What is breathed by the 1620 first submariners in the world?
The secret to obtaining oxygen by Cornelius van Drebbel.


source:  http://www.critical.ru/calendar/oxigen1.htm


Prior to the official the discovery of oxygen, chemists probably already produced this gas in different ways, but did not know that were holding a new element in their hands.  It seems, in fact, oxygen was discovered much earlier than the official date. Proof of this can be in the history associated with the creation of the world's first submarine by Cornelius Van Drebbel (Drebbel, Cornelius, 1572-1633).    At about 1620 (in the literature there is no exact date), he demonstrated in London, the English King James I and several thousand spectators gathered on the shore of the Thames, the world's first submarine.

The first written mention of the Drebbel boat refers to 1625. It belonged to the German scientist Johann Faber, who recorded the following words of Drebbels son-in-law, Abraham Kuffler: 

   «People who swam under water on this vessel, invented by the remarkable Dutch genius Cornelis Drebbel [ Ed. Note Critical: actually he mentioned the Danish nationality] and designed in London (England), where the ship can be seen even now, solemnly swore to me that while on the surface of the river ravaged storm, they were deep under water, not experiencing any difficulties. On the vessel may be 24 people, eight of them rowing, while the rest remained in their small cabins, the absence of air for 24 hours brought them suffering, and they were satisfied with the air that was placed in a small vessel, on expiry of this period they raised on the surface, removing the top cover to the vessel and leaving it open for some time, lay fresh air, and then close the lid, the vessel could be immersed in water as deep as the captain wished - even at the 50 fathom depth [about 91 m]. But that will surprise you even more: they ship on compass and know where they are, and the large vessel easily moved through oars. The following fact seems incredible: that portion of the vessel, where the rowers sat, had no bottom, so that every time they saw the water, and nevertheless, it did not lead them in horror, as being in their seats a little higher than water, they never dealt with their feet »(cited in« Cornelius van Drebbel. Dreams. Projects. The reality ». Yu Polunov).

It is possible that this story with the words of Drebbels son-in-law is replete with some exaggeration, especially in the area where the maximum depth of immersion of the boat is described. This is not surprising, because Drebbels family, brothers Abraham and Johan Kyufflery, not only to helped Drebbel in the design and manufacture of his devices, but also made great efforts to ensure that they became known as the broadest possible range of British and European scientists . They also acted as sales agents for Drebbel, demonstrating, and not without success marketing his microscopes and telescopes. Genius being rarely combined with enterprise and business acumen, the brothers successfully complemented the talent of their father. 
   Some more precise technical details of the world's first submarine, are due to the Lyons nobleman Baltazar de Monkonis, big fan of all the «secret» and scientific innovations, in search of which he traveled around the world. In 1663 de Monkonis visited England, where he met and became friends with the brothers Kuffler and many members of the Royal Society of London. Returning to France, he published in 1665 «Journal GUIDE», which described many of Drebbels inventions. Regarding the submarine de Monkonis wrote: 

«He also made a ship that could sink beneath the waves when it was needed and that moved under the water using oars. These paddles securely fastened to the outer side of the ship through the leather `ukuporok`, so while retaining their mobility. However, he could not sink deeper than twelve or fifteen feet. If he tried to do so, the gravity of the water made it difficult to rise to the surface, and it would have sunk ». 

   De Monkonis probably had in mind the method of fixation of the oars through a leather seal, preventing the infiltration of water into the boat. French engineer Denis Papen (Denis Papin, 1647-1712?), intended to use the same method as Drebbel in 1691, when he wrote in his own draft of a submarine: 

   «... Paddles shall be secured by pieces of skin, as they say it is done in Drebbels boat ». 

  In 1631 Constantin Huygens - Secretary of the Netherlands Ambassador in London, a distinguished poet and statesman, father of the great physicist, engineer and mathematician Christian Huygens, spoke with great delight spoke about the boat:

« Worthy all other collected Drebbel inventions, it was a small boat in which he calmly fell under the water, holding the King and several thousand Londoners the greatest strain. The vast majority of these people thought that the man who so skillfully remained invisible to them over (as said), three hours had already died as suddenly, he unexpectedly raised to the surface at a considerable distance from where it plunged into the water; with him there were several participants in this dangerous business; they testified that they had not experienced any difficulties or fear of the water and that they dropped on the depth, when so desired, and raised when they wished to do so, they sailed to where wanted, rising to the surface water, and again descending so deeply, as desired ... They did in the belly of the whale, all that usually do people who are on the ground, and did so without any difficulty. From all the above it is easy to conclude what would be the benefits of this bold claim in the days of war, when (as I have repeatedly heard from the Drebbel), enemy ships, standing in the security on the anchor can be hiddenly and suddenly attacked by water, and sunk through Tara - the very tool, whose terrifying force is used today in the capture of a gate or bridge » (cited in« Cornelius van Drebbel. Dreams. Projects. The reality ». Polunov Yu). 

   Of all the technical and historical details related to the Drebbel boat, we, of course, are primarily interested in the treatment of this invention to the history of discovery of oxygen. Along with various technical tasks that Drebbel had to deal with the construction of the boat (hull pressurization, ports for oars, etc.), he was confronted with the task of providing breathing air for command and passengers needed for and coped brilliantly with this seemingly unsolvable problem for its time. We know that a healthy person in a safe condition for the day pumps about 7200 liters of air through the lungs taking back 720 liters of oxygen. In addition, there are severe breathing problems indoors due to the accumulation of carbon dioxide. In connection with the description of this boat, the witnesses are that from time to time one still was forced to climb onto the surface of water for ventilation. 
   However, the testimony of numerous witnesses, the inventor of the submarine successfully, albeit partially, solved the problem of breathing with the help of chemistry. 
   Robert Boyle wrote in 1660 in the above mentioned book «New Physico-Mechanical Experiments, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects» ( «New physic mechanical experiments concerning the elasticity of air

«... except the mechanical design of the boat, the inventor had a chemical solution (liquor), which he considered essentially secret to diving. And when from time to time he judged that suitable for breathing air has already partly spent and made it difficult to breath in the boat, he could uncork a vessel filled with this solution, quickly fill the air in such a vital part of the content that would make it suitable for re - breathing in a long time ». 

  Drebbels method of oxygen fell in the area of military secrets, and therefore kept in the strictest secrecy. Interestingly, from what one could derive, Cornelius Van Drebbels oxygen does not exclude the «barium» cycle option (preparing oxygen by the method of Brin):

BaSO4 = BaO + SO3;

BaO + 0,5 O2

5000 C> ======  <7000 C


« Drebbels Secret solution » could be a solution of hydrogen peroxide:

BaO2 + H2SO4 = BaSO4 + H2O2

2 H2O2 = 2H2O + O2

Incidentally submarines designers afterwards followed this path. However, numerous statements by Drebbel contemporaries and those scientists who knew about his boat from the words of eyewitnesses or rumors, soars in the scientific community, allow a high degree of credibility to suggest that Drebbel used for the «recovery» of air in the submarine oxygen, which he learned to produce by heating saltpeter:

2 KNO3


2 KNO2



The inventor himself did not leave any indications on this point, with the exception of one, rather vague in its place «Concise treatise on the nature of the elements» (Ein kurzer Tractat von der Natur der Elementen, Leiden, 1608), from which we can conclude that Drebbel experimentally found the dissociation of a gas when heating nitrate: «It is very dry, fine or hot air, rapidly penetrating into serious heavy clouds, expanding them, making thin and, moreover, making a different composition of air, resulting in them instantly increasing the volume of hundreds of times; this is a terrible traffic, which are destroying and breaking, displaces and moves the air until the volume and density did not align and it is the state of rest. It happens when an amount of nitrate decomposes and breaks down the constituent parts in the power of fire and thus changing the quality of air, or when a wet hand or a piece of cloth around white hot iron or molten lead, which due to thermal expansion crack and burst with a noise like thunder » (cited in« Cornelius van Drebbel. Dreams. Projects. The reality ». Polunov Yu). 
   Successful testing of the Drebbel submarine in 20-s of XVII century attracted the attention of many scientists in Europe, which, considering the nature of combustion and respiration, were trying to penetrate the mystery of Drebbels «secret» or at least to gather about him as much information as possible. 

   One of the most interested and active researchers of Drebbels engineering genius was Robert Boyle (Robert Boyle, 1627-1691), who in his book «New Experiments Physico-Mechanical, Touching the Spring of the Air and its Effects», published in 1660, paid much attention to his invention. As part of the book, immediately preceding the story of underwater vehicles, Robert Boyle describes «sudden death of animals while removing the surrounding air», and then, turning to Charles, Lord
Dungarvan , said: 
«Maybe your Lordship of assumes that there are some benefits from the air,  it is not well understood by us and makes it constantly necessary to the life of animals ... Paracelsus actually tells us that just as the stomach acquires animal flesh and makes some part of it useful, but rejects the other, we use light of the air and reject the rest ... This leads to the assumption that the air has a little life ... the quintessence, which serves to refresh our spirit of life ». 

