How does one take credit for the discovery of a gas? It is not the invention or the first time of use. The process of discovery has been described as follows; the extraction and collection in pure form, the identification and separation from similar elements, a demonstration of basic qualities and the documentation and reporting of the findings to the trade press.

The aforementioned requirement is the reason why the Dutchman Cornelius Jacobzoon van Drebbel (1572-1633) is unable to take credit for the discovery of oxygen.

At the beginning of the 17th century Drebbel extracted the gas for an underwater boat that he invented and built in 1620. Oxygen enriched air provide the ability to remain underwater for a long period of time.

In his book, The Nature of Elements, Drebbel noted that the method by which oxygen is extracted was by ‘pyrolysis of saltpeter’ in 1621.

Drebbel demonstrated his exciting new boat to King James I. He used a crew of 21 men who rowed the boat down the River Thames from Westminster to Greenwich in 3 hours at a submerged depth of metres. It is said that the King himself may have been aboard the vessel.

It was reported at the time that the feasibility of Drebbel’s submarine was due to “air within being freshened by a subtle spirit (oxygen?) which had been extracted from the atmosphere.”

Reference: Ebbe Almqvist (2003) History of Industrial Gases. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers