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William Gilbert

William Gilbert (1544-1603) was an English scientist and physician who is credited by many as the “father of electricity and magnetism”.

Born on May 24, 1544 into an affluent family in Colchester, Essex, Gilbert attended Cambridge University where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in 1561. He continued his studies, earning a Master’s Degree and finally receiving his Doctorate in 1569. While at Cambridge he was elected to several offices including that of Senior Fellow.

During Gilbert’s lifetime Britain was a major seafaring nation, and sailors relied heavily upon the magnetic compass to help them navigate. Christopher Columbus thought that the Pole Star attracted the compass needle, others thought that magnetism was caused by mountains in the Arctic, and many believed that garlic actually interfered with the device. Intrigued by the mystery, Gilbert conducted experiments for about 17 years to clarify his understanding of the compass and the phenomenon of magnetism.

He collaborated with everyone from ship’s captains and navigators to compass makers, and performed elaborate experiments using a spherical magnetic lodestone and a freely moving needle. Along the way he found out that it was possible to create magnets from ordinary metals by rubbing them with a magnet; he learned how to strengthen magnets, and he noticed that magnets lost their magical power when exposed to extremely high temperatures. When he observed that magnetic forces often produced circular motions, he began to connect the phenomenon of magnetism with the rotation of the earth. This led to his discover of the earth’s own magnetism, and provided the theoretical foundation for the science of geomagnetism.

After graduation he opened a private medical practice in London, and within a few years became one of the most respected and successful physicians in England. In 1599 he became the President of the Royal College of Physicians, a regulatory board that oversaw the practice of medicine throughout the greater London area.

The following year, 1600, proved to be the most pivotal of his lifetime. Gilbert was appointed the court physician to Queen Elizabeth I (he also served for a time as physician to King James I) and he published the book De Magnete. Written by Gilbert entirely in Latin, the large volume presented the results of his extensive research into the nature of magnetism and electricity. By publishing De Magnete Gilbert shattered many popular scientific theories and became the first person to fully explain the workings of a magnetic compass.

Rejecting the notion that Earth was at the center of the universe, he further proposed that it was a magnetic planet, with polarity corresponding to its north and south poles. De Magnete was immediately accepted as an extraordinary breakthrough in physics and created a sensation within the entire European scientific community. Gilbert’s new ideas inspired the astronomer Galileo, who built upon Gilbert’s concepts to later suggest that the earth orbits around the sun.

De Magnete stood for the next 200 years as the most important treatise on the subject of magnetism. Before Gilbert, no one had used the terms “magnetic pole”, “electric force”, and “electric attraction”; and he was also the first to clearly distinguish between magnetic and electrical forces. The word “electricity” was coined by Gilbert, who based it on the Greek word for amber.

To prove his hypothesis regarding the magnetism of the planet, Gilbert conducted years of experiments, and that was the first example of someone using what we now refer to as the experimental scientific method. The revolutionary new concept of using experimentation to support one’s hypothesis radically changed the course of science, ushering in an entirely new age of scientific theory, exploration, and discovery.

When the Queen died in 1603 she left a financial grant to Gilbert that would enable him to continue his work in physics. Unfortunately he was not able to take advantage of her generous legacy, because he himself died on November 30th of the same year, a victim of the dreaded plague that was sweeping across Europe.

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