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William Gilbert

Dr. William Gilbert
Born 24 May 1549
Died November 30, 1603 (aged 54)
Occupation Physician
Known for Studies of magnetism

William Gilbert, also known as Gilberd, (24 May 1544 – 30 November 1603) was an English physician and natural philosopher. He was an early Copernican, and passionately rejected both the prevailing Aristotelian philosophy and the Scholastic method of university teaching. He is remembered today largely for his book De Magnete (1601), and is credited as one of the originators of the term electricity. He is regarded by some as the father of electrical engineering or electricity and magnetism.[1] While today he is generally referred to as William Gilbert, he also went under the name of William Gilberd. The latter was used in his and his father's epitaph, the records of the town of Colchester, and in the Biographical Memoir in De Magnete, as well as in the name of The Gilberd School in Colchester, named after Gilbert. A unit of magnetomotive force, also known as magnetic potential, was named the gilbert in his honour.


Life and work

Gilbert was born in Colchester to Jerome Gilberd, a borough recorder. He was educated at St John's College, Cambridge.[2] After gaining his MD from Cambridge in 1569, and a short spell as bursar of St John's College, he left to practice medicine in London and travelled on the continent. In 1573, he was elected a Fellow of the College of Physicians (not by that point granted a royal charter). In 1600 he was elected President of the College.[3] From 1601 until his death in 1603, he was Elizabeth I's own physician, and James VI and I renewed his appointment.

His primary scientific work was De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet the Earth) published in 1600. In this work, he describes many of his experiments with his model earth called the terrella. From these experiments, he concluded that the Earth was itself magnetic and that this was the reason compasses point north (previously, some believed that it was the pole star (Polaris) or a large magnetic island on the north pole that attracted the compass). He was the first to argue, correctly, that the centre of the Earth was iron, and he considered an important and related property of magnets was that they can be cut, each forming a new magnet with north and south poles.

The English word electricity was first used in 1646 by Sir Thomas Browne, derived from Gilbert's 1600 New Latin electricus, meaning "like amber". The term had been in use since the 1200s, but Gilbert was the first to use it to mean "like amber in its attractive properties". He recognized that friction with these objects removed a so-called effluvium, which would cause the attraction effect in returning to the object, though he did not realize that this substance (electric charge) was universal to all materials.[4]

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.
De Magnete, English translation by Paul Fleury Mottelay, 1893

In his book, he also studied static electricity using amber; amber is called elektron in Greek, so Gilbert decided to call its effect the electric force. He invented the first electrical measuring instrument, the electroscope, in the form of a pivoted needle he called the versorium.[5]

Like others of his day, he believed that "crystal" (quartz) was an especially hard form of water, formed from compressed ice:

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.
De Magnete, English translation by Silvanus Phillips Thompson, 1900

Gilbert argued that electricity and magnetism were not the same thing. For evidence, he (incorrectly) pointed out that, while electrical attraction disappeared with heat, magnetic attraction did not (although it is proven that magnetism does in fact become damaged and weakened with heat). It took James Clerk Maxwell to show that both effects were aspects of a single force: electromagnetism. Even then, Maxwell simply surmised this in his A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism after much analysis. By keeping clarity, Gilbert's strong distinction advanced science for nearly 250 years.

Gilbert's magnetism was the invisible force that many other natural philosophers, such as Kepler, seized upon, incorrectly, as governing the motions that they observed. While not attributing magnetism to attraction among the stars, Gilbert pointed out the motion of the skies was due to earth's rotation, and not the rotation of the spheres, 20 years before Galileo (see external reference below).

Gilbert died on 30 November 1603 in London. His cause of death is thought to have been the bubonic plague.[6][7]

See also


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, 2000, CD-ROM, version 2.5.
  2. ^ William Gilbert in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
  3. ^ Gilbert, William and Paul Fleury Mottelay. William Gilbert of Colchester, physician of London. John Wiley and Sons, 1893, accessed 12 March 2010
  4. ^ Niels H. de V. Heathcote (December 1967). "The early meaning of electricity: Some Pseudodoxia Epidemica - I". Annals of Science 23 (4): 261. doi:10.1080/00033796700203316. 
  5. ^ Gilbert, William; P. Fleury Mottelay (1893). On the Lodestone and Magnetic Bodies. New York: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 79.  a translation of William Gilbert (1600) Die Magnete, London
  6. ^ William Gilbert, brief biography at National High Magnetic Field Laboratory
  7. ^ William Gilbert brief biography at

