William Gilbert (24 May, 154430 November, 1603) was an English natural philosopher and royal physician to England's Elizabeth I and to James VI and I. He studied the earth's magnetism and properties of the compass, such as magnetic dip, using the model of a terrella. He is highly regarded for original experiments in electricity and magnetism and for his advocacy of the experimental method. He preceded Francis Bacon in his opposition to the methods of Scholasticism with its emphasis on dialectic and the syllogism as a method of discovery. Gilbert was an early defender of Nicolaus Copernicus, not with regard to the sun-centered planetary system, but as to the diurnal motion of the earth. His theory of the magnetic influences of the sun, moon and planets influenced Kepler's preconception of gravity.

See also: William Gilbert of Colchester, Physician of London with P. Fleury Mottelay translation of De Magnete (1893).


De Magnete (1600)

  • Neither in any if the stars, nor in the sun, nor in the planets that are most operant in the world, can organs be disntinguished or imagined by us; nevertheless, they live and endow with life small bodies at the earth's elevated points. If there is aught of which man may boast, that of a surety is soul, is mind; and the other animals, too, are ennobled by soul; even God, by whose rod all things are governed, is soul.
    • As quoted in Gilbert, William. 2013 ed. De Magnete. Courier Corporation, pp. 130-131.
  • Only on the superficies of the globes is plainly seen the host of souls and of animate existences, and their great and delightful diversity the Creator taketh pleasure
    • As quoted in Gilbert, William. 2013 ed. De Magnete. Courier Corporation, pp. 311.
  • We, therefore, having directed our inquiry toward a cause that is manifest, sensible, and comprehended by all men, do know that the earth rotates on its own poles, proved by many magnetical demonstrations to exist. For not in virtue only of its stability and its fixed permanent position does the earth posses poles and verticity; it might have had another direction, as eastward or westward, or toward any other quarter. By the wonderful wisdom of the Creator, therefore, forces were implanted in the earth, forces primarily animate, to the end the globe might, with steadfastness, take direction, and that the poles might be opposite, so that on them, as at the extremities of an axis, the movement of diurnal rotation might be performed.
    • As quoted in Gilbert, William. 2013 ed. De Magnete. Courier Corporation, pp. 328-329.
  • The electric effluvia differ much from air, and as air is the earth's effluvium, so electric bodies have their own distinctive effluvia; and each peculiar effluvium has its own individual power of leading to union, its own movement to its origin, to its fount, and to the body emitting the effluvium.
    • English translation by Paul Fleury Mottelay (1893).
  • Lucid gems are made of water; just as Crystal, which has been concreted from clear water, not always by a very great cold, as some used to judge, and by very hard frost, but sometimes by a less severe one, the nature of the soil fashioning it, the humour or juices being shut up in definite cavities, in the way in which spars are produced in mines.

Book 6, Chapter III: Of the Daily Magnetic Rotation of the Globes

  • How far away from the earth are those remotest of stars: they are beyond the reach of eye, or man's devices, or man's thought. What an absurdity is this motion (of spheres). He also argues for the extreme variability of the distance to the various heavenly bodies and states that situated "in thinnest aether, or in the most subtle fifth essence, or in vacuity - how shall the stars keep their places in the mighty swirl of these enormous spheres composed of a substance of which no one knows aught?
    • Translation by P. Fleury Mottelay (1958) p. 319-20.

quote about science

  • In the discovery of hidden things and in the investigation of hidden causes, stronger reasons are obtained from sure experiments and demonstrated arguments than from probable conjectures and the opinions of philosophical speculators of the common sort.
    • Ostriker, J.P. and Mitton, Simon (2013) Heart of Darkness p.9.

