• Eccentricity

    • Four centuries ago, Cornelis Drebbel used to mix alchemy with popular mechanics to entertain the English kings and their court. This is his story.

    A 17th century alchemical artifact that would go down in history / 

    Cornelis Drebbel, madman alchemist and inventor, has inspired plenty of studies. In 1620, he was one of the first men to ever build a feedback mechanism; however his superstitious character has not been featured, for some reason, in popular literature.

    Drebbel studied alchemy and mechanics and he enthralled the royals with his spectacular inventions that projected light, his firework demonstrations and, to the people’s bewilderment, he even built a submarine that dived through the Thames. His astounding powers over certain elements were such that some even suspected him of being a wizard. Constantijn Huyens, diplomat and friend of Galileo, warned his son Christiaan that he should stay away from the charismatic man “whose magic might come from the Devil”.

    In 1605, Drebbel, Dutch by birth, moved to England with his family and soon became one of King Jacob I’s favorite entertainers. At the time, the wizard unveiled “living instruments”; the most notable among them was the “perpetual motion machine”, a cosmologic clock that contained a crystal tube with a liquid bead that, to the onlookers' surprise, never stopped moving. Beyond the English court, astronomer Johannes Kepler and Peter Paul Rubens, were also captivated by Drebbel’s clock. For this reason, many mechanics from Oxford and Cambridge considered him a “vulgar mechanic”, “opportunistic” and a “charlatan”, since his prestidigitation demonstrations, according to them, were mere ingenious resources used to hypnotize the king. Additionally, Drebbel always wore rags and declared that his wisdom came from nature, something that intellectuals considered ridiculous. He once publicly stated that he’d never read a word of Latin or classic authors, and that his work didn’t profit from ancient wisdom. He believed that his inventions were demonstrations of the elemental forces of nature: earth, water, fire and air.

    However, what is most surprising about Drebbel's life, in addition to the fact that he is practically unknown in our era, is how much he can teach us about the birth and progress of modern science. He built his “circulatory oven”, as some science historians are calling it, using a proto-thermometer with a heat scale, at a time when it was barely known that inanimate objects contained and produced their own energy.

    And even though he pretended to use it to incubate eggs, Drebbel most likely built it to transmute metals into gold. Apparently, many alchemists at the time believed that if a basic metal was heated at a moderate and steady temperature for a long time, it could be turned into gold. They also believed that if they used a crucible in the shape of an egg for the mystical purification process it would function as a real egg: a static object, drenched in symbolic meaning, where magical metamorphosis takes place. Perhaps for this reason, alchemists referred to their crucible as the ovum philosophicum, the philosophical egg.

    The alchemist was never able to find, to our knowledge, the philosopher’s stone, but his invention was extraordinary. By joining mechanics and alchemy, he invented the first feedback device. His thermostat set a seminal example for feedback devices during the 18th century, which evolved into what today nurtures the recursive power behind digital logic and computers.

    Perhaps to protect his product, Drebbel never publicly described the details of his mechanical turning oven. Back then patents and authorship rights did not exist and plagiarism reigned supreme. But also, secrecy was an essential part of alchemy, and the formulas for transmutation were often encrypted in arcane symbols.

    But Drebbel’s circulating oven became the corner stone in the history of science, one that would enable mechanics and huge technological leaps. From the modern point of view, the device was a marvel created by a magus who sought to discover the secrets of nature. His story, described in detail in Nautilus, shows us how luck, alchemy and ingenuity set the foundations for modern science. 

    Tagged: alchemy, science, Futurism