rist (1664), pp. 162—165.
68 Keller (2008), p. 260, n. 590.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
Drebbel was clearly a very unusual character, as Peter Paul Rubens also found out in 1629
when he met him briefly, announcing afterward
that he had never seen anyone who looked so
unusual and concealed such surprises. On the
outside, the inventor behaved and dressed in an
extremely humble manner, displaying his knowledge only when he found he was speaking to
an educated person. His approach to the study
of nature pointed the way towards what would
become the mechanistic sciences, but his roots
were still firmly planted in the magic universe of
the Elizabethan and Rudolfine epochs.
submarine could go as far down as ten or fifteen
feet;74 any deeper and it would have had a hard
time resurfacing. More important is the question
of how a breathable atmosphere was maintained.
Some opinions have it that the vessel had a tube
from above to feed it air; the analogy would be
the snorkel-submarines of World War II. The
vessel would have had to have a bottom, then;
otherwise it would have become flooded the instant the tubes rose above the water’s surface.
In any case, most of the accounts say the ship
disappeared completely under the water, with no
mention of a tube.
Another account is that of Robert Boyle
(1627—1691), a scientist whose account we would
expect to be reliable, though his text was written at a much later date, in 1660. He, too, was
particularly interested in how the submarine
maintained a breathable air supply. He wrote,
“… perhaps it will not be impertinent if before I proceed, I acquaint your Lordship with a Conceit of that
deservedly Famous Mechanician and Chymist, Cornelius Drebbel, who among other strange things that he
perform’d, is affirm’d (by more than a few credible Persons) to have contriv’d for the late Learned King James
[James I, ruled 1603—1625], a Vessel to go under
Water; of which tryal was made in the Thames, with
admired success, the Vessel carrying thwelve Rowers,
besides Passengers; one of which is yet alive, and related it to an excellent Mathematician that inform’d
me of it.”75
Boyle wanted to know, of course, what prevented the people in the submarine from suffocating, and he tried gathering information from
various sources, among others a member of the
crew. He summarized his findings thus: “I was
answer’d that Drebbel conceiv’d that ‘tis not the whole
body of the Air, but a certain Quintessence (as Chymists
speake) or spirituous part of it, that makes it fit for respiration, which being spent, the remaining grosser body,
or carcasse (if I may so call it) of the Air, is unable to
cherish the vital flame residing in the heart: So that (for
ought I could gather) besides the Mechanical contrivance of this vessel he had a Chymical liquor, which
Drebbel’s submarine
Another of Drebbel’s famous mechanical works,
still the subject of interest and speculation to
this day, is a submarine that he started to build
in England, probably in 1620. We will try to summarize the various references to it here. Usually only one submarine is mentioned; although
there are hints that Drebbel may first have built
a smaller version of the vessel, this is not reliably
Tierie assembled a good deal of information about the submarine.71 The oldest mention,
not an eyewitness account, dates from 1625 and
says that the submarine actually sailed, carrying
twenty-four persons, of whom eight were rowers.
Supposedly they were able to breathe for twentyfour hours underwater; a claim which, however,
seriously undermines the report’s credibility.
Even more doubtful is the report that the submarine could go as far down as fifty fathoms.72 The
report says that the submarine had no bottom,
making it something like a diving bell; but the
claims about how far down the sub could go tend
to place the entire report in the realm of fantasy.
More realistic is the description given by de
Monconys.73 According to his statement the
Nec ipsi solum relinquimus, sed alios inquirere volentes,
prohibemus, impedimus, condemnamus & mille ludibriis
afficimus, avotumque fidelem veritatem & divinam scientiam
stulte irridemus.”
