Nautilus

The Vulgar Mechanic and His Magical Oven

By the time Cornelis Drebbel built an oven with a simple thermostat, one of the first manmade feedback mechanisms in history, in the 1620s, he was regarded in Europe as a magisterial, if not mad, inventor. He had already enchanted royalty and common people alike with elaborate clocks, projected-light spectaculars, fireworks displays, and a submarine. One modern scholar says Shakespeare used Drebbel as a model for Prospero, his noble sorcerer, who rules the mysterious island in The Tempest.

The comparison fits. Like the Bard’s wise duke, Drebbel was a Renaissance man whose inventions seemed to bend nature to his design. Drebbel appeared to have such an uncanny mastery over the elements that some suspected him of sorcery. Constantijn Huygens, diplomat and friend of Galileo and Descartes, warned his son Christiaan to steer clear of the charismatic man “whose magic might come from the Devil.”

What’s remarkable about Drebbel today, other than the fact the bewitching Dutch genius is so little known, is how much he has to teach us about the birth and progress of science. He built his oven at a time when a “vital” worldview, in which inanimate objects contain living energy, forged a prelude to the mechanical age.

“Drebbel’s circulating oven,” as historians of science now call it, included an early thermometer with a heat scale. It regulated itself with a feedback-control device that is a progenitor of the ubiquitous systems that regulate the air we breathe in homes, offices, trains, planes, and automobiles. His oven is one of the earliest devices that gave human control away to a machine and thus can be seen as a forerunner of the smart machine, the

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