William Gilbert founded the scientific study of magnetism and is regarded, together with Galileo, as a founding father of experimental science.
A forceful advocate of the power of the scientific experiment, Gilbert discovered that our planet has two magnetic poles; he defined these poles correctly and established that the earth behaves like a giant magnet.
He correctly deduced that in everyday magnets, magnetism is caused by an organized form of the material the magnet is made of.
Gilbert created the world’s first electroscope to detect electric charge and coined the Latin word electricitas, which soon became the English word electricity.
Gilbert was a part-time scientist. By profession, he was an eminent doctor of medicine, eventually becoming President of London’s College of Physicians and personal physician to Queen Elizabeth and King James. He spent a large amount of his own wealth funding his scientific experiments.
William Gilbert was born into a prosperous family in the town of Colchester, England on May 12, 1544.
William’s mother was Elizabeth Coggeshall. He was the first of four children.
Sadly, William’s mother died when he was young. William’s father then married Jane Wingfield, and in the fullness of time, seven more children were born into the Gilbert family.
In his early years, William was schooled at Colchester Royal Grammar School.
In 1558, almost on his fourteenth birthday, he began studying at the University of Cambridge, where after 11 years as a student and fellow of St. John’s College, he qualified as a physician.
Details about Gilbert’s life are sketchy, because his personal papers were lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666. We know that at Cambridge he owned some of the works of Galen, Aristotle, and Dioscorides. So, remarkably, the knowledge he acquired was little different from that transmitted to medical students 1,500 years earlier in Greece or Rome.
His progress in terms of degrees was:
- 1561: Bachelor of Arts (B.A.)
- 1564: Master of Arts (M.A.)
- 1569: Doctor of Medicine (M.D.)
After spending a year as bursar of St. John’s College, Gilbert worked as a physician.
In the early 1570s he probably traveled to Italy to practice for two years or so. Contrary to myth, he did not meet Galileo there: Galileo was under 10 years old at this time.
Gilbert’s Lifetime in Context
England’s Top Doctor
Gilbert began a medical practice in England’s capital, London. It was successful and he prospered.
In 1581, age 37, he became Censor, a senior position in London’s College of Physicians. The College regulated the medical profession, issued and revoked practicing licenses, and punished medical malpractice.
In 1600, the College elected Gilbert as its president. In 1601, he was appointed as one of Queen Elizabeth’s personal physicians. When she died in 1603, he continued for a short time as a personal physician to King James until his own death.
The Science of Magnets
Money, Money, Money
Gilbert was a wealthy man. This was partly because of his own efforts and partly because he inherited wealth when his father died.
Unusually, Gilbert chose to utilize his wealth to pursue knowledge; he spent £5,000 on scientific experiments. This was a huge sum of money, enough to buy two large warships of the time: in 1590 the 400-crew, 690-ton, 39-gun warship Merhonour cost the Royal Navy £3,600, while the 223-ton, 21-gun warship Quittance cost £1,400.
It seems appropriate to mention the Navy, because Gilbert’s interest in magnets was probably sparked by his naval contacts. Gilbert was an expert in tropical medicines, bringing him into contact with prominent Navy officers, such as Sir Francis Drake. For sailors, the magnetic compass was a vital tool.
Like any good scientist today, Gilbert carried out a literature search to learn what he could about his research field. The greatest existing work on magnetism was Epistola de magnete, written in 1269 by Frenchman Petrus Peregrinus. Gilbert acknowledged his debt to Peregrinus when he wrote his own masterpiece De Magnete.
In 1600, Gilbert published De Magnete. Its full English title is On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet the Earth. According to Edward Wright, who worked with Gilbert, Gilbert waited 18 years before publishing his work. If this is correct, it suggests Gilbert carried out his experiments in the early 1580s.
De Magnete and Galileo’s writings are commonly regarded as the first great works of experimental science. Gilbert’s experiments asked Nature questions and Nature gave him honest answers.
His approach was brave. It was customary in the 1500s to regard experimentation as stepping on God’s toes; people believed man’s impudence in such matters could lead to divine retribution.
Gilbert’s work was groundbreaking because people already thought they understood magnetic compasses. They used them for navigation; miners used them to search for veins of iron; and surveyors used them in tunnel construction. But Gilbert wanted to know more. He wanted to understand magnets at a deeper level, to understand the laws that govern their behavior.
In the first paragraph of De Magnete, he reaches out to his readers, urging them to reject the abstract theories of philosophers and to embrace the results of real-world experiments. He proclaims:
Gilbert’s intention is to replace the errors made by theorizing philosophers with healthy facts sourced from his own experiments. He disparages the work of Aristotle. He believes his experiments with magnets have refuted Aristotle’s four elements (which were actually devised by Empedocles) and scathingly dismisses the ideas of philosophers.
Some of the highlights of Gilbert’s work are:
With the Benefit of Hindsight
Considering De Magnete today, we perceive it as a curious cocktail: we see exemplary experimental science, scientific observations, and scientific conclusions. There are also mistakes. And despite the frequent barbs Gilbert throws in the direction of “the rabble of philosophers” he also informs us of his own philosophical and even mystical ideas. For example, Gilbert tells us the planets have souls and that our own planet’s soul is magnetic. Today, of course, we would say such speculations have no place in science.
Gilbert was not alone in mixing science with mysticism.
In Gilbert’s time, science was still trying to find its feet; Gilbert was actually one of the people who helped get it there, establishing it as our best mechanism of understanding the world around us.
Some Personal Details and the End
Gilbert never married and had no children. He seems to have been a busy man, working as a physician, carrying out a large number of experiments, and writing about natural philosophy. He also held meetings of intellectuals at his home, where he revealed his distaste for religious zealotry.
He enjoyed a large income from rents on properties inherited from his father. During his own lifetime, he acquired more properties.
William Gilbert died, age 59, on November 20, 1603. The cause of his death is not known for sure, but bubonic plague is probable: in 1603, thirty thousand Londoners died in an epidemic. He was buried in Colchester’s Holy Trinity Church close to the graves of his parents and the house he was born in.
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William Gilbert, translated by P. Fleury Mottelay
On the Loadstone and Magnetic Bodies and on the Great Magnet the Earth
Wiley & Sons, New York, 1893
A Biographical Sketch of Dr. William Gilbert of Colchester
Osiris, vol. 10, pp. 368-384, 1952
Peter Harman and Simon Mitton
Cambridge Scientific Minds
Cambridge University Press, 2002
William Gilbert: the first palaeomagnetist
Astronomy and Geophysics, vol. 41, no. 3, pp. 3.16-3.19, June 2000.
N. A. M. Rodger
The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain 660-1649
Penguin UK, 2004
Painting by Ernest Board courtesy of Wellcome Trust under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.
Photo of William Gilbert’s home by David Hawgood under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.