Today, an invention is an omen of freedom. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The late 1500s were no great
age of invention. These were the dog days of the
Renaissance. It was an age of art, poetry, and
religious strife. It was a tide of warring kings
Cornelius Drebbel was born into this world in 1572,
in Holland. He studied engraving. He was good at
His teacher was also an alchemist. He taught
Drebbel more than art. He also taught him the
chemistry of the late 1500s. Drebbel set himself up
as a maker of maps and pictures. But it was the
material world that'd laid its hold on his mind.
The fusion of art and science is, of course,
technology. When Drebbel wed the two, they led him
directly to inventing.
He patented a pump and a clock. He invented a
thermometer and a chimney. He created a new dye. It
was a bright scarlet that came from a chemical
reaction with tin. He built a perpetual-motion
machine. Well, not really! It was actually a clock
driven by atmospheric-pressure changes. You never
had to wind it.
King James brought Drebbel to London in 1606.
Drebbel made the first submarine there. It was open
at the bottom like a diving bell, and it held
several people. A rower on the surface powered it.
Some reports say Drebbel had chemical means for
regenerating the air down below.
Drebbel's greatest invention was more modest. At
least so it seemed. It was a chicken incubator with
a new feature. Warm air flowed around it and out
through a valve. He made control of that valve
automatic. His work with thermometers, chemicals,
and chimneys all came together in a mercury device
that held the temperature constant. He made the
This was a time of warring dukes and barons, all
fighting for control. Drebbel flew in the face of
that. He invented the first modern device that gave
human control away -- to a machine.
150 years later, a great sun-spray of feedback
control devices appeared. Inventors poured them out
during the great revolutions of the late 1700s.
Suddenly we had fly-ball governors, float valves,
and pressure regulators. Adam Smith gave us
laissez-faire. He extended feedback
control to economics.
The greatest feedback control device of them all
was the American Constitution, with its built-in
checks and balances. It took control away from
princes. It let us regulate ourselves.
So Drebbel was far ahead of his time. He had a
crystal-ball vision of the future. He had
instinctive freedom of the mind. And his strange
incubator proved to be the first shot fired in the
revolutions that would finally set us free.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds