Drebbel and the Rowboat Submarine



The modern submarine is an engineering marvel. Submarines are powerful underwater cities that can move undetected throughout the water. However, today’s silent giants are the result of centuries of hard work based off man’s thirst for knowledge. The idea for a submarine came from the need to understand and explore what lay beneath the surface of the water. What was lurking and what treasures could be found. In 1578, William Bourne designed the first known recorded plans for what would become a submarine. His design was a completely enclosed boat bound with waterproofed leather.

Bourne’s Design

It could be submerged and rowed beneath the surface. Unfortunately, Bourne’s design never became a tangible work. But it would inspire others including Cornelius Drebbel.

Cornelius Drebbel was born in Holland in 1572. In his early life he was said to have been an artist and engraver- a common profession for a Dutchman at this time. In 1604, he made his way to England with Hendrick Golzius who introduced him to alchemy. It was during this time that Drebbel began his career as an inventor.

Drebbel

He is credited with the invention of a perpetual motion machine, compound microscope and the mercury thermostat. In 1610 and again in 1619 he was invited to Prague to show his Perpetual Motion Machine which could tell the time, date and season. It was while working for the King of England and the Royal English Navy, that Drebbel began working on his concept for an underwater rowboat or submarine.  There is no surviving sketches of Drebbel’s 1620 submarine, and accounts are few. But from the ones available, it is said that the submarine was “covered in greased leather, with a watertight hatch in the middle, a rudder and four oars. Under the rowers’ seats were large pigskin bladders, connected by pipes to the outside. Rope was used to tie off the empty bladders. In order to dive, the rope was untied and the bladders filled. To surface the crew squashed the bladders flat, squeezing out the water. [1] In total, Drebbel would build three working submarines. The final model had six oars and could carry 16 men. To create an air supply, tubes were held above the water’s surface with floatation devices allowing the submarine to stay underwater for longer periods. Accounts suggest that the submarine could travel from Westminster to Greenwich and back underwater. The trip took three hours with the boat traveling 15 feet below the surface.

Painting of Drebbel’s submarine in the Thames.

Over the centuries, scientists have questioned how Drebbel truly created a supply of fresh air on a submarine. While highly doubted, some suggest that he might have had the technology to generate oxygen from heated Potassium Nitrate. Drebbel’s work in alchemy could have led him to such a discovery, and his work with thermostats could have caused such a reaction. Along with the debate on fresh air, there is also debate over whether King James I rode in the third of the submarines built. It is believed that during a trip under the Thames in 1626, that the King may have been aboard. Despite the King’s interest in Drebbel’s work and a development period of 15 years, the Royal Navy would not move past the trial stages with the boat.

While a great inventor, the recognition for Drebbel’s work would not come until after his death. During his time in the English court, he was mainly used for his experience in alchemy and his knowledge of fireworks.  Despite his numerous patents for inventions that have ties to groundbreaking innovations, during his lifetime Drebbel experienced little fame or fortune. In 2001, a replica of the boat was built for BBC programming by boat builder Mark Edwards. Edwards was to closely follow the possible techniques used by Drebbel in creating the craft. A crew of two, using oars with folding leather blades, operated the boat. The oars were fitted with greased leather seals, which were clamped to the hull to prevent water from entering. Lead weights were used to ensure that the craft would stay partially submerged. Water was pumped though ballast tanks to keep her at a constant depth. Like the original, the two-man crew had to rely on a compass to navigate and used a large rudder for steering and braking. The vessel only had a half hour of breathable air before carbon dioxide levels became dangerous. Despite the abbreviated air supply, the replica proved that Drebbel’s design was functional and indeed the beginning of submarine development, securing Drebbel’s place in submarine history.

Replica of Drebbel’s submarine

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/drebbel_cornelis.shtml

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