Re. “the motto of Cornelis Drebbel (1572–1633), advocating a wise use of technology & automation: ‘Use Thy Gifts Rightly’”

Drebbel, born in Alkmaar, moved to Haarlem c.1587 and apprenticed with the famous painter, engraver, and alchemist Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617). “Here Drebbel was instructed in drawing and copperplate-engraving, and became an excellent etcher.” (H. A. M. Snelders, “Drebbel, Cornelis (1572–1633), Inventor and Mechanical Engineer,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn., May 2005, n. pag.)

After marrying Goltzius’ younger sister in 1595, Drebbel returned to Alkmaar, where he worked as an engraver, painter, and cartographer, and also as an instrument maker, optical worker, and engineer, obtaining several patents from the States General (Netherlands government) for perpetual motion machines and other ingenious products (such as a chimney with a good draft) that would win him an international reputation in later life.

Drebbel left the Netherlands for London in 1604–5, ending up in the special service of the precocious 10-year-old Henry, prince of Wales (1594–1612). Housed at Eltham Palace, Drebbel’s duties extended to assisting “in the technical preparations of the theatrical performances and innumerable entertainments at the Stuart court” (Snelders, n. pag.); such experience perhaps added to the dramatic flair with which Drebbel marketed and demonstrated his inventions.

Drebbel brought the superb craft traditions of the Netherlands with him to England, and his unique cross-cultural style of magical mechanism can help us rethink the proper role of a culture of craft in an era of industrialization and post-industrialization.

facsimile of early-17th-century trademark

^ Cornelis Drebbel’s brand: his monogram, plus motto OEFEND U GAVEN RECHT [USE THY GIFTS RIGHTLY].

This motto was inscribed, along with Drebbel’s monogram, on his many instruments and inventions (ranging from a perpetual-motion machine “representing the motion of the Heavens about the fixed earth,” air conditioning, an incubator, the thermometer, “an instrument to sink ships,” the first microscope, and several different types of camera, to the first sea-worthy submarine, which in 1620 traveled down the Thames from Westminster to Greenwich under the surface of the water, with an 8-person crew and 12 passengers kept alive by Drebbel’s mysterious on-board manufacture of breathable air, 150 years before the “discovery” of oxygen in the early 1770s).

The “discovery” of oxygen is usually attributed to 3 men: the Swedish chemist, Karl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786); the English chemist, Joseph Priestley (1733–1804); and the French chemist, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743–1794).

Scheele is considered the first to have isolated oxygen, which he called “fire air,” in 1771 and 1772; but his book describing these experiments was not printed until 1777 (delayed by a negligent publisher). Scheele was a committed phlogistonist, however, and did not interpret the role of oxygen in combustion correctly. “Phlogiston” named the hypothetical substance believed to be fixed in flammable substances and released during combustion and the calcination of metals; some even identified it with the element, fire. “Where a modern chemist sees a gain or loss of oxygen [during combustion], early chemists saw an inverse loss or gain of phlogiston.” (Dictionary of the History of Science, ed. W. F. Bynum, E. J. Browne, and Roy Porter, 1981, 323)

Priestley, who experimented with mercuric oxide a few years after Scheele, but beat Scheele into print with his published work of 1774, also isolated oxgygen, which he called “dephlogisticated air.” Like Scheele, Priestley “remained a convinced phlogistonist to the end of his life,” and was “as conservative in chemistry as he was liberal in politics and religion” (I. Asimov, Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, 2nd rev. edn., 1982, 312).

Lavoisier, building on the work of Priestley (without ever acknowledging so), “was the first to announce what other great chemists of the time, particularly Scheele, had only dimly suspected: that air consisted of two gases, one of which supported combustion and one of which did not. In 1779 he called the former ‘oxygen’” (Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science & Technology, 2nd rev. edn., 1982, 224).

In fact, Lavoisier’s work reaffirmed the correct idea of combustion already advanced by Robert Hooke (1635–1703) in Observ. XVI of his Micrographia, where Hooke argued that the dissolution of inflammable bodies “is made by a substance inherent, and mixt with the Air, that is like, if not the very same, with that which is fixt in Salt-peter” (R. Hooke, Micrographia, 1st edn., 1665, 103).

In turn, Hooke owed Drebbel for his initial insights regarding this “nitro-aerial spirit,” from which Hooke developed his chemical theory of combustion. And Drebbel, in turn, owed the Polish alchemist, Michael Sendivogius (1566–1636), whose nitro-aerial theory also influenced the 17th-century physician and chemist, John Mayow (bap. 1641, d. 1679), plus other early fellows of the Royal Society.