Quotes about Gilbert

  • The Alchemists have made a philosophy out of a few experiments of the furnace and Gilbert our countryman hath made a philosophy out of observations of the lodestone.
  • [Gilbert] has himself become a magnet; that is, he has ascribed too many things to that force and built a ship out of a shell.
    • Francis Bacon, Novum Organum (1620).
  • Gilbert... repeatedly asserts the paramount value of experiments. He himself, no doubt, acted up to his own precepts; for his work contains all the fundamental facts of the science [of magnetism], so fully examined, indeed, that even at this day we have little to add to them.
  • Gilbert, in his work, De Magnete printed in 1600 has only some vague notions that the magnetic virtue of the earth in some way determines the direction of the earth's axis, the rate of its diurnal rotation, and that of the revolution of the moon about it. Gilbert died in 1603, and in his posthumous work (De Mundo nostro Sublunari Philosophia nova, 1631) we have already a more distinct statement of the attraction of one body by another. "The force which emanates from the moon reaches to the earth, and, in like manner, the magnetic virtue of the earth pervades the region of the moon: both correspond and conspire by the joint action of both, according to a proportion and conformity of motions, but the earth has more effect in consequence of its superior mass; the earth attracts and repels, the moon, and the moon within certain limits, the earth; not so as to make the bodies come together, as magnetic bodies do, but so that they may go on in a continuous course." Though this phraseology is capable of representing a good deal of the truth, it does not appear to have been connected... with any very definite notions of mechanical action in detail.
    • William Whewell, ibid. Vol.1 p. 394.
  • The year 1600 was the first in which England produced a remarkable work in physical science; but this was one sufficient to raise a lasting reputation to its author. Gilbert, a physician, in his Latin treatise on the magnet, not only collected all the knowledge which others had possessed on that subject, but became at once the father of experimental philosophy in this island, and by a singular felicity and acuteness of genius, the founder of theories which have been revived after the lapse of ages, and are almost universally received into the creed of the science. The magnetism of the earth itself, his own original hypothesis... was by no means one of those vague conjectures... He relied on the analogy of terrestrial phenomena to those exhibited by what he calls a terrella, or artificial spherical magnet. ...Gilbert was also one of our earliest Copernicans, at least as to the rotation of the earth; and with his usual sagacity inferred, before the invention of the telescope, that there are a multitude of fixed stars beyond the reach of our vision.
    • Henry Hallam, Introduction to the Literature of Europe in the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries (1848) Vol.2 pp.232-3.
  • The "New Philosophy" [De Mundo Nostro Sublunari Philosophia Nova] of Gilbert came to be published half a century after his death in the following curious circumstances. Within the period of apparently some two years after his demise, William Gilbert, of Melford, his elder brother, bearing, oddly enough, the same name... found, among Gilbert's scattered papers, the fragmentary New Philosophy and the Meteorology. These (as he says, being governed by fraternal affection, as well as by an appreciation of the importance of the arguments advanced, whereof he felt unwilling to deprive the world), he arranged, caused to be translated into Latin, and prefixed to them a dedication... That he intended to publish the book is clear; nevertheless, he departed, as its author had done with his purpose unfulfilled.
  • In 1626 Bacon succumbed to the results of his ill timed experiment in preserving chickens with snow... The Bacon manuscripts were sent to [Sir William] Boswell's residence at the Hague, and there lay until Boswell, who died in 1647, confided them to the editorial care of Isaac Gruter who... published them all together in 1653. Among the papers which thus came into his hands, Gruter found the two manuscripts of William Gilbert, of Colchester, which William Gilbert, of Melford, had prepared, and these he edited and issued... in 1651.
    • Park Benjamin, ibid., p. 319.
  • The significant fact lies in the possession of the manuscripts by Bacon during his lifetime. He studied them, he knew their contents. And in those great Monuments wherein he has invoked for his own fame the judgment of the next age, he attacks and condemns over and over again the opinions of a man who could neither speak for himself, being in his grave, nor be spoken for by the only written words wherein he had set them forth, and which in the cabinet of my Lord Verulam, were as effectually silenced and entombed.
    • Park Benjamin, ibid., p. 320.
  • The famous treatise which opened the modern era by treating magnetism and electricity on a scientific basis appeared just 300 years ago. The author, William Gilbert, M.D., of Colchester... was an exact and diligent explorer, first of chemical and then of magnetic and electric phenomena. ...Working nearly a century before the time when the astronomical discoveries of Newton had originated the idea of attraction at a distance, he established a complete formulation of the interaction of magnets by what we now call the exploration of their fields of force. His analysis of the facts of magnetic influence, and incidentally of the points in which it differs from electric influence, is virtually the one which Faraday reintroduced. A cardinal advance was achieved, at a time when the Copernican Astronomy had still largely to make its way, by assigning the behavior of the compass and the dip needle to the fact that the earth itself is a great magnet, by whose field of influence they are controlled. His book passed through many editions on the Continent within forty years; it won the high praise of Galileo. Gilbert has been called the 'father of modern electricity' by Priestley, and 'the Galileo of magnetism' by Poggendorff.
    • Dr. Joseph Larmor, "The Address of the President of the Section of Mathematics and Physics of the British Association for the Advancement of Science" Friday, September 21, 1900; contained in Science Moses King (1900) Vol.12 p. 417.
  • Gilbert does not seem to have known that there were any other bodies than iron or the lodestone that possessed magnetic properties; for he called particular attention to the fact that all other substances that possessed magnetism to some degree owe their power to the presence of iron in some condition or other.
  • When Gilbert of Colchester, in his “New Philosophy,” founded on his researches in magnetism, was dealing with tides, he did not suggest that the moon attracted the water, but that “subterranean spirits and humors, rising in sympathy with the moon, cause the sea also to rise and flow to the shores and up rivers”. It appears that an idea, presented in some such way as this, was more readily received than a plain statement. This so-called philosophical method was, in fact, very generally applied, and Kepler, who shared Galileo’s admiration for Gilbert’s work, adopted it in his own attempt to extend the idea of magnetic attraction to the planets.
    • Walter William Bryant, Kepler (1920).
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