Today, the magnet draws science into a new era. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
In the Gilbert-and-Sullivan
operetta Patience, William Gilbert
likens failed love to the wrong use of a magnet. He
Now I read a book by another William
Gilbert. It was published long before -- in 1600. The
title is De Magnete. It's the first
great treatise on magnetism. It's also England's
first bid for a place in the new science that rose
from the Renaissance.
While this magnetic
Lover, he lived to learn,
By no endeavor,
Can magnet ever
Attract a Silver Churn!
This Gilbert uses similar imagery. He says,
Orpheus, in his hymns, tells that iron is drawn by
the loadstone as the bride to the embraces of her
He also uses the word "coition" for
Gilbert was now 56. He was a distinguished doctor
in Queen Elizabeth's court. Elizabeth was a solid
patroness of science. She treated Gilbert well, and
he honored her. He never married, and he gave up
his own ghost just months after her death in 1603.
De Magnete is a powerful work. Gilbert
honed the new logic of experimental reasoning.
Francis Bacon usually gets credit for that, but he
wrote 20 years later. Gilbert turned away from the
old language and methods of the alchemists.
The alchemists didn't like Gilbert one bit. But a
pious young Johannes Kepler had been asking how the
Holy Ghost went about moving the planets. He saw
his answer in Gilbert. Planets must exert magnetic
forces on each other. Gilbert had led Kepler half
way to Newton's gravitational theory.
Galileo also read De Magnete. He said,
"I extremely praise, admire, and envy [Gilbert.]"
Galileo wasn't often that kind about another
So we turn pages in De Magnete. We
find astonishing vision for that age. Gilbert
distinguishes between magnetic and electric fields.
He ties lodestones to the earth's magnetic field.
He has a lot to say about compasses. And, of
course, he confirms what the 19th-century Gilbert
said about love. A magnet cannot draw silver to it.
A friend of Gilbert's said, "[He had a] happiness
not ordinary in so hard a student and retired a
person." Well, you and I recognize that happiness
by now. Gilbert had the cheerful serenity that
marks people with the insight to look at the world
-- and see it as it really is.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gilbert, W., de Magnete. (tr. by P.
Fleury Mottelay) New York: Dover Publications, Inc.,
1958. (republication of the 1893 translation.)
Roller, D.H.D., The de Magnete of William
Gilbert. Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger, 1959.
Debus, A.G., The English Paracelsians.
New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1966.
Boorstin, D.J., The Discoverers. New
York: Random House, 1983, Chapter 39.
Image courtesy of the Burndy
Library, Dibner Institute for the History of
Science and Technology
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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