We’d suggest calling the following Dutch scientists ‘clever clogs’ if it wasn’t so disrespectful. So we won’t. But these eight theorists and inventors from the Netherlands made breakthroughs that shaped our modern world.
Christiaan Huygens (1629 -1695) was a mathematician, astronomer and physicist. Huygens formulated the wave theory of light, determined the shape of the rings of Saturn and contributed to the science of dynamics. Late in life he speculated about life on other planets, niftily sailing around the religious implications by saying that god, underestimating mankind’s scientific progress, had put the planets at such a distance from each other as to preclude any possibility of contact.
Inventor Cornelis Drebbel (1572 – 1633) is credited with building the first working submarine. Drebbel was born in Alkmaar but moved to England in 1604. Some 20 years later he was asked by the English navy to design a boat which could move underwater without the loss of human life. Drebbel built a watertight vessel clad with leather, with holes for oars, also made watertight with leather. It could go down to five metres below and stay there for a couple of hours at a stretch. His final prototype could hold sixteen passengers, with oxygen supplied through a kind of snorkel device. Drebbel’s submarine was never used for military purposes, but he had taken the science of warfare to new depths.
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek
Antoni van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) did all sorts of things not remotely connected with science and it wasn’t until he was 40 that he embarked on the career that would make him famous. Self-taught microbiologist Van Leeuwenhoek mastered the art of lens making and in 1674 he was able to observe single-celled life forms, a discovery which was met with disbelief. He also discovered bacteria in water and spermatozoa, and was the first to correctly describe red blood cells. He guarded the science behind his lenses jealously and never told anyone how he made them.
The first person to discover infrasound was Dutch mining engineer Rogier Verbeek (1845-1926). Infrasound is inaudible to human ears and includes anything up to 20Hz. Verbeek was given the task of analysing all the phenomena that occurred in the wake of the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883. When he looked at the barometric records he noticed a spike in pressure occurring at certain intervals. That spike was a sound wave that had travelled the circumference of the earth four times. Infrasound monitoring is used to detect nuclear testing but also has other scientific uses, such as detecting earthquakes or tracking the movement of icebergs.
Dutch physician Willem Einthoven (1860 – 1927) developed the first instrument with which to register the electrical activity of the heart, the string galvanometer electrocardiograph. His apparatus was too bulky to take to the patient, so the patient had to go to it. That was deemed too great an effort and doctors feared patients might expire before the experiment could be conducted, but undaunted, Einthoven used a phone line to make the connection between the patient and his giant string galvanometer and got his readings that way. The invention earned him the Nobel prize for physiology and medicine in 1924.
In 2010 André Geim (1958) (Russian by birth, Dutch by nationality) and his colleague Konstantin Novoselov were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of graphene, a material with lots of properties – among them super-efficient conductivity – that make it fantastically useful for application in innovative electronics. Plastics combined with graphene turn into a material that is lightweight, pliable and extremely strong. Soon cars, planes and spacecraft will all contain graphene in some shape or form. Geim discovered graphene during his so-called ‘Friday night experiments’, a sort of scientific fooling around that, he said, ‘should take up 10% of one’s time at least’. During one such experiment in 2004 he pulled a piece of Scotch tape off the point of a pencil. The result was an ultra-thin layer of carbon: graphene.
It’s used in billions of devices the world over but it hasn’t made Jaap Haartsen (1963), the Dutch inventor of Bluetooth, a penny. Haartsen invented the wireless connection between devices while working for Swedish company Ericsson in 1994. The patent, however, is in his name and Haartsen has been inducted in the American Hall of Fame, an honour he shares with Edison, the Wright brothers and Henry Ford. Desperate for a name, a harassed marketing department finally unearthed medieval ruler Harald Gormsson, nicknamed Bluetooth, presumably because walked around with a dead tooth in his mouth. Bluetooth unified Denmark and Norway much like the device that bears his name connects phones and computers. Or maybe the marketing department just liked the name.
Ben Feringa jointly won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016 for his work in creating minuscule motors. The 65-year-old professor from the University of Groningen and chairman of the scientific board at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences told NPO Radio 1 he was ebullient. ‘This is the dream of every scientist, and I can’t deny I also dreamed about it,’ he said. In 2011, Feringa created the first synthetic motor, a tiny device that keeps turning in response to light. ‘I often feel like the Wright brothers, who built the first primitive plane. Nobody knew exactly what to do with it,’ he said of his invention.