The Competitiveness of Nations in a Global Knowledge-Based Economy
The Origins of William Gilbert’s Scientific Method
Journal of the History of
Ideas, 2 (1 )
Jan. 1941, 1-32.
William Gilbert’s De Magnete appeared in 1600, six years before Galileo’s first publication, five years before Bacon’s Advancement of Learning; it is the first printed book, written by an academically trained scholar and dealing with a topic of natural science, which is based almost entirely on actual observation and experiment. In the learned literature of the period, among the writings of both contemporary university scholars and the humanistic literati, it is an isolated case. An analysis of the origins of its scientific method, therefore, is not only interesting in itself but is likely to throw some light on the origins of modern natural science in general. The results of Gilbert’s investigation of magnetism and electricity being generally known, we shall consider first a few characteristics of his method and shall then try to trace its sources. Unfortunately very little is known of Gilbert’s life and nothing at all of his way of working. The investigation, therefore, must be based entirely on his two printed books. 1
* This essay is part of a study undertaken with the help of grants from the Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars and the Rockefeller Foundation.
1. De Magnete Magneticisque
Corporibus et de Magno Magnete Tellure, Physiologia Nova plurimis et argumentis
et experimentis demonstrata, Londini, 1600. If no other source is given all
quotations in the following paper refer to this work and this edition. An English page-for-page version by
Silvanus P. Thompson has been edited by the William Gilbert Society, Chiswick
HHC – [Bracketed] displayed on page 2 of original.
I - Gilbert’s Way of Thinking
1. Gilbert’s scientific method combines essentially modern with metaphysical, Scholastic, and animistic elements. Several of his experimental devices are still in use today. He dresses the poles of his spherical loadstones with sheet-iron and thus invents the armature of magnets (II, chap. 17). In order to examine weak magnetic forces he fixes small iron pieces on cork floating on water or suspends them on threads (I, 12 and 13; III, 8; V, 9). He even uses a few physical instruments. One of them is of his own invention and is the first of its kind in the history of physics. It is a - still somewhat imperfect - electroscope which obviously is constructed after the pattern of a magnetic needle (II, 2 p. 49). Besides Gilbert describes at length and illustrates by woodcuts four magnetic measuring instruments, two declinometers and two inclinometers (IV, 12; V, 1; 17, 3). They had, however, been neither invented nor essentially improved by him, though Gilbert omits that point. 2
It is significant with respect to the origin of Gilbert’s interest in scientific accuracy that all of his physical instruments are actu-
2. Gilbert’s electroscope consists of
a light horizontal metal needle, which is put on a point so that it can be
turned easily. In De Magnete
it is called by the same name versorium that is employed for magnetic
needles. - The description of Gilbert’s four magnetic measuring instruments must
be omitted here. The declinometer
was invented in 1525 by Felipe Guillen. It was improved before Gilbert by
Francisco Falero (Tratado del Esphera, Sevilla 1535), Pedro Nunes
(Tratado da Sphera, Lisbon 1537), William Borough (A Discourse of the
Variation of the Compass, London 1581), and Simon Stevin (De
Havenvinding, Leyden 1599). The
inclinometer had been invented by Robert Norman (The Newe Attractive,
ally nautical instruments or are at least nearly related to the mariner’s compass. On the whole he performs measurements practically only when he deals with quantities which are important in navigation, such as magnetic declination and inclination, altitudes of stars, and geographical latitudes (e.g., IV, 4 p. 160; IV, 12 p. 176; 17, 8; VI, 1 p. 214). In other fields he usually restricts himself to qualitative observations and experiments. His best quantitative experiment verifies the hypothesis that magnetism is imponderable by weighing pieces of iron “on most exact gold scales” before and after magnetization (III, 3). It is taken over, however, from the compass-maker Robert Norman without the source being given. The few quantitative investigations which are original with him are not very outstanding. 3 Altogether, quantitative investigation appears considerably developed in De Magnete if compared with physics in the Middle Ages; it cannot compare, however, with the use of scientific measurements in the works of Galileo and his followers. Calculations are lacking entirely.
Mechanics also plays a very small part in De Magnete. Twice Gilbert shows some mechanical insight. Once (II, 35) he vehemently attacks medieval attempts to construct a perpetual motion engine. At another time (II, 24 p. 92) he knows that unstable equilibrium cannot persist for a long time and that, therefore, Fracastoro's story of a piece of iron suspended in the air between the earth and a magnet is “absurd.” These two passages, however, are the only ones in his book dealing with mechanical questions. Both the interest in mechanics and the mechanical interpretation of all natural phenomena which dominated physics from Galileo to the nineteenth century are still lacking in Gilbert.
2. It is not easy to draw the picture of Gilbert’s scientific attitude correctly. He is usually as critical-minded as a modern experimentalist, does not rely on any authority, and always tests reports of others by his own experiments. Superstitious ideas are emphatically rejected by him. He derides the ancient and medieval stories of diamonds and garlic destroying magnetism, the stories of magnets detecting faithlessness of women and unlocking locks (pp. 2 f. and 6 f.). He vehemently attacks alchemists and their obscure language (pref. fol. iij; I, 3 pp. 19 f. and 24). He rejects the explanation of electric and magnetic attraction by
3. II, 17 p. 86; II, 25 p. 92; 11,29 p. 97; II, 32 p. 99; III, 15 p. 145; III, 17
means of sympathy and, on that account, scoffs at Fracastoro (II, 2 p. 50; II, 3 p. 63 f.; II, 4 p. 65; II, 39 p. 113). On the other hand he believes in horoscopes, like most of his contemporaries: the magnetizing effect of the earth on pieces of iron being forged in the smithy is compared by him to the influence of the stars on a child during its birth (p. 142). 4
Aristotelian and Scholastic concepts play a major part in his theoretical conceptions. Gilbert believes in the two basic principles matter and form, “out of which all bodies are produced” (II, 2 p. 52). In his opinion electric effects get their strength (invalescunt) from matter, magnetic effects from a “distinguished” (praecipua) form (p. 53), for he thinks that the spherical form of the stars and especially the earth, being “primary and powerful” (I, 17 p. 42), is “the true magnetic potency” (II, 4 p. 65). Obviously his explanation of magnetism is based on the Scholastic metaphysics of active forms. In all his experiments he uses spherical loadstones, although he himself knows (II, 15 p. 83; III, 31 p. 99) that bar-like magnets are more effective. He calls them “little earths” (terrellae I, 3) and presumably clings to the medieval shape of his magnets because he believes in a metaphysical connection of spherical form and magnetism.
