Humfrey Cole followed in a tradition of instrument-making established by craftsmen from the continent, particularly Flanders, but was the first English-born maker to produce instruments in sixteenth century England. Neither his date of birth, nor the circumstances of his education are known, but he claimed to be a goldsmith from the north of England on his map of Palestine, engraved in 1572.
Although the form of his name varies in his signed works, 'Humfrey Cole' is the most commonly used. The few surviving records of his life show him earning a living as a die-maker in the mint at the Tower of London for about fifteen years. During this time Cole took commissions for prestigious scientific instruments and tried his hand as an engraver of maps. From 1578 onwards he seems to have concentrated on instrument-making in his house near the north door of St Pauls Cathedral. Twenty-six spectacular instruments by Cole are known to have survived, six of which are in The British Museum collections. Nothing is known about Cole's family except for the name of his wife, Elizabeth, who survived him when he died in 1591.