By the 1600s, boats were nothing new. But an underwater boat was a radical concept. Dutchman Cornelis Drebbel invented the first functional submarine in 1620. Being a submarine pioneer was just one of many achievements for Drebbel, who was born into a middle-class family in the North Holland city of Alkmaar in 1572.
When in 1598, Drebbel filed a patent for a water-supply system, his thirty-five year career as an inventor officially had commenced. Soon after, he was working with lenses. It must’ve been an exciting time for him, as the Dutch were at the forefront of optical innovation.
By 1607 Drebbel had moved to London, where he would spend the bulk of his remaining years. He found a wealthy patron in the English King, James I. At the king’s court, Drebbel put on his own little science fairs.
Drebbel was not the first to come up with the idea of a submarine. But Drebbel was the first to actually build one. Over the course of several years, Drebbel built three increasingly larger submarines. The third model could hold sixteen passengers. This submarine – which consisted of a rowboat tightly covered in leather – stayed five meters under water for a period of three hours.
A prototype of one of Drebbel's smaller submarines is shown in the picture above. It was shown during the 2017 Gamechangers Exhibition in Amsterdam's Maritime Museum.
Drebbel was working for the British Navy when he built his submarines. Curiously, the Navy chose not to proceed with his invention, which was perhaps a little too ahead of its time for people to appreciate its military potential.
For more on Cornelis Drebbel and his submarines, read Issue 22 of Dutch the magazine.
To receive information about the Netherlands, the Dutch, and the Dutch diaspora on a regular basis, subscribe to Dutch the magazine!