Cardanus’s story that “the magnet lives and feeds on iron” is derided by Gilbert as old women’s talk (I, 16 p. 37; II, 3 p. 63). He refutes it, using experimental methods, by ascertaining that the weight of the iron filings in which a magnet is kept does not diminish. Again he proves himself an empiricist, but he is opposed to vitalistic explanations only in so far as they contradict single empirical facts. His own “philosophy” of magnetism, so far as it can neither be confirmed nor disproved by observation, is as animistic as the theory of Cardanus. A chapter of his book (17, 12) is entitled: “The magnetic force is animated or is similar to soul; it by far surpasses the human soul as long as that is bound to an organic body.” The chapter refers to ancient philosophers from Thales to the Neoplatonists, who taught the existence of a soul of the universe, and adds the Egyptians, Chaldeans and (p. 209) even authorities on occult science, such as Hermes, Zoroaster and Orpheus. It explains (p. 209 f.) that the earth and the stars have
4. The astrological theory of correspondence between metals and planets, however, is called “insane” (p. 20). In Gilbert’s opinion metals, especially iron, are the very essence of the earth and, therefore, do not depend on the stars.
souls, although they have no sense-organs, and that God himself is soul ; 5 and, quoting Thales, it calls the magnet “an animated stone, that is a part and beloved offspring of the animated mother, Earth.”
The last quotation shows that Gilbert’s theory of magnetism is embedded in a vitalistic philosophy of the terrestrial globe. To him the earth is “the common mother” of all things. Again and again in De Magnete this term is repeated, whenever the earth is mentioned. 6 We can therefore scarcely doubt the strongly emotional background of the idea of the maternal earth. The power of the magnet derives directly from the earth in Gilbert’s opinion. For nothing but the magnet has preserved (I, 17 p. 42) “this distinguished substance which is homogenous to the internal nature of the earth and most akin to its marrow itself.” Iron and magnets are (I, 16 p. 37) “the true and most intimate parts of the earth,” because “they retain the first faculties in nature, the faculties of attracting each other, of moving, and of adjusting by the position of the world and the terrestrial globe.”
Gilbert was the first to conceive the earth as a large magnet (I, 17; VI, 1). He was the first to teach that the interior of the earth consists of pure iron and that its surface and rim only are “soiled by other impurity” (I, 16 p. 39). Thus he has anticipated important empirical results of modern geophysics. But the resemblance of his magnetic philosophy to modern science is merely a matter of chance. Gilbert’s terms “interior” and “intimate” combine spatial and metaphysical meaning and are always used as concepts of value. How near his “magnetic philosophy” still is to medieval vitalism is revealed by the fact that he believes in a metaphysical correlation of magnetism and rotation. He speaks of the “magnetic rotation” of the terrestrial globe (VI, 3 p. 214), and would like to accept the statement of Pierre de Maricourt that a spherical magnet rotates continuously by itself, were it not for his
5. Gilbert’s religious belief obviously is rather Neoplatonie than Protestant. The whole chapter is strongly influenced by Patrizzi. Cf. below § 4, footnote 13.
6. E.g. pref. at the beginning and pp. 12, 26, 38 (twice), 41, 117, 152, 210. - Moreover Gilbert likes to compare the interior of the earth with the mother’s womb. In his opinion all metals originate from exhalations of the innermost part of the earth that are condensed and congeal nearer the surface in warm cavities “as the sperm or embryo congeals in the warm uterus” (I, 7 p. 20). De Mundo advocates the doctrine (p. 39) that all kinds of matter originate in earth and that earth, therefore, is the only element.
conscience as a cautious
experimentalist. He reproduces
II – Sources Quoted & Unquoted
3. The material thus far presented may serve for a general indication of Gilbert’s way of thinking. Animistic and Neoplatonic ideas are abundant in his book; the traces of Scholasticism and astrology are scarcer. But it is not these pre-scientific features that are conspicuous, for his work shares them with the whole learned literature of his period. What really counts is that his animistic metaphysics is nothing but the emotional background of his thinking and does not affect the empirical content of his science. The writings both of the Scholastics and the Renaissance philosophers abound with superstitious stories and magic. Gilbert rejects all that with unswerving criticism and bases his findings on experience and experiment only. This attitude is so exceptional in his period that the question arises where it originates. Since critical minded experimentalists appear more and more frequently among the scholars a few decades after Gilbert, a satisfactory answer would at the same time contribute to the solution of the problem of the origin of modern science in general.
Even in a period in which quoting was more favored by scholars than nowadays, Gilbert is remarkable for the number of his references and his wide reading. He stresses, nevertheless, the novelty of his ideas. His attitude to contemporary literature is explained in the preface of De Magnete. There Gilbert says:
What business have I in that vast ocean of books?... By the more silly ones among them the crowd and most impudent people get intoxicated, insane and haughty… They declare themselves to be philosophers, physicians, mathematicians, and astronomers and neglect and despise the
7. The story of the rotating
spherical magnet is mentioned in De Mundo also (p. 138). There Gilbert gives the same reasons why
the terrella does not rotate “although it is fit and inclined by nature
to rotation.” - In order to understand Gilbert’s argument we have to realize
that he was among the earliest adherents of Copernicus in
learned men. Why should I add any thing to this disturbed literary republic? Or am I to offer this eminent philosophy that because of its unknown contents, as it were, is new and unbelievable to people who blindly trust authorities, to most absurd destroyers of the good arts, to literary idiots, grammarians, sophists, pettifoggers, and perverse mediocrities?... No! I have presented these principles of magnetism that belong to a new kind of philosophy, to you true philosophers… who look for knowledge not in books only but in things themselves.
Continuing, he announces that he will not call upon ancient writers for help, “because neither Greek arguments nor Greek words” can assist in finding truth. He promises that he will avoid “the ornament of eloquence” and will not darken things by words “as the Alchemists are wont to do.” He plans to write with the same “liberty of mind” (licentia) as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. The “sciolists” of present times still keep the errors of the ancients, but Aristotle, Theophrastus, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, and Galen themselves are sources of wisdom. “Yet our own period has discovered and brought to light very many things which those men too would be glad to accept if they were alive.”