71 Tierie (1932), Chap. VI.
72 One fathom equals 1.83 meters.
73 Tierie (1932), p. 61.
74 One foot equals 30 centimeters.
75 Szydło (1996), p. 84.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
494. Jan Brueghel the Elder, Allegory of Hearing, 1618, On the table on the right, another variation of the perpetuum
mobile is depicted.
he accounted the chiefe Secret of his submarine Navigation. For when from time to time he perceive’d that the
finer and purer part of the Air was consum’d, or over
clogg’d, by the respiration, and steames of those that
went in his ship, he would, by unstopping a vessel full
of this liquor, speedily restore to the troubled Air such a
proportion of Vital parts, as would make it againe, for
a good while, fit for Respiration…” Boyle says that he
was unable to find out what was in the container,
for this was precisely the secret Drebbel never
betrayed. As Szydło recounts,76 unlike Boyle who
described the substance in the container rather
vaguely, alchemist and physician E. Dickenson
(1624—1707) was quite specific in his work Physica Vetus et Vera (1702): “Furthermore I have heard
very learned and honest men, who can be thoroughly
trusted, that it is possible to prepare a certain kind of
gas, by means of which the lack of fresh air can be compensated in such a way, that it becomes feasible to live
for a long time and in an entirely closed space. A they
said that this was the experiment made in London in
the River Thames by the famous Hollander, Cornelis
Drebbel, on which occasion not a few men remained a
long time under water in a covered boat; when their
breathing became more difficult or uncomfortable, very
soon free respiration was re-established by the opening
of a bottle and allowing the gas to issue from it, …”
Among others, this account lends support
to today’s conclusion that Drebbel actually produced oxygen, which he stored in a closed container. If this conclusion is correct, then the
next question is whether the knowledge of how
to prepare the gas was his discovery, or information acquired elsewhere. A possible source for
the oxygen would have been saltpeter, (potassium nitrate), which when heated releases the
oxygen, while the salt turns to potassium nitrite.
In his work on the elements (1608) Drebbel
wrote, “thus is the body of the saltpetre broken up and
decomposed by the power of the fire and so changed in
the nature of the air, or as when a wet hand or cloth
is waved about on a hot iron, or molten lead…”77 In
76 Ibid., p. 84
77 Ibid., p. 82.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
some editions of his book this statement is accompanied by a picture of a retort being heated
over a flame. Its mouth is submerged in a cask
of water, and on the surface bubbles are seen. It
is a credible depiction of the decomposition of
potassium nitrate when subjected to heat.
Potassium nitrate was a main object of interest on the part of Michael Sendivogius,78 who
wrote of a “central salt,”79 saltpeter, which he
said devours the “food of life” that his hidden
in the air, and without which fire goes out. This
remark was particularly insightful when others,
such as Johannes Baptista van Helmont (1577—
1644), had concluded that air plays no part in the
process of burning.
As for knowledge of oxygen and its preparation from potassium nitrate, it is not out of the
question that Drebbel gained this information
from Sendivogiovus’ works, or directly from
people associated with the Polish alchemist.
As Szydlo points out,80 Sendivogius knew Michael Maier from their studies in Altdorf; later
Maier, like Drebbel, was one of those associated
with the court of Rudolf II. Someone may have
passed along to him details of the Pole’s experiments, or he may have gained access to his papers. In this context, Tierie observes that Kepler
evidently had some information as early as 1607.
He wrote, “If he [Drebbel] can create new spirit, by
means of which he can move and keep in motion his instrument without weights or propelling power, he will
be Apollo in my opinion.”81 This was in the context
of Drebbel’s perpetuum mobile, which by to
some accounts also used oxygen.82 Exactly how
Drebbel learned to get oxygen from potassium
nitrate has not been determined; it is possible,
however, that Drebbel acquired the knowledge
in Rudolfine Prague.
Questions also remain as to the workings of
Drebbel’s submarine, and we must confine ourselves to hypothesis. Some opinions hold that
Drebbel prepared the oxygen right there in the
submarine by heating saltpeter in a pan; however, this decomposition occurs only at 336o C.
