William Gilbert – The Father of Electrical Studies

William Gilbert

William Gilbert

On May 24, 1544, English physician, physicist and natural philosopher William Gilbert was born. He passionately rejected both the prevailing Aristotelian philosophy and the Scholastic method of university teaching. He is remembered today largely for his book De Magnete (1600), 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.

William Gilbert attended St John’s College, Cambridge and left to practice medicine in London after graduating. In 1573, Gilbert was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and later he also became president of the College. For a few years, it is believed, that William Gilbert was Elizabeth I’s own physician.

To his most important works belongs De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on the Great Magnet the Earth). In this work, published in 1600, Gilbert described 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. It is further assumed that Gilbert was the first to argue 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. In the work, Gilbert further argued that the “fixed” stars are at remote variable distances rather than fixed to an imaginary sphere.

On this day, it is assumed that the term electricity was first used by Sir Thomas Browne in 1646, probably derived from Gilbert’s 1600 New Latin electricus, meaning “like amber”. 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 was universal to all materials. 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. In his book, Gilbert also studied static electricity using amber. Since amber is called elektron in Greek, Gilbert decided to call its effect the electric force. Gilbert is credited with inventing the first electrical measuring instrument, the electroscope, in the form of a pivoted needle he called the versorium. William Gilbert also pointed out that electricity and magnetism were not the same thing. Hans Christian Ørsted and James Clerk Maxwell later correctly showed that both effects were aspects of one single force: electromagnetism.

Another important work by William Gilbert is titled De Mundo Nostro Sublunari Philosophia Nova and was published in 1651. It received great critiques and was praised in concernes of in style and matter.

References and Further Reading:

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