These vehement attacks on believers in authority and words, and the emphasis on the novelty of his ideas, are characteristic of the period of the expiring Renaissance, and anticipate Francis Bacon, and in some degree Galileo also. As the mention of grammarians, Greek words and eloquence shows, Gilbert’s attack is aimed at declining humanism. Similar attacks are repeated several times in Dc Magncte. 8 Gilbert’s other book, De Mundo, contains less polemics and is written more dispassionately. But it also opposes belief in authority: the slogan “he himself has said so, Aristotle has said so, Galen has said so” is considered a nuisance (De Mundo I, 3 p. 5), 9
4. We shall therefore not expect to meet with much agreement with other authors in Gilbert’s book. In fact most of the numer-
8. Gilbert scoffs (I, 1 p. 2) at “precocious sciolists and copyists” who add fictitious stories to ancient authors. He accuses “the modern philosophers” (I, 10 p. 28) of having drawn their knowledge from books rather than from things. He derides (II, 2 p. 48) the books “cramming the bookshops” that deal with mysterious stories instead of experiments, and are as fond of Greek words as barbers who try to impress people by using scraps of Latin. He charges Fracastoro (II, 39 p. 113) with his predilection for Greek words and reproaches “the crowd of philosophers and copyists” (II, 38 p. 109) with repeating old opinions and errors.
9. As is generally known, the ipse dixit (HHC – Greek not displayed) was the slogan of the Pythagorean school by which they referred to their master.
ous references he gives are critical and negative, whereas the real sources of his ideas are chiefly to be sought elsewhere.
Ancient authors are often quoted. Comparatively favorable judgments are pronounced on philosophers who believe in universal animation, such as Plato and most of the Pre-Socratics. Atomists and mechanists are rejected. The Stoics are not mentioned. Although Gilbert is still greatly influenced by the concept of substantial form, he is opposed to Aristotle. In De Magnete (p. 116 and 209) Aristotle’s astronomical doctrines are chiefly attacked, in Dc Mundo (I, 3) his doctrine of the four elements. The first book of De Mundo is even entitled “New Physiology against Aristotle,” the third, “New Meteorology against Aristotle.” 10
References to medieval authors are rarer. Thomas Aquinas is twice quoted (I, 1 p. 3 and II, 3 p. 64) and his ingenuity and scholarship are highly praised. Yet Gilbert adds that Thomas did not experiment and consequently committed errors. A few Arabian authors are mentioned, but for the most part their opinions are attacked. 11
Almost the same holds of the authors of the modern era. Gilbert does not seem to have known the humanists very well. Among modern scholars cited most frequently are the philosopher-physician Fracastoro, the mathematician and physician Cardanus, the philologist and physician Scaliger, and the learned compiler of curiosities, Giambattista Porta. The first three authors were among the most famous scholars of the late Renaissance. Nearly always Gilbert derides all four of them, Fracastoro because of his belief in “sympathy,” the others because of their credulity and superstition. Gilbert - he was physician in ordinary to Queen Elizabeth - wrote two chapters (I, 14 and 15) on the medical effects of iron. There he proves to be familiar with modern medical literature, but practically all authors cited are refuted. He vehe-
10 Thales, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Pythagoreans, Plato praised V, 1; Plato attacked p 61; Aristotle: his importance admitted (pref. about the end), his (and Galen’s) opinions on iron approved, p. 39; Hippocrates praised because he did not advocate the doctrine of the four elements De Mundo, p. 5, attacked De Magnete p. 35; Galen criticized, p. 35 and 62, his importance admitted, pref. about the end; Strabo, Ptolemy, Tacitus, and Pliny the Elder quoted on iron mines p. 25; Pliny the Elder (on glass-making) attacked, p. 112.
11. Avicenna is quoted on meteorites, p. 26; the medical opinions of Avicenna, Razes (= Abu Bekr al Rasi), and unnamed Arabian physicians attacked, p. 34f.; the alchemists Geber and Gilgil Mauretanus attacked, p. 19.
mently attacks Paracelsus, who among the physicians was the first to rebel against the authority of Aristotle and Galen, and he twice mentions (pp. 34 f.) the eminent and empirical-minded anatomist Fallopius without bringing him into any prominence. Gilbert’s personal medical opinions are remarkably sound and free of superstition. Contemporary astronomical literature is well known to him (De Mundo II, 10 and 20) and Copernicus is highly praised in De Magnete (VI, 3). In the preface to De Magnete, written by Gilbert’s friend Wright, the heliocentric theory is defended at length against scientific and religious objections. 12
More may be learned of the origin of Gilbert’s ideas from the references lacking than from those he gives. Among ancient authors three are conspicuous by their absence in De Magnete: Euclid, who is most important for the development of geometrical knowledge in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; Archimedes, who greatly influenced mechanics in the same period; and Vitruvius, who is the main source of knowledge in the field of ancient engineering. The three omissions show that Gilbert was not concerned with the mathematical literature of the period, that he was not interested in mechanics, and that he had connections neither with the humanists nor the architects of the Renaissance, who often quoted Vitruvius. With artists, presumably, Gilbert did not have any contacts at all. He could have found real experiments in the papers of the Italian artist-engineers (Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Leonardo), which, however, were not yet printed. He never mentions Biringuccio either, who belonged with the architects of the Renaissance. Biringuccio ‘s work Della Pirotechnia, printed in 1540, treats metallurgy quite empirically and by experiments, but still discusses the magnet in a rather superstitious way.
The omission of one more group of authors is instructive. Gilbert’s opposition to belief in books and authorities and his pride
12. Nicolaus Cusanus (“not to be despised”), p. 64; Marsiius Ficinus, p. 3 (“ruminates ancient opinions”) and p. 16; Fracastoro De Sympathia (1545), mentioned, pp. 5, 9, 110, 113; his theory of planetary movements (given in his Homocentricorum seu de Stellis Liber) discussed in De Mundo II, 10; Cardanus’s De Subtilitate (1552) attacked, pp. 5, 27, 37, 42, 63, 107, 110, 169; Scaliger’s Exercitationes Esotericae (1557) attacked, pp. 5, 27, 37, 42, 63, 107, 110, 169; Porta’s Magia Naturalis (1589) quoted, pp. 6, 24, 63, 137f., 143f., 166ff.; Paracelsus’s “shameless charlatanry” attacked, p. 93, his merits admitted but Paracelsists attacked, De Mundo p. 7; the Antiparacelsist Thomas Erastus quoted, pp. 3 and 23. Tycho Brahe (on the coordinates of the Polaris) referred to, p. 174.
