Bow dye

Bow Dye/east end life/27may13

Renaissance man, polymath, uomo universale — there are many ways to describe the remarkable Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel. He was a multi-talented Dutchman who came to London as a guest of James I to share his extraordinarily eclectic scientific knowlege. In the 1660s he had invented the first working submarine, he devised revolutionary microscopes and telescopes, invented an air conditiong system, the first working thermometer, even a chicken incubator — yet he would die almost penniless, the landlord of an East End pub. And among the eccentric and brilliant Cornelis’s grand plans and myriad inventions it was a happy accident, at a windowsill in Bow, that made his family’s fortune.

Drebbel had been born in Alkmaar, in what would become the Netherlands, in 1572, the son of a farmer. He could certainly read and write, and studied Latin, but he had no university education. The scientific genius that would emerge was of a more practical colour — Cornelis learned by experimentation, and he was tireless. Leaving school, he was sent to Haarlem as an apprentice to the famed engraver and painter Hendrick Goltzius and it was here his interest in chemistry was born. Goltzius was an enthusiastic experimenter in alchemy, that medieval mix of the scientific and the mystical, whose grail was the search for the Philosopher’s Stone, for the Elixir of Life, and for the elements that would turn base metals to gold.

Easy for our modern minds to dismiss such stuff as a naive belief in superstition and magic, but the alchemists were on to something. They knew that elements could, seemingly magically, transform themselves — water could freeze solid or boil into nothing, acids could eat strong metals. Alchemy, in fact, would set modern chemistry in motion. By the 1590s, Drebbel’s interests were expanding furiously. In 1600, his nascent studies in engineering saw him being employed by the burghers of Middelburg, in the southern Netherlands, to build their town a fountain. While there he met Hans Lippershey, who was working in the growing science of optics, making spectacles and telescopes — Drebbel eagerly learned his skills. He became obsessed with inventions: the old age of alchemy and mysticism was giving way to a new world of experiment and science.

And it was this that attracted the attention of James I, who had recently succeeded to the throne of England. This ‘wisest fool in Christendom’ perhaps also straddled the medieval and modern, being simultaneously an enthusiastic burner of witches and a fan of the new sciences. The Scottish king, a poet and scholar, and rather beleaguered in his new London court, was keen to gather the brightest of the age around him, and collected explorers, theologians, economists and alchemists around him at court. Drebbel was invited to join him in 1604. He settled, with wife and family, in the Middlesex village of Bow, and set to work impressing the king.

While at court he demonstrated his perpetual motion machine, which told the time, date and season. Its fame spread across Europe, and Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II invited Cornelis to Prague to demonstrate its (dubious) efficacy. He became famous for his invention, in 1621, of a microscope with two convex lenses. He wrote a seminal work on the nature of the chemical elements (the move from alchemy to chemistry again). And he was devising his own compounds, including mercury fulminate, which would become used in explosives in the years to come. He demonstrated an air-conditioned room to the king and his courtiers (it was so cold they had to swiftly depart). And, practical as ever, he invented a chicken incubator with a mercury thermostat to keep it at a constant temperature — setting a template for the development of modern, reliable thermometers.

But now Drebbel started on a new project. James was looking for new weapons for his growing navy — with the new Great Britain’s imperial expansion, the navy was becoming far more important than the land army. He would devise various bombs for James and his successor Charles I, but even more boldly, he was to make the first navigable submarine. Gravesend naval man William Bourne had drawn plans for such a craft in the 1570s, and in between 1620 and 1624, Drebbel drew on those plans to build three working models, each bigger than the last. The last of them had six oars and carried 16 passengers (including James, who thus became the first monarch to travel underwater). Thousands of Londoners lined the banks of the Thames, as the vessel travelled from Westminster to Greenwich and back, staying underwater for some three hours.

But how did he do it? Argument still rages as to how ‘submarine’ the craft was — it was perhaps more a semi-submersible. But many accounts of the day have Drebbel putting his alchemical knowledge into practice, burning potassium nitrate within the submarine to generate oxygen (and simultaneously absorb carbon dioxide build up). If so, he had anticipated the ‘rebreather’, invented by Fleuss in the 1870s, by 250 years.

And yet … with all his brilliant inventions, Drebbel was never able to secure the patronage and money he needed, and by the late 1620s was near poverty, running a London alehouse and drawing up plans (never implemented) for draining the Lincolnshire fens. He was still conducting his experiments though and so it was that, while developing a coloured liquid for one of his thermometers, he accidentally dripped a solution of aqua regia (nitro-hydrochloric acid) on his tin window sill. The resultant colour, was a brilliant scarlet, much brighter and longer lasting than the existing carmines used in fabric dying. Cornelis had just a few more years to live, but his daughters Anna and Catharina and sons-in-law Abraham and Johannes Sibertus Kuffler established a dye works in Bow, with the colour of ‘Bow Dye’ a closely guarded family secret. Nobody could prise it from them, and the brilliant scarlet of Bow Dye became the fashionable toast of Europe. Cornelis died almost penniless … but his descendants made their fortunes.


About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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