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The Natural Philosophy of William Gilbert and His Predecessors   By:

The Natural Philosophy of William Gilbert and His Predecessors by W. James King

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W. James King

By W. James King


Until several decades ago, the physical sciences were considered to have had their origins in the 17th century mechanics beginning with men like Galileo Galilei and magnetism with men like the Elizabethan physician and scientist William Gilbert.

Historians of science, however, have traced many of the 17th century's concepts of mechanics back into the Middle Ages. Here, Gilbert's explanation of the loadstone and its powers is compared with explanations to be found in the Middle Ages and earlier.

From this comparison it appears that Gilbert can best be understood by considering him not so much a herald of the new science as a modifier of the old.

THE AUTHOR: W. James King is curator of electricity, Museum of History and Technology, in the Smithsonian Institution's United States National Museum.

The year 1600 saw the publication by an English physician, William Gilbert, of a book on the loadstone. Entitled De magnete ,[1] it has traditionally been credited with laying a foundation for the modern science of electricity and magnetism. The following essay is an attempt to examine the basis for such a tradition by determining what Gilbert's original contributions to these sciences were, and to make explicit the sense in which he may be considered as being dependent upon earlier work. In this manner a more accurate estimate of his position in the history of science may be made.

[1] William Gilbert, De magnete, magneticisque corporibus et de magno magnete tellure; physiologia nova, plurimis & argumentis, & experimentis, demonstrata , London, 1600, 240 pp., with an introduction by Edward Wright. All references to Gilbert in this article, unless otherwise noted, are to the American translation by P. Fleury Mottelay, 368 pp., published in New York in 1893, and are designated by the letter M. However, the Latin text of the 1600 edition has been quoted wherever I have disagreed with the Mottelay translation.

A good source of information on Gilbert is Dr. Duane H. D. Roller's doctoral thesis, written under the direction of Dr. I. B. Cohen of Harvard University. Dr. Roller, at present Curator of the De Golyer Collection at the University of Oklahoma, informed me that an expanded version of his dissertation will shortly appear in book form. Unfortunately his researches were not known to me until after this article was completed.

One criterion as to the book's significance in the history of science can be applied almost immediately. A number of historians have pointed to the introduction of numbers and geometry as marking a watershed between the modern and the medieval understanding of nature. Thus A. Koyré considers the Archimedeanization of space as one of the necessary features of the development of modern astronomy and physics.[2] A. N. Whitehead and E. Cassirer have turned to measurement and the quantification of force as marking this transition.[3] However, the obvious absence[4] of such techniques in De magnete makes it difficult to consider Gilbert as a founder of modern electricity and magnetism in this sense.

[2] Alexandre Koyré, Études galiléennes , Paris, 1939.

[3] Alfred N. Whitehead, Science and the modern world , New York, 1925, ch... Continue reading book >>

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