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  • Cited by 4
  • Print publication year: 2002
  • Online publication date: June 2014

1 - William Gilbert


As for the causes of magnetic movements, referred to in the schools of philosophers to the four elements and to prime qualities, these we leave for roaches and moths to prey upon.

Gilbert, De Magnete, Book II, Chapter 3.

The reputation of William Gilbert (1544–1603) as a great scientific mind traditionally rests on three foundations, all of which are evident in the only book he published, the seminal De Magnete [On the Loadstone] (London, 1600). First, he discovered that the Earth was a giant magnet and, in order to establish the fact, inaugurated the modern science of magnetism. Secondly, he rightly boasted that the method evident in De Magnete was experimental, a radical break with the more textual methods used by his scholastic contemporaries. Finally, he distinguished between magnetism and electricity, which had hitherto been paired as similar, occult attractive principles; he even coined the noun electricitas, which was rapidly Anglicised as ‘electricity’. Gilbert has been made a hero as ‘the first experimental scientist’, and he would come first, chronologically, in many surveys of scientific minds, not just of Cambridge minds. In Cambridge, he is immortalised in the name of Gilbert Road, a development built on land belonging to his college, St John's. As a Cambridge schoolboy, I entered my primary school every day from Gilbert Road, regrettably ignorant of the existence of the eponymous scientific hero.

Nevertheless, Gilbert's inclusion in this collection is probably the most controversial.