Further reading

External links

  • The Galileo Project — biography of William Gilbert.
  • On the Magnet — Translation of De Magnete by Silvanus Thompson for the Gilbert Club, London 1900. Full text, free to read and search. Go to page 9 and read Gilbert saying the earth revolves leading to the motion of the skies.
  • The Great Magnet, the Earth — website hosted by NASA — Commemorating the 400th anniversary of "De Magnete" by William Gilbert of Colchester.

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

GILBERT (or [[Gylberde), William]] (1544-1603), the most distinguished man of science in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the father of electric and magnetic science, was a member of an ancient Suffolk family, long resident in Clare, and was born on the 24th of May 1544 at Colchester, where his father, Hierome Gilbert, became recorder. Educated at Colchester school, he entered St John's College, Cambridge, in 1558, and after taking the degrees of B.A. and M.A. in due course, graduated M.D. in 1569, in which year he was elected a senior fellow of his college. Soon afterwards he left Cambridge, and after spending three years in Italy and other parts of Europe, settled in 1573 in London, where he practised as a physician with "great success and applause." He was admitted to the College of Physicians probably about 1576, and from 1581 to 1590 was one of the censors. In 1587 he became treasurer, holding the office till 1592, and in 1589 he was one of the committee appointed to superintend the preparation of the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis which the college in that year decided to issue, but which did not actually appear till 1618. In 1597 he was again chosen treasurer, becoming at the same time consiliarius, and in 1599 he succeeded to the presidency. Two years later he was appointed physician to Queen Elizabeth, with the usual emolument of £too a year. After this time he seems to have removed to the court, vacating his residence, Wingfield House, which was on Peter's Hill, between Upper Thames Street and Little Knightrider Street, and close to the house of the College of Physicians. On the death of the queen in 1603 he was reappointed by her successor; but he did not long enjoy the honour, for he died, probably of the plague, on the 30th of November (loth of December, N.S.) 1603, either in London or in Colchester. He was buried in the latter town, in the chancel of Holy Trinity church, where a monument was erected to his memory. To the College of Physicians he left his books, globes, instruments and minerals, but they were destroyed in the great fire of London.

Gilbert's principal work is his treatise on magnetism, entitled De magnete, magneticisque corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure (London, 1600; later editions - Stettin, 1628, 1633; Frankfort, 1629, 1638). This work, which embodied the results of many years' research, was distinguished by its strict adherence to the scientific method of investigation by experiment, and by the originality of its matter, containing, as it does, an account of the author's experiments on magnets and magnetical bodies and on electrical attractions, and also his great conception that the earth is nothing but a large magnet, and that it is this which explains, not only the direction of the magnetic needle north and south, but also the variation and dipping or inclination of the needle. Gilbert's is therefore not merely the first, but the most important, systematic contribution to the sciences of electricity and magnetism. A posthumous work of Gilbert's was edited by his brother, also called William, from two MSS. in the possession of Sir William Boswell; its title is De mundo nostro sublunari philosophia nova (Amsterdam, 1651). He is the reputed inventor besides of two instruments to enable sailors "to find out the latitude without seeing of sun, moon or stars," an account of which is given in Thomas Blondeville's Theoriques of the Planets (London, 1602). He was also the first advocate of Copernican views in England, and he concluded that the fixed stars are not all at the same distance from the earth.

It is a matter of great regret for the historian of chemistry that Gilbert left nothing on that branch of science, to which he was deeply devoted,"attaining to great exactness therein." So at least says Thomas Fuller, who in his Worthies of England prophesied truly how he would be afterwards known: "Mahomet's tomb at Mecca," he says, "is said strangely to hang up, attracted by some invisible loadstone; but the memory of this doctor will never fall to the ground, which his incomparable book De magnete will support to eternity." An English translation of the De magnete was published by P. F. Mottelay in 1893, and another, with notes by S. P. Thompson, was issued by the Gilbert Club of London in 1900.

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