Drebbel would have had to build a fire under
the pan, which would have filled the vessel with
smoke. Instead, he probably captured the oxygen beforehand in a suitable container. As Partington points out,83 another problem is exhaled
carbon dioxide, greater concentrations of which
could endanger the crew of the submarine. This
would depend on how long the sub stayed underwater. If it was only for a short time there
would be no imminent threat of poisoning; but
submerging for 24 hours, as reported by some,
was impossible unless the carbon dioxide could
be removed. Partington reports that some suppose that Drebbel captured this carbon dioxide
using a concentrated solution of potassium hydroxide, which reacts easily with carbon dioxide
to form potassium carbonate. This hydroxide
would have been held in bottles, which Drebbel
opened from time to time; in that case, however, oxygen would not have been replaced in the
Another hypothesis is that Drebbel heated
saltpeter to a high temperature, thus producing
potassium oxide, which would react even more
readily with carbon dioxide, but we can rule this
out because this reaction takes place at around
600o C, which could not have been achieved
within the submarine. Also, the reaction produces nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, which are
both highly poisonous. Instead, Drebbel would
have had to prepare potassium oxide ahead of
time and capture it in bottles, for otherwise it
would have reacted with the atmospheric carbon
dioxide. Producing such amounts would have
been quite a chore. Above all, the question re-
78 See chapter by R. T. Prinke “Nolite de me inquirere
[Do not seek to ask about me]. Michael Sendivogius.”
79 Sal centrale.
80 Szydło (1996), p. 81.
81 Tierie (1932), p. 65.
82 As an illustration of the difficult beginnings of
chemistry, there is this letter by G. W. Leibniz to
Papin from 1695 (Tierie [1932], p. 70): “I will tell you, Sir,
what I guess the famous Drebbel’s quintessence of air was. It
was evidently spirits of wine, which he burned. For there is no
fluid which more nearly corresponds in its nature to the nature
of air.” Spiritus vini was alcohol, the burning of which
produces carbon dioxide and water, which would not be
good in a submarine.
83 Partington (1969), p. 322.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
mains of replacing the oxygen in the submarine.
In any case, it seems likely, although not certain,
that Drebbel brought onto the submarine some
kind of vessel containing oxygen, which he had
previously prepared.
We are intrigued by Drebbel’s submarine,
because it was evidently a truly exceptional device, but also because the key idea of using oxygen may have originated during Drebbel’s time
in Prague at Rudolf’s court. Drebbel’s interest
in saltpeter continued later in England, when in
1620 he demonstrated the artificial production
of ice by cooling water with a solution of potassium nitrate.84 It was already known at that time
that by dissolving some salts in water the temperature of the solution drops; by all accounts,
Drebbel used saltpeter, a material very effective
from that standpoint.85 This salt was also used in
treating fever.
A short list of his other discoveries can illustrate Drebbel’s quality as an inventor. Working on the idea of perpetual motion, he made a
self-regulating furnace, and also an incubator for
hatching chickens. His experience working with
glass led to an instrument for polishing lenses,
which he used in making microscopes. His
camera obscura provoked a good deal of interest
as well.
Drebbel proved himself a skillful chemist by
improving the dying of textiles in carmine86 by
using alum as a stain. He also studied how to
make fulminating gold (aurum fulminans), which
he used as a detonator for his petards and torpedoes at the siege of La Rochelle in 1628.
The problem with tracing Drebbel’s activities is that the man was so secretive that almost
all our information is second-hand - at best from
contemporaries such as the brothers Kuffler, but
sometimes through another interlocutor, such as
Boyle’s source. Thus, Drebbel’s alchemy remains
hidden to us, as he himself left us no record.
Drebbel, Rudolf II, and Shakespeare’s
The Dutch inventor shined at Rudolf’s court
only briefly, but some believe he and his Imperial patron made a much more lasting mark than
the number of references in the historical literature would indicate. In fact, he may have been
the model for a famous dramatic character. It is
a stretch of the imagination definitely not outside the realm of possibility that Rudolf II and
Cornelius Drebbel were the models for Duke
Prospero and his faithful servant Ariel from
Shakespeare’s late play, The Tempest.87 The main
character in this play, rightly regarded as the
author’s final masterpiece,88 is the learned Prospero, Duke of Milan, who has been turned out of
power by his ambitious brother Antonio. Here
Prospero describes the causes of his downfall:
“And Prospero the prime duke, being so reputed
In dignity, and for the liberal arts
Without a parallel; those being all my study,
The government I cast upon my brother,
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.
I, thus neglecting worldly ends, all dedicated
To closeness and the bettering of my mind
With that which, but by being so retired,
O’er-prized all popular rate, in my false brother
Awaked an evil nature; and my trust,
Like a good parent, did beget of him
A falsehood in its contrary, as great
As my trust was; which had indeed no limit,
A confidence sans bound.”89
The treacherous Antonio thinks Prospero’s library a “dukedom large enough” for Prospero, but
then he goes further, finally banishing him and
84 Guerlac (1954), p. 248.
85 If 5 grams of posassium nitrate are dissolved in
10 milliliters of water at a temperature of 23.5o C, the
temperature of the solution will drop by about 10o C.
Within twenty minutes or so, the solution warms up
again to room temperature.
86 A fiery red dye, cochineal, prepared from the dried
bodies of the females of a scale insect Dactylopius coccus.
87 We base this on an idea from Grudin (1991), pp.
88 Hilský (2010), p. 753.
89 Shakespeare (1863), I. 2. 72—77, 89—97.
Cornelius Drebbel: Inventor, Mechanic, and Alchemist
his daughter from the country, and casting them
away on a raft, which lands providentially on a
deserted island. Prospero uses his magic powers there to rescue the air spirit Ariel from the
clutches of a witch, and in gratitude Ariel places
himself in his service. Prospero’s other servant,
actually more of a slave, is the monster Caliban,
son of the witch in question. Prospero, with the
help of Ariel, causes a ship carrying the main
architects of his tragic fate to wreck upon the
island, and leads them to repentance. The play
ends with mutual reconciliation; Prospero returns to Milan, and thankful for his happy return
from exile renounces all magic powers.
Frances A. Yates in her short study of the
character Prospero, and in other work on the
motif of magic in Shakespeare’s plays, tried to
find a precursor for this character in the figure of
Elizabethan scientist and mage John Dee (1527—
1608).90 However, his life story bears little resemblance to that of Prospero. Dee might be a
model but only on the most general level – he
also dabbled in magic, not in order to directly
affect events, but to acquire ideas and news from
an angel. On the other hand, if we compare the
main character in The Tempest with the Saturnine
emperor of Prague Castle, we find quite a number of similarities: “The interesting parallels between
Prospero and Rudolf II cannot be ignored; his brother
in the end usurped the Czech throne; and he cultivated
the occult sciences and devoted more attention to his art
collection and library than politics and ruling.”91 Truly, in the early 17th century there was no fraternal
conflict greater or more infamous throughout
Europe than the “Bruderschwitz” of 1608 between Rudolf II and Archduke Matthias. The
play reflects nothing less than their war over the
imperial throne. Like Duke Prospero, Rudolf II
saw his occult and artistic interests as more important than mundane politics, regarding them
as forms of politics sui generis, more powerful
than the usual forms of diplomacy.
Unlike in the play, however, in reality relations between the two brothers had never been
idyllic. Rudolf’s friend was his brother Ernst,
with whom he grew up in Spain, while the chronically ambitious Matthias made trouble for Rudolf from the beginning with his ill-considered
political adventurism. Rudolf kept a distance
from his brother, eventually growing into allout hatred. For the dramatic impact of the play,
however, it is understandable that the motif of
betrayal was stronger carrying not only a lack of
respect for the ruler, but a betrayal of friendship
and confidence.
