William Gilbert

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Gilbert, William

Gilbert, William, 1544–1603, English scientist and physician. He studied medicine at Cambridge (M.D., 1569), where he was elected a Fellow of St. John's College, and set up practice in London, becoming president of the College of Physicians (1599) and court physician to Queen Elizabeth I (1600) and later also to James I. He is best known, however, for his studies of electricity and magnetism. He coined the word electricity (from the Greek for “amber”), was the first to distinguish clearly between electric and magnetic phenomena, and published (1600) De Magnete, the most important work on magnetism until the early 19th cent. In it he described his methods for strengthening natural magnets (lodestones) and for using them to magnetize steel rods by stroking; he also outlined his investigations of the earth's magnetic field, from which he concluded that the earth as a whole behaves like a giant magnet with its poles near the geographic poles. He found that an iron bar that is left in alignment with the earth's magnetic field will slowly become magnetized, and that sufficient heating will cause a magnet to lose its magnetism.


See translations of his De Magnete by P. F. Mottelay (1893, repr. 1958) and S. P. Thompson (1901, repr. 1958).

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Gilbert, William


Born May 24, 1544, in Colchester; died Nov. 30, 1603, in London or Colchester. English physicist. Court physician.

Gilbert advanced the first theory of magnetic phenomena. He was the first to make the assumption that the earth is a large magnet, and by magnetizing an iron sphere he showed that it acted upon a magnetic needle in the same manner as the earth. He suggested that the magnetic poles of the earth coincided with the geographic poles. Gilbert established that many bodies, like amber, have the ability to attract light objects after being rubbed. He investigated these characteristics and called them electrical (the Greek word for amber is elektron), for the first time introducing this term into the scientific vocabulary. Gilbert was also the first in England to criticize the teachings of Aristotle and to support the studies of Copernicus.


De magnete, magneticisque corporibus et de magno magnete tellure. Physiologia nova. London, 1600.
De mundi nostri sublunaris philosophia nova. Amsterdam, 1651.
In Russian translation:
O magnite, magnitnykh telakh i o bol’shom magnite—Zemle. Novaia fiziologiia, dokazannaia mnozhestvom argumentov i opytov. Moscow, 1956.


Lebedev, V. I. Istoricheskie opyty po fizike. Moscow-Leningrad, 1937.
D. R. “Uul’iam Gil’bert: K 350-letiiu so dnia smerti.” Elektrichestvo, 1953, no. 12.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.