in the novelty of his ideas, are
greatly reminiscent of Bernardino Telesio. Telesio was the first among the scholars
of the Renaissance to oppose his “own principles” to Aristotelian natural
philosophy (De Rerum Natura iuxta propria Principia, 1565 and 1570). Actually the influence of Telesio
appears a few years after De Magnete in the works of Bacon, in which the
anti-Aristotelian rebellion is carried on with even greater impetus. Gilbert, however, neither mentions
Telesio nor seems to have known his work. The case of Telesio’s pupil Patrizzi is
somewhat different. Patrizzi always
attacks Aristotle but is not much of a champion of originality: he likes quoting
Plato and the authorities of occult science too well. He was known to Gilbert and is twice
quoted in De Mundo (II, 2, p. 118 and II, 10, p. 151). Both times, however, statements of
Patrizzi - on the shape of the globe and on the cause of the motions of the
stars - are rejected. In De
Magnete also both content and wording of the Neoplatonic chapter on
universal animation (17, 12) obviously are influenced by Patrizzi, although he
is not even mentioned. 13
Campanella and Giordano Bruno are also intellectually
related to Telesio. Both attacked
Aristotle and rejected the humanistic veneration of books with the same
vehemence. Yet they are never
mentioned in Gilbert. Brimo lived
Gilbert’s ideas - he describes, as we have seen, parts of De Mundo as Physiologia nova contra Aristotelem, Nova Metcorologia contra Aristotelcm - belong to the same intellectual current as those of Telesio, Patrizzi, Campanella, and Bruno. Modern technology and modern economy had changed civilization too thoroughly for the Scholastic belief in Aristotle or the humanistic veneration of antiquity to endure. Telesio, Patrizzi, Campanella, and Bruno, however, were metaphysicians, not experimentalists, though Telesio and Campanella, theoretically at least, emphasized the importance of experience. It is rather instructive to realize that
13. Patrizzi’s main work Nova de
Universis Philosophia appeared in
three of these philosophers exerted no influence at all on Gilbert and only Patrizzi contributed a few Neoplatonic ideas to his philosophy. In a sociological analysis the young experimental science of the early seventeenth century and the antidogmatic but fantastic metaphysics of the late Renaissance might prove to be connected: in both the same rebellion of the nascent modern society against the antiquated erudition and authorities of the past manifests itself. Yet the natural philosophy of the late Renaissance was the older brother of experimental science, not its father. The experimental method did not and could not have descended from the metaphysical ideas of the natural philosophers. We have to look elsewhere and in other social ranks for its immediate predecessors.
Among all the scholars quoted by
Gilbert there is one who really did influence his investigation and method a
great deal, although he does not at all emphasize this indebtedness. This is the medieval nobleman Pierre de
Maricourt, who in 1269 wrote a short but remarkable account of his magnetic
experiments. About his life almost
nothing is known. Written copies of
his letter on magnetism were circulated until the sixteenth century, when it was
printed under the title Petri Peregrini Maricurtensis De Magnete, seu
The first reference is in the first chapter of Dc Magnctc which compiles the opinions on magnetism of the authors of the past. There (p. 5) Gilbert says: “About 200 years before Fracastoro there is a short work, sufficiently learned considering the period, under the name of a certain Petrus Peregrinus, which many think to have originated in the opinions of the Englishman Roger Bacon of Oxford. From that Johannes Taysner of Hainolt excerpted a booklet and published it as a new one.’ 15 Twice (III, 1 p. 116 and IV, 1 p. 153) Petrus is mentioned among the advocates of the erroneous opinion that “the magnetic needle is attracted by the celestial pole.” In a short chapter (II, 35) Gilbert vehemently
15. As a matter of fact Roger Bacon
depends more on
rejects the perpetual motion engines
of Cardanus, Antonius de Fantis, Petrus Peregrinus, and Johannes Taysner. And, finally, in De Magnete VI, 4
(p. 223) and De Mundo II, 7 (p. 13) he criticizes
But in fact he owes more to
5. Up to this point we have not been able to give many positive contributions in answer to our main question. We have traced numerous authors to whom Gilbert was not indebted for his scientific method and only one - Pierre de Maricourt - to whom he was. The origins of his experimental technique and his scientific criticism are almost as enigmatic as they were before we started collecting his quotations. But we may have proceeded incorrectly. It was wrong, in fact, to look for his intellectual predecessors among scholars and philosophers. One has but to turn over the leaves of De Magnete in order to realize that he was interested in unscholar-like people and non-scholastic subjects too. Of the 240 pages of the book only 97 (40%) explain physical experiments. On the other hand 60 pages (25%) deal with nautical instruments and navigation, 25 pages (10%) with mining, melting, and fashioning of iron. The rest discusses astronomical questions (25 pp.), the
opinions of numerous authors (18 pp.), the terrestrial globe as a magnet (11 pp.), and the medical effects of iron (4 pp.). Obviously De Magnete differs a great deal from a modern textbook on magnetism. The very first printed book on experimental physics deals so extensively with practical problems, that in some respects it is nearer to a technological than to a physical work of our time. And this gives the clue to the solution of our problem.
We may discuss first Gilbert’s
interest in mining and metallurgy. The literature on the subject is well
known to him. George Agricola, the
best known sixteenth century author in this field, is quoted most frequently.
Gilbert esteems him highly but
corrects errors uncritically taken over by Agricola from antiquity. Not less than three chapters of De
Magnete (I, 2, 7, and 8) give extensive accounts of the distribution of iron
in the world, describe the various ores, and quote ancient, Arabian, and modern
authors on the subject. 16
Iron-manufacturing also is discussed at
length (I, 7). Gilbert reports (p.
23) on the manufacturing of cast iron, wrought iron, and steel in Styria and
Spain, he refers to the description of iron-foundries in Porta’s Magia
Naturalis, and gives (p. 24) a list, eleven lines long, of iron devices.
It contains among other things
various kinds of guns, “the plague of mankind,” and ends with a hint at other
“numerous devices unknown to Latins.” His reports on
16. The books of Agricola (1490-1555)
on mining and metallurgy are still the best source of knowledge on this branch
of technology in the 16th century. Gilbert (I, 1 p. 2) calls him “most
outstanding in science,” but regrets that he took over the ancient stories of
antimagnetic effects of garlic and diamond. He rejects (I, 38 p. 110) Agricola’s
statement that the magnet is useful in glass-manufacturing and reproaches
Agricola for being influenced on this point by the “ignorant philosophy” of
Pliny the Elder. Of course Gilbert
knows that glass is not attracted by magnets. He approves (I, 7 p. 19) Agricola’s
chemical opinion that iron is composed of earth and water. Agricola and other- unnamed – “learned
metallurgists” are referred to (I, 2 p. 10) on occurrences of iron-ore in
personal experience. He tells (I, 2 p. 11) that “newly” in an English mine, owned by the gentleman Adrian Gilbert, magnetic iron ore was found. 17 He reports (I, 7 p. 23) on the handling of iron in English gun foundries. And he knows (I, 8 p. 26) that English clay always contains iron and that, if bricks are baked in open kilns, “which are called clampa with us,” the bricks next to the fire show “ferruginous vitrification.”
Gilbert is also familiar with forging. In a chapter dealing with magnetic experiments (I, 11 p. 29) he describes how he himself manufactures the wrought iron he needs for his experiments, and adds: “out of that the hammersmiths (fabri) form quadrangular pieces but mostly ingots (bacillas) which are bought by merchants and blacksmiths (ferrarii) and out of which various devices are manufactured in the workshops (officinis).” In a chapter (III, 12) which explains how iron is magnetized by the magnetic field of the earth he even gives a large woodcut of a smithy with furnace, bellows, anvil, and tools.
That very woodcut, which would be impossible in a modern textbook on magnetism, illustrates the intimate connection of Gilbert’s theoretical investigation with practical metallurgy. Moreover, we must not forget that Gilbert did not live in the period of tradition-bound medieval handicraft. The mining and metallurgy he is interested in is the mining and metallurgy of rapidly advancing early capitalism. As we know from Agricola, hauling engines, stamping mills, ventilators, and tracks for the dogs came into use in mining during the sixteenth century. In the same period the introduction of the blast furnace revolutionized the whole technique of iron manufacture. English mining and English metallurgy participated in that development. 18 Since the miners and foundrymen of the period belonged to the lower ranks of society and were uneducated we know neither their names nor their ideas. Yet we cannot doubt that many of them, stimulated to improvements by economic competition, were wont to try new techniques and to observe natural processes. Technology could not have progressed so rapidly if the laborers in the manner of the medieval guilds had simply
17. The owner was no relation of the author. Cf. the family-tree in Silvanus B. Thompson: The Family and Arms of Gilbert of Colchester, Trans. Essex Archaeol. Soc., vol. 9, new series (1906) p. 211.
18. Cf. Ludwig Beck: Geschichte des Eisens, Braunsehweig 1893-95, vol. 2, pp. 879-897
clung to the traditional working-processes of the past. Obviously, among such manual laborers there were experimentalists, though experimentalists with practical aims only and without theoretical knowledge. With their ranks Gilbert must have had many contacts. By a lucky accident we are even able to prove that he must have himself descended into an iron mine. Once (III, 2 p. 119 f.) he tells how he verified the hypothesis that the direction of magnetism in magnetic iron ore is induced by the earth. He says:
We had a twenty pounds’ heavy loadstone dug and hauled out after having first observed and marked its ends in its vein. Then we put the stone in a wooden tub on water, so that it could turn freely. Immediately the surface which had looked to the North in the mine turned itself to the North on the water.
It is almost symbolic that Gilbert performed a laboratory experiment just after having left a pit and talked to miners. Of course Gilbert’s experiments were not plain copies of the trials of the miners and foundrymen. But his spirit of observing and experimenting was taken over not from scholars but from manual workers. Sometimes, however, even his experiments simply repeated the working processes of contemporary iron manufacture. In three chapters of De Magnete (I, 9-11) he describes magnetic experiments with iron ore and wrought iron: he makes pieces of ore and iron float on water, he suspends them by threads, and has them attracted by magnets; but first he heats the ore for hours in a furnace and melts it; then he hammers the product, puts it into a second furnace and so on. All this is described, not as a mere preparation, but as a part of the experiments themselves. At least a part of his laboratory must have looked like a smithy.
6. Navigation and nautical instruments play an even greater part in De Magnete than mining and metallurgy. About 32 pages (13%) of the book are dedicated to nautical instruments, about 28 (12%) to general navigation. Already at the very beginning of De Magnete, in Wright’s preface, geographic discoveries and circumnavigations of the globe are mentioned. In his survey of previous writers on magnetism (I, 1 p. 4) Gilbert reports (erroneously) the history of the invention of the compass and remarks that “no invention of human arts has ever been of greater use to mankind.” He mentions Sebastian Cabot as the discoverer of magnetic declination and gives (p. 7) the names of four men “who
have observed the variety of magnetic declination on long voyages”: Thomas Hariot, Robert Hues, Edward Wright, and Abraham Kendall. 19 Gilbert proves to be familiar with mariners also in a chapter on the terrestrial globe. There (I, 17 p. 39) he gives numerical statements on the depth of the ocean according to the soundings of the mariners. He must have been told of their results by personal friends. 20
The full extent of his nautical
knowledge appears in the fourth book of De Magnete which deals with
magnetic declination. Gilbert knows
(IV, 1 p. 152) that declination differs at different places and gives its amount
for places dispersed over all oceans and continents.
21 The remarkably wide range of his
statements proves his familiarity with the reports of the English, Spanish,
Portuguese, and Dutch navigators and the books of the learned cosmographers of
the period. Moreover he mentions
(IV, 5 and 10) that declination is great in high latitudes and that it is not
influenced by the iron mines of the
19. Since Gilbert’s authorities on
navigation are characteristic of the social soil from which modern natural
science has sprung, their activities and occupations are important. The mathematician and astronomer Hariot
or Harriot (1560-1621) who was mathematical tutor to Sir Walter Raleigh as a
young man, was sent by him as a surveyor to
20. He states that the depth of the ocean reaches one mile at a few places only and generally is no more than 50 to 100 fathoms. As the greatest depth of mines he gives 400 to 500 fathoms, as the diameter of the earth 6,872 miles.
21. P. 153f. East coast of the
Atlantic from Guinea to Norway, West coast from Florida to Cape Race in New
Foundland; p. 161 Azores; p. 163f.
(IV, 8 p. 165 f.) that the
Portuguese royal cosmographer Pedro Nufles (Tratado da Sphera, Lisboa,
1537) disregards declination entirely and that the Spanish historian Pedro de
Medina (Arte de Navegar,
Gilbert is familiar with the astronomical aids to navigation too. He knows how geographic latitude is determined astronomically, even takes into account atmospheric refraction, and gives a long list of bright stars with their declinations and right ascensions for the practical use of navigators (IV, 12 p. 174f.).
Gilbert got his nautical knowledge not from reading only. Again, as with the miners, an occasional mention in De Magnete
22. The sailing-master
23 The (antiquated) solution is: the
declinations at the various places of the surface of the earth have to be listed
at first and then the geographic position of the ship can be determined by
comparing observed declination with the list. Stevin’s paper (De Havenvinding,
reveals the personal contacts of the author. Once (III, 1 p. 117f.) Gilbert explains that the compass works under all latitudes from the equator up to the 70th and 80th degree N.L., and adds: “This the most famous captains and also very many of the more intelligent sailors confirm to us. This our most famous Neptunus Francis Drake, and the other circumnavigator of the globe, Thomas Cavendish, have told and confirmed to me.” Obviously he is proud of the friendship of the two great circumnavigators who by their naval victories over the Spaniards - and by their successful privateering - had access to the court of Queen Elizabeth. Cavendish was a gentleman by birth, Sir Francis Drake was knighted because of his naval success: the names of the ordinary master mariners and helmsmen Gilbert had contact with are not given by him. 24
At the end of the passage just
quoted (III, 1 p. 118) Gilbert states that the compass works badly only when the
needle has rusted or when the point on which it turns has got blunt. This leads us to his interest in nautical
instruments. The measuring
instruments described at length in De Magnete have already been
discussed, and it has been mentioned that they are less new than the reader of
Gilbert’s description would assume.
25 After the publication of De Magnete Gilbert was
still engaged in improving his instruments and making propaganda for them. One year before Gilbert’s death a certain
M. Blundeville published a booklet Theorique of the Seven Planets,
24. Gilbert himself in the quotation just given distinguishes “ilustrissimi naucleri” and “nautae etiam sagaciores plurimi” among his authorities. The sailing master Abraham Kendall (cf. footnotes 19 and 22) was personally acquainted with him. Edward Wright was his friend and so probably were Thomas Harriot and Robert Hues (of. footnote 19). These three men, however, were academically trained mathematicians who had intimate relations with navigators and navigation.
25. § 1, footnote 2.
26. Blundeville is one more of the friends of Gilbert. He wrote popular scientific books in English for gentlemen. Besides the quoted work he published treatises on [horsemanship, on Aristotelian logic, on map-making, on morals, and on counsellors of princes. The sub-title of his Theorique of the seven Planets illustrates rather well which social ranks outside the universities were interested in astronomy at Gilbert’s time. It reads: A Booke most necessarie for all Gentlemen that are desirous to be skillful in Astronomic and for all Pilots and Sea-men or any others that love to serve the Prince on the Sea or by the Sea to travell into forraine Countries. This means that astronomical papers - if they were written in English - were of interest to over-sea-traders and ship-owners, their master-mariners and helmsmen, and the gentlemen in the Royal Navy. Blundeville’s booklet is based not only on Ptolemy but also on the ephemerides of Peurbach, Copernicus, and his followers Reinhold and Mestlin.]
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deal with instruments as a mere theorist, but is familiar with the practical demands master-mariners make. He realizes (De Magnete IV, 12 p. 172) that in navigation simply built instruments are necessary which can be handled in spite of the rolling of the ship, and he invents and draws nomograms because he feels complicated calculations and “the exercises of mathematical genius “to be out of place on shipboard. On the method of preparing, magnetizing, and balancing the needle of the compass he gives a few practical hints (III, 17 p. 147 f.). He discusses at length (IV, 8 p. 165 f.) the various types of compasses that are used by the sailors of the various European nations. This chapter, however, is based on statements of Robert Norman without mentioning his name.
27. Barlow was the son of a bishop
and himself a clergyman, and was interested in navigation, though he had never
gone to sea. He published among
other papers The Navigators Supply,
Then he describes at length and
illustrates by a woodcut an experiment which is supposed to prove the
explanation given. 28 The experiment in every detail (and its incorrect
interpretation) is borrowed from
28. He makes a magnetic needle float in water by means of a piece of cork and carefully sees to it that it is completely submerged; from the fact that the needle adjusts itself with the direction of earth-magnetism but is not drawn to the rim of the vessel he concludes that there is no attraction. He (and Norman) forget that the needle has two opposite poles which are drawn to opposite directions.
29. The Newe Attractive,
Containing a short discourse of the Magnes or Lodestone and amongest other his
vertues, of a newe discovered secret and subtil propertie concernyng the
Declinyng of the Needle touched therewith under the plaine of the Horizon. Now first founde by Robert Norman
Hydrographer. Hereunto are annexed certaine necessarie rules for the art of
Navigation by the same R.N.,
before having heard nor read of any
such matter,” and describes (chap. 4) and illustrates by a wood-cut the very
first inclinometer. 30 The descriptions of two outstanding and
most carefully performed experiments follow, both taken over by Gilbert. The first (chap. 5) proves by means of a
gold balance that magnetism is imponderable; this is experimentally and
theoretically entirely correct. The
second (chap. 6) has been mentioned above (footnote 28); it is meant to prove
that the earth does not attract but only turns the magnetic needle. It is illustrated by a woodcut, is even
more carefully performed than in Gilbert -
The rest of the book does not
30. As a matter of fact the dip had
been observed before, though less exactly, by the German physician Georg
Hartmann. Hartmann’s unpublished
letter (1544) to Duke Albert of
De Magnete (IV, 8). It follows a second part containing astronomical tables for the use of navigators.
We have already become acquainted
with the empirical temper of this simple instrument-maker who, no less than
Gilbert, Francis Bacon, and Galileo, prefers observation to books. His intellectual attitude is expressed
even more clearly in the remarkable preface to the book. It is addressed “to the Right
Worshipfull, M. William Borough, Esquire, Comptroller of her Maiesties Navie.”
It starts with the anecdote of
Archimedes who, while taking a bath, discovers the law of buoyancy, runs naked
to the street, and shouts -
So I (although in other respects and points of learning and knowledge, I will not presume to compare with Archimedes… nor with other learned Mathematicians, being myself an unlearned Mathematician) by occasion of my profession, making sundry experiments of the Magnet stone, found at length amongst many other effects this strange and newe propertie of Declining of the Needle: which forgetting or rather neglecting my own nakedness and want of furniture, to set forth the matter, I have heere in simple sorte proposed… to the view of the world.
Again he cites an ancient anecdote, the story of Pythagoras and the hecatomb he offered after having discovered his theorem, and continues:
So that we see these men… being carried and overcome with the incredible delight conceived of their own devices and inventions, though, they follow partly the peculiar contentation of their privat fancies, yet they seme chiefly to respect either the glory of god or the furtherance of some publike commoditie… And seing it hath pleased God to make mee the instrument to open this noble secret, that his name might be glorified, and the cormmoditie of my Country procured thereby, I thought it my dutie to aduenture my credite and make my name the object of slaunderous and carping tongues rather then such a secrete should be concealed and the use thereof unknown.
Whenin, although I may seeme to have discouered my nakedness and want of eloquence and orderly Methode to utter my conceits withall, I trust the reader will either of his curtesie take all things for good, that is well ment, or of his grauitie, not regarding the words but the matter, dissemble my faults, and accept of my paines.
