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magnetism earth scientific published

William Gilbert’s reputation rests upon his research into magnetism, seemingly a far remove from his original field of medicine. Gilbert was born 24 May 1544 in Colchester, Essex, and died on 10 December (30 November, old style) 1603. After receiving the B.A., M.A., and M.D. from Cambridge, he began to practice medicine in London in 1573. Like William Harvey,* he became a fellow of the College of Physicians, eventually donating all of his books and instruments to that institution. Twenty-seven years later appeared his work on magnets, magnetism, and the earth as a magnet. Here he outlines the research methods he used to conclude that the earth operates as a magnet. Almost immediately afterward he was appointed physician to Elizabeth. James I renewed the appointment, but Gilbert died within the year.


Gilbert’s masterpiece, De Magnete (1600), probably the greatest treatise on physics first published in England, argues, with full scientific demonstration and even a section on etymology, that the earth is a huge ball-like magnet. Thus, he is the father of magnetic and electrical science, for which he coined several essential terms such as “electrical attraction,” “electrical force,” and “magnetic pole.” He also demonstrated practical uses of this theory in relation to the compass needle and navigation without stars. A second work on the New Philosophy of Our Sublunar World was published posthumously in 1651. Here he argues that the magnetism of the earth is generated by its rotation and that magnetism is the force that holds the planets in their orbits. Without an examination of the manuscripts from which the work was published, it would be difficult to say how much of this was original to Gilbert and how much was influenced by the scientific work of Kepler and Galileo. Copernicus’* influence is duly noted.


Gilbert must have had contacts with the powerful (he seems heavily influenced by Bacon*), but he earned little mention among his contemporaries, except for praise from Galileo and Bacon. His theory, however, came into scientific currency almost immediately, causing Dryden in the next age to remark, “Gil-bert shall live till loadstones cease to draw.” With William Harvey he can be seen as the founder of modern science. There is no recent biographical work on Gilbert. His work on magnetism is available in a late Victorian translation (1893).

Giles, Roscoe C.(1890–1970) - Surgeon, Chronology [next] [back] Gilbert, Walter

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