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Jan Adriaasz LeeghwaterJan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater

developer of a system for creating agricultural land from the sea

Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater was born into a poor peasant family in the northern village of De Rijp, the Netherlands, in 1575. The pursuit of knowledge seems to have been a natural feature of his character, and he was almost entirely self-taught in mechanics, engineering, and linguistics. In 1605, he astonished a group of spectators, which included members of the royal household, by staying under water for 45 minutes using a form of diving bell he had invented and patented. He later became a mill builder and architect.

The ambitious and expensive project to drain the vast Beemster lake came about when the Dutch East India Company sought ways in which to use the wealth its enterprises in the Far East had produced. The contract was put out for bids, and several candidates came forward before it was given to Leeghwater on April 10, 1608. The contract stipulated that the ring dike be completed by November 1, 1609.

The principle of creating polderland (agricultural land) from the sea has remained virtually unchanged since Leeghwater's time. Dikes are erected and pumping stations are installed to drain off the water. When the water has been pumped out the muddy surface of the polder is sown with reeds to enable to rest of the water to evaporate and to prevent weeds from clogging up the land. Water channels are also dug to improve drainage. The reeds are then destroyed, an open-field drainage system is laid, and the first crops can then be sown.

Leeghwater's contractors completed the 25-mile ring dike only a short time past the deadline, but within a month a violent winter storm destroyed half of it. Rebuilding began immediately, and the Beemster polder was ready for cultivation three years later. Within a short period the proceeds from crops grown in the new polder had more than covered the costs of the engineering work.

After his great feat of draining the Beemster lake, Leeghwater's services were in constant demand. He oversaw the draining and reclamation of 30 other lakes and swamps, advised Bordeaux on the draining of the swamp outside that town, and even helped bring about the downfall of the fortress city of s'-Hertogenbosch. The latter city had been thought unassailable because of the marshes surrounding it. Leeghwater diverted two rivers and oversaw the erection of watermills to drain the marshes, and within four months the city was taken.

A man of many interests, Leeghwater also designed and built furniture, drew sketches, and made sculptures in wood, stone, ivory, and metal. He also constructed bridges and church towers, including the Westerkerk and the Zuiderkerk in Amsterdam, both of which he equipped with bells.

In spite of all his accomplishments, Leeghwater never realized his ultimate ambition -- to drain the constantly growing Haarlemmer lake, a task which he calculated would require no less than 160 watermills. The watermills at the time were incapable of coping with the high levels of water, however, and the draining of the lake had to wait until the steam-pumping engines of the 19th century.

Feldman, Anthony and Peter Ford Scientists and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology from Earliest Times to Present Day New York: Facts on File, 1979

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This page was last updated on August 01, 2017.