Turning to the story of the Drebbel submarine, Boyle writes: 
«But, in addition, referring to the point of view of Paracelsus, it may be appropriate before you continue the story, to introduce your Lordship with the conceit of the deservedly well-known engineer and chemist Cornelis Drebbel, who, along with other wonderful things that made them for the late King James (which is confirmed by many trustworthy person), invented a boat for diving. The test vessel was carried out on the Thames and had a wonderful success, there were 12 oarsmen, and, moreover, the passengers, one of whom spoke about the excellent mathematician, and he handed me this story. And now that what I remembered from this story. Showing curiosity and depth, asking Drebbel relatives, especially his son-in-law - a skilled doctor, who married his daughter - I was wondering about the base of his assertion that the untrained person can stay long under water without choking sensation. I came to a conclusion reached by Drebbel: not all the mass of air, but some of its quintessence, (or the spirit of), as chemists say, makes it suitable for breathing, and if it is spent, then the remaining large part of the air, or - as I would call it - the basis, is not in a position to maintain the vital flame. Thus, from the information I have gathered, I concluded that, in addition to the mechanical design of the boat, the inventor had a chemical solution (liquor), which he considered the essential secret of diving. And when from time to time he is concluded that the air suitable for breathing was already partly spent and made it the boat people difficult to breath, he could uncork a vessel filled with this solution, quickly fill the air with such a vital part of the content that would make it suitable for re - breathing a long time (through the dissipation or cooling solution concentrated vapors or by other reasonable means which are not subject to review). Confine myself to that, add the following. Having the opportunity to provide some services to the most close of his relatives, and set myself the aim to learn what this strange solution was, I always hear from them assurances that Drebbel never revealed his secret, as nothing is said about the substance from which the solution is prepared ». 

In another his treatise - «On the benefits of experimental natural philosophy» - Boyle wrote: 

« As assured us Marin Mersenne, attempt to diving (at least for a short distance) was successfully launched by the splendiferous Cornelis Drebbelem; on the same told me both Drebbels son-in-law and many other sensible persons, heard a report from the very people who a long time, sailed in the boat under water. They confirmed that, although the boat was a full of people, they breathe very easily, and they did not feel uncomfortable because of the lack of fresh air ...».

Thus, the genius of Robert Boyles prediction of the existence of a «vital part»  in the air and the success of experiments of the «Oxford Group» were largely prepared by Cornelius van Drebbel. A huge interest in the Drebbel «secret» was shown by other members of the Royal Society of London. For example, Sir Kenelm Digbi (1603-1665) January 23, 1661 made in the «Gresham College» segment of «the cradle of the Royal Society», a  report «Considerations related to the vegetation of plants», which was published in the same year in London as separate booklet. The report contained a description of the experiments related to growth and development of plants. Digbi argued that both plants and animals absorb the «special food», in the water and air. «In the air there is, - he said - the hidden life of food (hidden food of life) ». In itself, this statement is true, and does honor to its author. But Digbi mistaken, believed that one substance is the basis of nutrition and plant and animal species, in other words, it does not distinguish between nitrogen and oxygen. According to his theory, the roots of plants absorb in the ground «nitrogenous salt» (nitrous salt), i.e. nitrate, and the latter, in turn, absorbed from the air «hidden food of life». 
But once it went on nitrate, the Rapporteur was very appropriate, and by the way mentioned Cornelius Drebbel in his report. The greatest interest for us is in the following observation Digbi: «Cornelis Drebbel, collected a large amount of nitrate in a narrow chamber (narrow room), to revive and restore the weakened forces of the guests who were in his cozy house underwater, when they have been consuming entire balm (they had fed upon all the balsam), contained in the air chamber: opening the container (phial), he gave the opportunity to fresh alcohol to evaporate in the lean and shady air ». 
So, for Digbi, Drebbel entered «hidden food of life» (i.e. oxygen) in the depleted air, and thus enabled guests to flat and continue to breathe freely during their underwater journey, not pulling the boat up to the surface and not using stocks with atmospheric air. 
 In conclusion, Cornelius Drebbels solution to breathing problems in the invention of a submarine was repeatedly mentioned in the minutes of meetings of the Royal Society of London in connection with the discussion of problems of combustion and respiration. Thus, the record in the minutes of the meeting of June 26, 1667 reads as follows:
   «Mr Boyle said he knew a man who, using a method known to him, could stay 3 hours under water without damage to itself. This gives cause for reflection on what kind of material makes the air unfit for breathing. Some people think that it becomes unusable when it gets littered, and captured a heavy steam. According to Mr. Hooke, the air has a special quality of nitrogenous substances, reducing the life force, and if it is spent, the air becomes unfit for breathing ». 
It should be noted that the Secretary of the Royal Society of London, Robert Guk (Robert Hooke, 1635-1703) has expressed similar views in the past. In its «micrography» (1665) he wrote that the air contains a particular substance, such substance is bound in the nitrate in a «compressed» condition. 