He mentions that he has communicated
his findings before publication to a few learned friends and concludes with
respectful words to William Borough as “your worships most humble Robert
Norman.” In his short preface to
the reader he emphasizes also that he will “ground his arguments onlye upon
experience, reason and demonstrations.” “Many and divers ancient Authors,
Philosophers and other” have written on the magnet, but he intends to write
“contrary to the opinions of all them.” This remarkable man who, twenty-five
years before Galileo’s first publication, speaks of the “incredible delight” of
experimental discovery, was a craftsman. At the end of the first edition of his
booklet a kind of advertisement was printed, stating that the instruments
described “are made by Robert Norman and may be had at his borne in Ratclif.”
31 When the seamen of the sixteenth century
went to sea, they laid the foundation-stone of the
The note just quoted refers to
Robert Norman is of great importance for our problem. Except for the Latin erudition, the quotations and polemics, and the metaphysical philosophy of nature, he has everything that is pecu-
31. Quoted from Hellmann loc. cit. The note is omitted in the later editions, presumably because Robert Norman had died.
32 He was born in 1536, travelled to
liar to Gilbert. Norman as well as Gilbert proceeds by
experiment and, “not regarding the words but the matter,” bases his statements
on experience rather than on books. Moreover, the measuring-instruments and
the details of the experimental technique, the most exact experiments, and many
single empirical statements of De Magnete are already contained in his
booklet. It is true that the
III – Rise of Science as a Sociological Process
8. The last paragraphs have answered our main question. Gilbert’s experimental method and his independent attitude towards authorities were derived, not from ancient and contemporary learned literature, but on the one hand from the miners and foundrymen, on the other from the navigators and instrument-makers of the period. Alchemistic experiments probably never
were performed by Gilbert, for he always vehemently attacked the alchemists and derided their attempts to make gold. 33 A rather complete assortment of the sources of his scientific achievements has been given by himself in his discussion of the practical use of the magnetic needle. There (III, 17 p. 147) he explains that by means of the needle the content of iron can be diagnosed in ores. The needle is the main part in the compass, which is, as it were, “the finger of God,” and has made possible the Spanish and English circumnavigations of the globe. By means of the magnetic needle veins of iron ore can be discovered, subterranean galleries can be driven in sieges, guns can be pointed at night, territories can be surveyed, and subterranean water-conduits can be constructed. 34
Altogether, the impression of
Gilbert’s originality is considerably impaired, when he is confronted with his
sources and especially with
33. He reproaches them (pref. fol. iij) with “veiling things in darkness and obscurity by means of silly words.” They are called (I, 3 p. 19) “cruel masters of metals who torture and harass them by many inventions.” They are “delirious” (p. 20) and their doctrine that metals can be changed into gold is “futile” (p. 24).
34. The considerable part played by military engineering in this enumeration might be striking. We have already met with gun-making in Gilbert’s discussion of metallurgy (I, 7 pp. 23f.), have been forced to mention naval warfare and privateering several times, and should meet with military engineering even more frequently if we discussed the investigations of Leonardo da Vinci, Tartaglia, Duerer, and Galileo. Military technology has contributed considerably to the rise of the experimental spirit and natural science. Its influence on Gilbert is comparatively rather slight.
the following cf.: Leonard Olschki, Geschichtc der neusprachlichcn
wisscnschaftlichcn Literatur (vol. 1: Die Literatur der Technik und der
angewandten Wissenschaften vom Mittebalter bis zur Renaissance, Heidelberg 1918;
vol. 2: Bildung und Wissenschaft im
Zeitalter der Renaissance in Italien, Leipzig-Roma-Firenze-Geneva 1922; vol.
3: Galilci und seine Zeit, Halle 1927). All
these volumes abound in valuable information on the scholar-literature and the
craftsman-literature of the period and contain many sociological aspects. The third volume contains statements,
until now scarcely used, on the influence of contemporary technology on Galileo
(on the relations of the artists to handicraft, mechanics, military engineering
and mathematics cf. I, 30-447; on
mathematics and mechanics III, 72-110; on Galileo III, 117-469). On a later
period cf. Robert K. Merton: Science and Tech-[nology in the 17th Century, Osiris vol. 4
(1938) pp. 360-630. On the
prejudice against manual labor and its intellectual implications cf.
Edgar Zilsel: Die Entstehung des Geniebegriffes, Tuebingen 1926 (pp.
112-130 the humanistic literati, 130- 143 the inventors and discoverers, 143-154
the artists and artist-engineers, 310-15 two strata of intellectual activities).
On the effects of the prejudice
against manual labor on astronomy cf. Edgar Zilsel: Copernicus and
Mechanics, in Journal of the History of Ideas vol. I (1940) pp.
113-118. On the effects on anatomy
of Benjamin Farrington:
Vesalio and the Ruin of Ancient Medicine, in Modern Quarterly,
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From antiquity until about 1600 a sharp dividing-line existed between liberal and mechanical arts, i.e., in the final analysis, between arts needing heads and tongues only and others needing the use of hands also. The former were considered as worthy of well-bred men, the latter were left to lower-class people. Thus the contempt for manual labor tended to exclude experiment (and dissection) from respectable science. The prejudice against manual labor, however, did not prevent the experiments of the alchemists. Alchemy is not an occupation as carpentering, or forging; it is made respectable by the charm of both magic and gold, and even well-bred people may practise it as a hobby. But no respectable scholar who was proud of his position as a representative of the liberal arts even thought of using the methods of the mechanical arts. The case of those craftsmen who aspired to a higher social level is different; they - e.g. the Italian artists of the fifteenth century - discussed the social qualifications of manual work again and again, and stressed that they were connected with mathematics, i.e. with science.
The social background and the professional conditions of the scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries can not be discussed here. Nearly all of them had academic degrees and were consequently more or less linked to the universities, or they were humanists. Though several humanists had obtained academic chairs, generally speaking the universities of the period were still dominated by the spirit of Scholasticism. Both the university-scholars and the humanistic literati were accustomed to deal with natural phenomena chiefly in so far as they had been treated before by the authorities of Scholasticism and humanism respectively. On the other hand, since the decay of the guilds and their traditionalism real observation of natural phenomena, and even some experimentation, were to be found among skilled manual workers. Very little, however, is known of their intellectual interests.
Since they got no education but the practical one in the workshops of their masters, their observations and experiments must have proceeded rather unmethodically.
