Saturday, 5 December 2015

King James' Submarine

Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel is a long forgotten engineering pioneer. He worked amongst the ferment of new ideas and new technologies of early 17th Europe and like many clever men of the time was a bit of a showman – you had to be to attract the necessary funds from Princes and Kings – and touted his ideas around the courts of Europe.

And Cornelis travelling engineering show was pretty impressive; he developed, among other things; a thermostat, a solar energy system, special effects for masques such as rain, lightning and thunder, worked on drainage and water supply in Germany and in England, made an automatic lens grinding machine, a solar powered harpsichord, invented the first microscope, made exploding glass 'Batavian Tears' and designed a detonator that used them to set off torpedoes and sea-mines, and then went on to create fulminate of Mercury.

But his piece de resistance was the submarine...

Drebbel's Underwater Rowboat




In 1620 he managed to interest King James I and VI of England and Scotland in a radical new boat for his Royal Navy. Starting from the 1578 design by William Bourne he created a leather covered, wooden framed boat that could be rowed underwater. Over the next few years he created two more, finally coming up with a veritable submarine galleon, a six oared vessel that carried 16 passengers.

And this was not just some Leonardo-ish doodling on plans that never came to pass either, he built it and had it rowed for three hours 12 feet under the water, up and down the Thames between Westminster and Greenwich before an astonished King and thousands of his subjects.

But unfortunately the Admiralty didn't like the idea and it never saw use in combat.




Modern engineers have suspected that Drebbel's device was in fact more hype than substance, but a modern reconstruction (extrapolated from descriptions and pictures admittedly) built of the BBC 'Building the Impossible' series did actually work.

The Truth


Any, all or none of the following explanations may be true...
  • Drebbel actually did it. The device works thanks to his talent for alchemy; one diarist says he made a 'chymicall liquor' kept in a stoppered flask which would 'speedily restore the troubled air'. This is potassium nitrate, and by heating it Drebbel could create oxygen. The records don't actually record this, but the boat was destroyed due to this device – an able seaman lit a pipe when the boat had been underwater for a couple of hours and Drebbel's oxygenator had enriched the carbon dioxide laden atmosphere with plenty of fresh oxygen. The boat caught fire 15 feet down, the crew were overcome by smoke and died trying to escape.

    LotFP Watercraft:
    Submersible

    Required Crew: 4, Miles per day: Sailing 12, Rowing 12, Cargo 0.5, Ship Hit Points: 3

    The ship has a small mast and sail which can be raised when on the surface, not that it is very effective. Once it has taken 1 damage it will begin to flood and will sink to the bottom in 10+1d10 rounds unless it surfaces. If it takes 2 damage while underwater it cannot surface and will hit the bottom in 1d10 rounds. Escaping from the ship while underwater isn't easy. Highest DEX passenger goes first and makes a save vs Paralysis plus their Dex bonus to get out. Only one person may attempt to escape per round, and each round they are stuck in the flooding and sinking boat they get a penalty of -1 to the save. Once it has 'sunk' it is full of water and all aboard will drown.

    Can sail for a maximum of three hours underwater, each hours submerged travel costing 5sp in chemicals for the air recycling rig.

    Making such a boat will cost 3000sp, or £150, but can be done by an ordinary boatyard.
  • Drebbel's boat was crap. It couldn't submerge totally, you needed to keep the hatch of the 'conning tower' open so the crew could breathe and it was appallingly easily swamped unless the water was completely calm. The ship still exists at the King's boathouse in Westminster, but it will need repairs.
  • Drebbel was a sorcerer. The boat did indeed work but only because the cunning swine utilised a temporary magic portal to another world to refresh the atmosphere inside the vessel. On one test the 'atmospheric portal' did not open onto the refreshing sea breezes of Theta Reticuli VI, but onto the soupy and miasmic lower clouds of a gas giant, killing all in the boat. There is a pond in a secret location in Herefordshire covered by a sealed dome where the still open portal pumps toxic oily fumes into the water and years later pollutes the air above it. Natural philosophers and engineers seek a way of closing it, but some horrible floating betentacled things got in through the portal and are making it difficult.
  • Drebbel was a pretty evil sorcerer. The boat worked because he had surgically adapted the crew to underwater rowing by grafting gills onto them. When the program ended the crew were left to fend for themselves and currently live in a cave under Lake Windemere in Cumbria. One of their number has ventured ashore though – he wants a woman to be changed to be his companion and seeks to find Drebbel's arcane surgical manuals and to woo – or even kidnap – a suitable convert.
  • Drebbel was a pretty smart sorcerer. He didn't just invent a submersible boat he invented an invisible one and told everyone it was a submersible to throw off spies and rivals. and avoid having people inquire to deeply into the quite diabolic magic he employed. The whole thing operates thanks to an invisible amoeba-like demon that swallows the boat, scoots it down river then vomits it up. Drebbel uses various substances to coat the boat to avoid it being digested and electrical discharges to get it out of the demon at the destination. Hopefully.

    The demon is still about, Drebbel set it loose in the Cambridgeshire fens where it was supposed to help with the drainage project he had going there. It's gone a bit wild in the intervening years though, might not respond to well to the magic dog-whistle Drebbel made to call it.
  • Drebbel got too ambitious. He found a way of miniaturising his submarine and its crew and when King James fell ill in March 1625 sent them on a mission into the King's brain to repair the damage caused by a stroke. Sadly the miniaturisation magic wore off too quickly making quite a mess. A waxwork of the King's head was fashioned for the lying in state part of his funeral.
  • Drebbel's boats were taken seriously by the Admiralty, but King James was too canny to let on, and development continued in secret. During the current civil war Parliament may be very pleased with themselves for subverting the entire Royal Navy, but just wait until the secret submersible squadron, powered by Drebbel's Perpetuum Mobile engine, are unleashed. They have already ferried Queen Henrietta Maria secretly across the channel and are bringing arms in from the Netherlands. Once the nefarious splintering glass torpedoes are perfected those treacherous and mutinous bastards in the surface fleet will be sent to the deeps!