   The interest of scientists for the invention of Drebbel on a way of breathing under water continued unabated during the XVII century. For example, Edmund Dickinson (1624-1707), physician of Charles II and James II, wrote: «I have heard from scientists, and very honest people, who can be fully trusted, that there is a way to prepare a kind of gas, which can fill the lack of fresh air, which makes it possible to live for a long time in a small and completely enclosed space. They also said that this method validated experiences held in London on the River Thames by the well known Dutch Cornelis Drebbel, lying in the fact that a few people stayed a long time under water in a closed boat, and every time their breathing became difficult, it was facilitated quickly by opening a bottle and thus letting the gas contained in it go out while it seemed that this introduced fresh air in the closed space». 

   So, the above evidence of contemporaries of Cornelius van Drebbel suggest that he was not only far ahead of Carl Wilhelm Sheele (1742-1786) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), opening the way to experimentally obtain the oxygen, but also explored its benefits , then found a practical application of his discovery. 
   However, the ungrateful humanity, or rather that part of it, which is called «historians of science and technology», in three-plus centuries forgot about Cornelius Van Drebbel, remembering only the negative and distorting the facts, neglecting biographies unobjectively appreciating his work. But, except the creation of a submarine and open ways to get oxygen through thermal decomposition of nitrate, he was one of the inventors of the thermometer, and the sophisticated microscope. In addition, he created the first oven with an automatic temperature control; proposed a method of dyeing in scarlet ... in our virtual calendar we present a biography of this distinguished inventor, noting the date of November 7, 1633, when Cornelius van Drebbel, forgotten by all, died in absolute poverty in London's Franciscan monastery. 

   But the memory of Cornelius van Drebbel gradually returned to the descendants. This is clearly shown in the attribution of a lunar crater named Drebbel.

His mechanical talents, however, enabled him, if what is related be true, to construct a machine superior in some respects even to the diving bell. He contrived not only a vessel to be rowed under water, but also a liquor, to be used in the vessel, which supplied the place of fresh air. The vessel, which was made for King James I., carried twelve rowers, besides the passengers. It was tried in the river Thames between Westminster and Greenwich, and one of the persons who performed that submarine navigation, gave an account of it to one who afterwards communicated it to Mr.Boyle. In regard to the liquor, Mr. Boyle says that he learnt from a physician who married Drebbel's daughter, that it was used occasionally when the air in the submarine boat became corrupted by the breath of the company, and rendered unfit for respiration : at which time, by unstopping the vessel full of this liquor, such a proportion of vital parts could be restored to the impure air as would make it serve again for a considerable time. The secret of this liquor Drebbel would never disclose to more than one person, who told Mr. Boyle what it was. 

Boyle erzählt, daß sich Cornelius Drebbel gerühmt, eine» iiquor erfunden zu haben, dessen Ausdünstungen die verdorbene iuft auss neue zur Respiration geschickt machten. Seine Erzählung ist folgende: — «Dieser Voraussetzung gemäß soll Cornelius „Dreobel nach der Aussage vieler glaubwürdigen „Personen ein Schiff erfunden haben, in welchem man „unter dem Wasser fahren kann. Denn Drebbel «glaubte, es sey nicht die ganze Masse der iuft, son- „dem nur ein gewisser geistiger Theil derselben, der sie „zur Respiration geschickt mache; wenn dieser verzehret „sey, so sey die übrige gröbere Masse der iuft unfähig, «das im Herzen befindliche iebeusfeuer zu unterhalten. „Er hatte daher, noch ausser der mechanischen Einrichtung seines Schiffes, einen chymischen iiquor ersun- „den, dessen Dämpfe, wenn man das Gefäß, worin« „er enthalte» war, öffnete, der durch die Respiration „verdorbenen iuft sehr schnell so viel iebensgeist mit» „theilen sollten, daß sie wieder zu dieser Absicht geschickt „gemacht würde. Als ich zu erfahren suchte, woraus „dieser seltsame iiquor bestünde, sagten Drebbelo Bekannte einstimmig, er habe dies niemand entdecken „wollen, ausser einer einzigen Person, die mir aber doch »sagte, was es sey «). "