With the advancement of early capitalistic society two major intellectual developments occurred: on the one hand, by virtue of technological inventions, geographical discoveries, and economic changes, the contrast between present times and the past became so obvious, that in the second half of the sixteenth century rebellion against both Scholasticism and humanism began among the scholars themselves. Representatives of the learned upper ranks, such as Telesio, Patrizzi, Bruno, and Campanella, vehemently attacked Aristotle and the belief in “words,” felt enthusiastic about nature and physical experience, but did not experiment. Merely speculative metaphysics was, as it were, the older brother rather than the father of modern experimental science (cf. above § 4).
On the other hand, among the ranks
of manual laborers a few groups of superior craftsmen formed connections with
respectable scholars. During the
fifteenth century Italian painters, sculptors and architects had slowly
separated from whitewashers, stone-dressers and masons. As the division of labor was still only
slightly developed, the same artist usually worked in several fields of art, and
often in engineering too. The
technical problems of their occupations led them more and more to
experimentation. Many of them made
contacts with humanistic literati, were told of Vitruvius,
though they were not regarded as
respectable scientists by contemporary public opinion. So far as papers were composed by them,
they were written in the vernacular, not in Latin, and were not read by most of
the respectable scholars, even if they were printed. By their colleagues, however, the books,
especially those on navigation, were diligently read, as is proved by the five
But a few learned authors, very few,
comparatively, already showed an understanding of mechanical arts before 1600.
The German physician George
Agricola published Latin treatises on mining and metallurgy (1544 and 1556); the
chaplain at the royal court of Madrid, Peter Martyr, wrote two Latin books on
the great geographical discoveries of the period (1511 and 1530); the learned
secretary of the Senate of Venice, Ramusio, did the same in Italian (1550); a
few Portuguese and Spanish cosmographers, such as Nufles and Pedro de Medina,
wrote mostly vernacular books on navigation. But especially in
All these half-technical, half-learned activities show that some branches of the mechanical arts had become so important economically that they began to engage and to interest a few scholars. But they dealt with metallurgy and mostly with navigation rather than with experiments. The first academically trained scholar who dared to adopt the experimental method from the superior craftsmen and to communicate the results in a book not to helmsmen and mechanics but to the learned public was William Gilbert,
who was a personal friend of most of these English authors. This is Gilbert’s achievement in history. It might have been as difficult for the physician in ordinary to Queen Elizabeth to overcome the prejudice against manual labor as it was for the craftsman Norman to raise and answer his theoretical problems - though the two achievements are of a rather different kind. By his understanding of the scientific importance of experiment Gilbert made it - or helped to make it - respectable among the ranks of the educated. A few years later two other scholars likewise followed the method of the superior craftsmen: Francis Bacon, who ranked the great inventors and navigators above the scholars of his period, and Galileo, who started from military engineering. 36
But we must deal with an objection.
Is it true that experimental
science could not come into existence so long as liberal and mechanical arts
were kept separate by the contempt for manual labor? The fact that Pierre de Maricourt had
already performed experiments does not seem to fit in with our exposition. Yet it is significant that
36. Galileo had already experimented
a few years before De Magnete appeared. He became acquainted with Gilbert’s book
rather soon. We have a letter from
Gilbert to William Barlowe, telling that Gilbert met with the Venetian
ambassador who brought him a Latin letter of Joannes Franciscus Sagredus.
Gilbert continues: “Sagredo is a great Magnetical man and writeth that he has
conferred with… the Readers of Padua and reported wonderful liking of my booke”
(Barlowe, Magneticall Advertisement, London 1616). The letter must have been written between
1600 and 1603. Sagredo was a friend
of Galileo and later figures as one of the persons of the discourse in Galileo’s
great dialogues. No doubt, Galileo
himself, who was then lecturer on mathematics at the
37 He probably was not a monk but a nobleman and might have
been in the Orient as a pilgrim or crusader as his surname Peregrinus
suggests. In 1269 he took part
in the siege of Lucera in
The social rise of the experimental method from the class of manual laborers to the ranks of university scholars in the early seventeenth century was a decisive event in the history of science. Natural science needs theory and mathematics as well as experiments and observations. Only theoretically educated men with rationally trained intellects were able to supply that other half of its method to science. With Gilbert, however, not much of the superiority of academic training as to the theoretical side of science can be noticed: his general speculations have not proved to be fruitful. It is different with Francis Bacon and Galileo. Bacon’s far-reaching ideas on the advancement of learning and scientific cooperation could scarcely have been formed by craftsmen, though they were nothing but generalizations of their own practice. Galileo, on the other hand, joined mathematics with experiment.
Why did Gilbert himself never reckon, why did he come to a
37. On the following, cf. the papers on Petrus Peregrinus quoted in footnote 14.
38. Roger Bacon, Opus tertium, cap. 12, p. 46 (ed. Brewer).
standstill at the first beginnings of quantitative inquiry? Certainly that deficiency is connected with his subject matter. Magnetic and electric processes can be measured only by complicated methods and, in consequence, were first measured almost two hundred years after Gilbert by Coulomb. It is mechanics that was the birthplace of quantitative research, since mechanical processes can be measured comparatively easily. Therefore, authors dealing with mechanics, such as Stevin and Galileo - and centuries before them Archimedes - were the first mathematical physicists. Gilbert on the other hand, as we have seen, is remarkably little interested in mechanics. He almost appears to have been biased against it. In De Mundo (II, 10 p. 154) he criticizes mechanistic astronomers who think Ptolemy’s spheres to be material. He objects to their hypothesis on the ground that by it the universe is made a great wheelwork and God a mechanic. In the eighteenth century a comparison like this scarcely could have served as an objection to a theory; on the contrary, similar comparisons were commonplaces in the period of mechanistic physics and deism.
Gilbert’s pre-mechanical way of
thinking and his predilection for a field where measurements are so difficult
may be due to his individual characteristics. But they are connected also with the
special conditions of his native country. Practically all quantitative
investigations in De Magnete originate in nautical technique and the work
of the compass-maker
39. Ludwig Beck: Geschichte des Eisens, Braunschweig 1893-95, vol. II, pp. 892
teenth century iron had not yet reached its dominant part in technology. It still was used in making weapons and simple tools rather than in machinery. And just this point leads us back again to our problem.
The first machines were made of wood
and the first mechanical insights, therefore, were acquired from wooden devices
- levers, reels, windlasses, inclined planes. There the Italian artist-engineers and
Stevin made their studies and found quantitative relations and laws. Galileo, when experimenting on the law of
falling bodies, made brass balls roll down an inclined wooden groove. Not before the eighteenth century did
iron machines, and not before the nineteenth did metallurgy become subjects of
calculation. In the preceding
centuries, therefore, predilection for iron prevented rather than promoted
application of mathematical methods. Thus
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