1605. Jan Adriaansz. Leeghwater

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Holland in the 17th century

More than half of the surface of Holland is situated below the level of the North Sea and my family home is about two meters below sea level. If the pumping system failed we would soon drown with the rising water level. Therefore it seems as if us Dutch walk around like divers below sea level, but without the need for cumbersome breathing devices. Instead we are protected by an ingenious system of dykes, canals and pumps. This system was developed during the 16th and 17th centuries in an era of progress, trade and enterprising business. Impressive fleets of Dutch sailing ships carried goods throughout the world along the known trade routes. At this time an early, datable Dutch book first describes the exploits of underwater work and the use of diving bells. In 1590 ‘Cornelus Leeghwater’ (a man made famous for his achievements in pumping water out of polders and creating reclaimed land) wrote the first edition of ‘Het Haarlemmermeerboek’ and mentions ‘underwater work’ in the text. In 1671 N.Witsen of Amsterdam published ‘Aeloude en hedendaegse scheepsbouw en bestier’; a book on ship building that also contains descriptions and pictures of diving bells.

1605 Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater and the first Diving Bell in Holland.

Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater was born in 1575 in De Rijp, a small town in the north west of Holland. The ‘eighty years’ war with Spain had just begun, but the war of keeping the sea out of the low lying areas of Holland was a continuous battle. However, Dutch engineering was improving at this time through the construction of better dykes and windmill pumps. Leeghwater was one such person who was gaining an engineering reputation in drainage and flood defenses. Leeghwater took a great interest in the mechanism and workings of the first saw-mill which was built in the town of Uitgeest in 1594, as well as the development of other industrial windmills. His studies enabled him to invent the ‘rotating cap’ which enabled the sails of a windmill to face the direction of the wind. In 1605 Leeghwater built his own windmill with it’s newly designed ‘rotating cap’ at De Rijp.

In the year 1605, at the end of april there came a wine-buyer to Alkmaar, named Dirk Thomasz., who was quite familiar with Prince Mauritius and had several reasonings with the Prince, whom he told that in the north of Holland, in De Rijp were two or three youths, who could descend in the water, which made the Prince eager to see this himself; to which the wine-buyer replied: I will write the youths, that they come to his royal mercy in The Hague.

2. And so because of the letter we traveled to The Hague and arrived there with the Prince, who greeted us very kindly and asked us if we were the youths who could go under water? To which we answered: 'yes merciful Lord'; to which the Prince said: ' how could one know, or one should see it'; to which we replied and said: 'when our Lord wants to see we can perform it tomorrow, here in your pond'; to which the Prince replied: 'that a demonstration in his pond he did not like because there would be a thousand spectators and that was not convenient'

3.Then the Prince sent for a falconer, named Henderik Evertszn., who would go with us out of The Hague, to search for water where it would be convenient to perform the art, as which we did, and which water is a little out of the Hague at the left side, in the canal leading to Delft.

Leeghwater worked on various projects in Holland and in other European countries. In 1619 he worked in the marshes of Vlaanderen. In 1629 he was employed to advise on marsh drainage near Bordeaux, France and two years later at Metz. In 1633 his engineering skills were once again needed at the Bottschlotter Tief Dam in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. However, in Holland Leeghwater is most remembered for the invention of his improved windmills for drainage pumping which create new land. Between 1608 and 1643, 20.000 hectares of land were reclaimed from the sea in the north of Holland using Leeghwater’s improved windmill.

‘Leeghwater’ was born as Jan Adriaanszoon, but after Prince Mauritius of The Hague awarded him with a Patent for a ‘diving bell’, he added 'Leeghwater' to his name. 'Leeghwater' meant 'Low (level) water' in the Dutch language.

In 1649 Leeghwater wrote a book about the story of his ‘Patent’ diving bell, but a year later he died at the age of 75. In his book 'Een klein Cronykje' he describes his home town of De Rijp and writes about his travels, ideas and adventures. One of these adventures is the 1605 trip to The Hague with his friend Pieter Pietersz to demonstrate his so called 'under water trick'. I shall try to translate Leeghwater's story as near as possible to the original version which is written in the 'Old Dutch' language:

Engraving: Prince Maurits van Oranje

Leeghwater repeated the 'art of staying underwater’ in Amsterdam in 1606. He stayed in the water for 45 minutes, made music, sang and wrote on paper. The Patent was awarded by Prince Mauritius on 5th May, 1605 and was valid for 10 years. The description of Leeghwaters 'Underwater Art' invention in the Patent was as follows:

