Think about all the aspects of our daily life that you take for granted—objects and activities we don’t even notice anymore. Microwaves, cars, television, even the light bulbs we use were all once revolutionary scientific concepts brought about through the scientific method of trial and error. Magnetism is no different and it’s common acceptance is largely due to the “Father of Magnetism,” William Gilbert.

We may understand the basic concept—magnetic materials stick to certain other materials. They’re great if you need to hang something on the fridge or promote your various hobbies on the back of your car. But believe it or not, there was a time when magnetism (along with electricity) was considered a mysterious power and had few practical uses other than navigation.

Magnetism’s Greatest Advocate

Born in 1544 to a well-to-do family in Essex, England, William Gilbert was given the best education available. He went on to earn a doctorate from Cambridge before turning his attention to the studies of magnetism and electricity.

Gilbert came of age just as Great Britain experienced a true renaissance in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was a time of innovation, discovery, and creative experimentation. The works of William Shakespeare debuted at the Globe Theatre, Edmund Spenser published “The Faerie Queene,” and the British age of global discovery was in full swing.

The need for reliable navigation became increasingly important as England explored farther and farther lands. Sailors knew magnetism played a role in keeping a compass pointed in the right direction, but the understanding behind it was flawed.

A long-held belief, one popularized by Christopher Columbus himself, was that Polaris (the North Star) was the main attraction for compass needles. However this hypothesis would soon be taken to task. In 1600, Gilbert, who had recently been appointed court physician by Queen Elizabeth I, published De Magnete, a scientific compendium (written in Latin because that’s what smart people spoke) of all of the observable properties of magnetism. In this scientific masterpiece, Gilbert dispelled a number of rumors pertaining to magnetism. Perhaps the most revolutionary finding was that the North Star had nothing to do with the direction a compass points.  

Gilbert went onto explain that Earth was itself a magnet, with a north and south pole. It was the north pole to which compasses pointed. Quite refreshingly, Gilbert’s research was met with almost instant acceptance and praise. His work was groundbreaking that it even inspired Galileo Galilei’s claim that Earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa—a concept that landed him in some pretty hot water with the church. Gilbert’s studies, however, were so influential that they would remain the final word on magnetism for over two centuries.

More Than Magnetism

Besides revolutionizing our understanding of magnetism, William Gilbert is also credited with being the first person to employ the scientific method—yet another aspect of life we take for granted. This process of asking a question, stating a hypothesis, testing it, and analyzing results seems like such an obvious task. However, it was Gilbert’s work with magnetic poles that first put the scientific method’s formula to work.

Need more proof William Gilbert is a scientific legend? He coined the term “electricity.” That’s right. Taken from the Greek word “amber,” it was Gilbert how first applied the term to something we use every single day without even thinking about. Before Gilbert’s research, there was no distinction between magnetism and electricity, but he was able to demonstrate who they were in fact separate physical entities. (Read more about the etymology of the word “magnet” in an earlier post).

So, while you may not spend every moment of every day thinking about such basic concepts like magnetism, electricity, or even the scientific method, they are all crucial to understanding the world in which we live—a world that is constantly changing and revealing more to us!

For more magnetic facts, make sure to check out the rest of our blog!