The similarities do not end here, though; a
possible model can also be found for Prospero’s
spirit servant Ariel. According to Robert Grudin this was none other than Cornelius Drebbel, who – as we have shown above – came to
Prague in 1610 either from the court of James
I, exactly that of his oldest son Henry.92 Shakespeare wrote The Tempest between the end of
1610 and the summer of the following year,
which makes it quite possible that these events
could have been reflected in the play. As we discussed above, Drebbel’s most famous work was a
treatise about the elements; and the spirit Ariel
is the one who offers to control the elements at
Prospero’s command. Ariel unleashes a tempest,
wrecking the ship carrying the usurper Antonio
– notably, the origin of storms is one of the topics Drebbel deals with in his treatise – and offers
the elements to the service of his master:
“… I come
To answer thy best pleasure; be’t to fly,
To swim, to dive into the fire, to ride
On the curl’d clouds, to thy strong bidding task
Ariel and all his quality.”93
Ariel’s words make clear that the elements of
water, air, and fire are his area of expertise. According to Agrippa of Nettesheim (De occulta phi92 “Prospero, in his attitude towards the four elements,
his Paracelsianism, and his skill at producing storms and
lifelike illusions, resembles Drebbel more than he does any
other Renaissance magus. Other performers might have
claimed the ability to compass such feats, but none approached
Drebbel’s level of success at them or Drebbel‘s reputation among
contemporary authorities.” Grudin (1991), p. 196.
93 Shakespeare (1863), I. 2. 189—193..
90 Yates (2001), pp. 188—189. For more about Dee
in this book see chapter by V. Karpenko and I. Purš
“Edward Kelly: A Star of the Rudolfine Era.”
91 Hilský (2010), p. 742.
Vladimír Karpenko and Ivo Purš
losophia, 1533) Ariel is the name for the spirit of
the sign Leo; while the Latin name corresponds
to the Ram (Lat. Aries). He also writes that Ariel
is “the name of an angel and means the lion of God; furthermore, however, it is also the name of an evil spirit
(cacodaemonis) and a town named Ariopolis, when
the idol Ariel was read.”94 Both Aries and Leo are
fire signs, giving Ariel the highest status in the
hierarchy of the elements. But what about the
element of the Earth? That, too, is personified in
The Tempest, most probably by the monster Caliban, something between a man and a fish, whose
main task is carrying firewood to heat Prospero’s
cave. Thus, the circle closes, implying the idea
that was so characteristic of Drebbel: that the elements transform one into another. That Drebbel inspires two magical figures in the play may
have to do with the impression Drebbel made
on people. Half genius, half wizard, half scholar,
half a scruffy fellow. In short, Drebbel and his
inventions not only attracted attention, but they
also provoked fears. For example, the parents of
Constantijn Huygens warned their son against
dealings with this “wizard.” In the Middle Ages,
wizardry was commonly linked with the natural
sciences, and alchemy was also associated with
fire in the early modern era, as if reflecting the
likewise ambivalent relationship of antique mythology towards the god Vulcan.
The potential link to alchemy found in The
Tempest can also be considered on a more general level: “The dimension of alchemy is partly contained in the title of the play, because the English word
‘tempest’ indicates not only a storm, but also relates
to time (tempus) and the alchemic term for boiling
in a distillation vessel or alembic. The ‘tempest’ in
the alembic is beneficial, for it cleanses the low metals of
impurities and makes them into noble metals. Alchemy
did not mean only changing ordinary metals into gold,
but a Neo-Platonic moral transformation and renewal
in the broader sense. In this sense The Tempest can
be read as Prospero’s experiment in alchemy, the sense
of which is to transform the human soul; repentance,
forgiveness, and reconciliation.”95
We have shown how important the study of
the air was to Drebbel, in which he sought the
quintessence that not only makes life possible,
but also moves all things. We will therefore conclude our study of Drebbel with one more parallel that we can find in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
In the light of Drebbel’s research there is, in
Prospero’s words (in spite of adjective “thin”) an
echo of conviction that air is in a certain sense a
substrate of reality:
“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”96
95 Hilský (2010), p. 748.
96 Shakespeare (1863), IV. 1.48—58.
94 Agrippa [1533], p. CCLXXI.