'An underwater art, so to go under water, to stand, sit, lay. eat and drink, read and write, sing and speak, also to repair bridges and locks, connect cables under sunken ships, to wind these from the bottom, idem to search for pearls and other valuable goods on the bottom, to carry and deliver secretly letters and messages under water, above that providing free respiration, either deep at one, two, five, six or more fathoms'

What type of device the 'Underwater Art' invention was has remained a mystery until today, and no person ever used Leeghwater’s Patent in the ten years after it was granted. It is now generally believed that Leeghwater used a diving bell, and another source of information from the North of Holland by Cornelis Drebbel (1572-1633) also supports this theory. Drebbel lived in Alkmaar about the same time as Leeghwater, which is only 17 kilometers from De Rijp, where Leeghwater was living at the time. Drebbel was a successful alchemist and inventor, and moved to England in 1604, having been invited by King James I. Drebbel worked in England as an artist for Henry, ‘Prince of Wales’ where he also gained a reputation for his machine inventions and firework displays at royal parties. In 1610 Drebbel travelled to Prague where he worked as an 'upper alchemist' for Emperor Rudolf II. In 1613 he returned to London. In 1620 Drebbel gave a demonstration on the River Thames with an invention that would bring him worldwide fame: a submarine which he had invented and built for the British navy...

A full size replica of Drebbel’s submarine is displayed in a British museum. Photograph, David L.Dekker

The diving bell used by Leeghwater in 1605 has never been illustrated. This illustration shows an artist impression of a diving bell. The engraving is an illustration from a German book.                

Engraving: David L. Dekker collection

A replica of the Triewald diving bell at the ‘Northern Divers Meeting 2010’ in Ebeltoft, Denmark. The bell was built by members of the Historical Diving Society of Norway who were visiting this event, the meeting was organized by the Danish Historical Diving Society. The original bell was designed by Mårten Triewald of Sweden who built his diving bell in 1734, almost 130 years after Leeghwater did his ‘underwater trick’                                                                                                                         Photograph, David L.Dekker

The first day there was a storm and very cold weather, so we did not speak with the Prince, but the second day the Prince gave us a time, just after he would have had his meal at noon, that we should be ready. And the prince also said to us: 'men, yesterday I thought about you, and I would not have liked you to become ill because of me'

5. As we knew the time we went to the place, and prepared; then came to us Prince Mauritius, with his brother Prince Hendrik, with Count Willem van Vrieslant, with Count Ernst, and more great Lords and noblemen, in carriages, and standing there with us Prince Mauritius said: 'Men, I am ready to see'; where after I, Jan Adriaansz. Leeghwater with a good courage jumped into the water, and said 'Adieu, my pious Lords'; and I was there such a long time under water, that the Prince Mauritius with the other Lords would be pleased, and then came up again, then asked me the Prince Mauritius: 'What was that noise, which I heard?' where after I answered: 'I shouted loud; did my Lord hear that'? Where after the Prince said: 'I thought it was the lowing of a cow'.

6. Then Pieter Pietersz. one of our friends, jumped in the water a bit further away, and stayed under water as long as I did, but played with his fingers a bit above the water; then said Count Willem van Vrieslant 'The man has almost drowned and cannot hold on'.

7. And when Pieter Pietersz. came on land as well, being us both fresh and well, so said to us Prince Mauritius: 'Men, I see that the art is a good one; do not leave The Hague before we spoke again, go to a good tavern and show off well', which we did, and after that we went again to the Prince on his court, where he honored us, and awarded us a patent for our art, which I kept to this day'.

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Chronology of Diving in Holland:

1605. Jan Adriaansz.Leeghwater

1832. Hugh Morton

1836. Deane

1839. Augustus Siebe

1839. Augustus Siebe (2)

1839. Augustus Siebe (3)

1841. Bikkers Rotterdam

1844. Heinke

1860. Rouquayrol Denayrouze

1860. Rouquayrol Denayrouze (2)

1860. Rouquayrol Denayrouze (3)

1890. Friedrich Flohr

1899. Drägerwerk

1912. Drägerwerk (2)

1942. Drägerwerk (3)

1945. La Spirotechnique

1945. La Spirotechnique (2)

1945. La Spirotechnique (3)

1945. Zock, Dordrecht

1955. E.P.L. de Hoog, Alkmaar

1983. Jan van Leest

1984. Pommec

1992. Henk Oostenveld

2002. Kees de Jonge

2004. Krul en Dekker

Alphabetical International Index:

The DiveScrap INDEX

2004. Krul en Dekker (2)

2004. Krul en Dekker (3)

2004. Krul en Dekker (4)

2012. Henk-Jan Vijn


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