On the Magnet, by William Gilbert

Chap. ii.

Magnet Stone, of what kind it is, and its discovery.

L oadstone, the stone which is commonly called the Magnet, derives its name either from the discoverer (though he was not Pliny's fabulous herdsman48, quoted from Nicander, the nails of whose shoes and the tip of whose staff stuck fast in a magnetick field while he pastured his flocks), or from the region of Magnesia in Macedonia, rich in loadstones: Or else from the city Magnesia in Ionia in Afia Minor, near the river Mæander. Hence Lucretius says,

The Magnet's name the observing Grecians drew

From the Magnetick region where it grew.

It is called Heraclean from the city Heraclea, or from the invincible Hercules, on account of the great strength and domination and power which there is in iron of subduing all things: it is also called siderite, as being of iron; being not unknown to the most ancient writers, to the Greeks, Hippocrates, and others, as also (I believe) to Jewish and Egyptian writers; For in the oldest mines of iron, the most famous in Asia, the loadstone was often dug out with its uterine brother, iron. And if the tales be true which are told of the people of the Chinas, they were not unacquainted in primitive times with magnetical experiments, for even amongst them the finest magnets of all are still found. The Egyptians, as Manetho relates, gave it the name Os Ori: calling the power which governs the turning of the sun Orus, as the Greeks call it Apollo. But later by Euripides, as narrated by Plato, it was designated under the name of Magnet. By Plato in the Io, Nicander of Colophon, Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Pliny, Solinus, Ptolemy, Galen, and other investigators of nature it was recognized and commended; such, however, is the variety of magnets and their points of unlikeness in hardness, softness, heaviness, lightness, density, firmness, and friability of substance: so great and manifold are the differences in colour and other qualities, that they have not handed down any adequate account of it, which therefore was laid aside or left imperfect by reason of the unfavourable character of the time; for in those times varieties of specimens and foreign products never before seen were not brought from such distant regions by traders and mariners as they have been lately, and now that all over the globe all kinds of merchandise, stones, woods, spices, herbs, metals, and ore in abundance are greedily sought after: neither was metallurgy so generally cultivated in a former age. There is a difference in vigour; as whether it is male or female: for it was thus that the ancients used often to distinguish many individuals of the same species. Pliny quotes from Sotacus five kinds; those from Æthiopia, Macedonia, Bœotia, the Troad, and Asia, which were especially known to the ancients: but we have posited as many kinds of loadstones as there are in the whole of nature regions of different kinds of soil. For in all climates, in every province, on every soil, the loadstone is either found, or else lies unknown on account of its rather deep site and inaccesible position; or by reason of its weaker and less obvious strength it is not recognized by us while we see and handle it. To the ancients the differences were those of colour49, how they are red and black in Magnesia and Macedonia, in Bœotia red rather than black, in the Troad black, without strength: While in Magnesia in Asia they are white, not attracting iron, and resemble pumice-stone. A strong loadstone of the kind celebrated so often nowadays in experiments presents the appearance of unpolished iron, and is mostly found in iron mines: it is even wont to be discovered in an unbroken lode by itself: Loadstones of this sort are brought from East India, China, and Bengal, of the colour of iron, or of a dark blood or liver colour; and these are the finest, and are sometimes of great size, as though broken off a great rock, and of considerable weight; sometimes single stones, as it were, and entire: some of these, though of only one pound weight, can lift on high four ounces of iron or a half-pound or even a whole pound. Red ones are found in Arabia, as broad as a tile, not equal in weight to those brought from China, but strong and good: they are a little darker in the island of Elba in the Tuscan sea, and together with these also grow white ones, like some in Spain in the mines of Caravaca: but these are of lesser power. Black ones also are found, of lower strength, such as those of the iron mines in Norway and in sea-coast places near the strait of Denmark. Amongst the blue-black or dusky blue also some are strong and highly commended. Other loadstones are of a leaden colour, fissile and not-fissile, capable of being split like slates in layers. I have also some like gray marble of an ashen colour, and some speckled like gray marble, and these take the finest polish. In Germany there are some perforated like honeycombs, lighter than any others, and yet strong. Those are metallick which smelt into the best iron; others are not easily smelted, but are burned up. There are loadstones that are very heavy, as also others very light; some are very powerful in catching up pieces of iron, while others are weaker and of less capacity, others so feeble and barren that they with difficulty attract ever so tiny a piece of iron and cannot repel an opposite magnetick. Others are firm and tough, and do not readily yield to the artificer. Others are friable. Again, there are some dense and hard as emery, or loose-textured and soft as pumice; porous or solid; entire and uniform, or varied and corroded; now like iron for hardness, yea, sometimes harder than iron to cut or to file; others are as soft as clay. Not all magnets can be properly called stones; some rather represent rocks; while others exist rather as metallick lodes; others as clods and lumps of earth. Thus varied and unlike each other, they are all endowed, some more, some less, with the peculiar virtue. For they vary according to the nature of the soil, the different admixture of clods and humours, having respect to the nature of the region and to their subsidence in this last-formed crust of the earth, resulting from the confluence of many causes, and the perpetual alternations of growth and decline, and the mutations of bodies. Nor is this stone of such potency rare; and there is no region wherein it is not to be found in some sort. But if men were to search for it more diligently and at greater outlay, or were able, where difficulties are present, to mine it, it would come to hand everywhere, as we shall hereafter prove. In many countries have been found and opened mines of efficacious loadstones unknown to the ancient writers, as for instance in Germany, where none of them has ever asserted that loadstones were mined. Yet since the time when, within the memory of our fathers, metallurgy began to flourish there, loadstones strong and efficacious in power have been dug out in numerous places; as in the Black Forest beyond Helceburg; in Mount Misena not far from Schwartzenberg50; a fairly strong kind between Schneeberg and Annaberg in Joachimsthal, as was noticed by Cordus: also near the village of Pela in Franconia. In Bohemia it occurs in iron mines in the Lessa district and other places, as Georgious Agricola and several other men learned in metallurgy witness. In like manner in other countries in our time it is brought to light; for as the stone remarkable for its virtues is now famous throughout the whole world, so also everywhere every land produces it, and it is, so to speak, indigenous in all lands. In East India, in China, in Bengal near the river Indus it is common, and in certain maritime rocks: in Persia, Arabia, and the islands of the Red Sea; in many places in Æthiopia, as was formerly Zimiri, of which Pliny makes mention. In Asia Minor around Alexandria and the Troad; in Macedonia, Bœotia, in Italy, the island of Elba, Barbary; in Spain still in many mines as aforetime. In England quite lately a huge power of it was discovered in a mine belonging to Adrian Gilbert, gentleman51; also in Devonshire and the Forest of Dean; in Ireland, too, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Lapland, Livonia, Prussia, Poland, Hungary. For although the terrestrial globe, owing to the varied humours and natures of the soil arising from the continual succession of growth and decay, is in the lapse of time efflorescing through all its ambit deeper into its surface, and is girt about with a varied and perishable covering, as it were with a veil; yet out of her womb ariseth in many places an offspring nigher to the more perfect body and makes its way to the light of day. But the weak and less vigorous loadstones, enfeebled by the flow of humours, are visible in every region, in every strath. It is easy to discover a vast quantity of them everywhere without penetrating mountains or great depths, or encountering the difficulties and hardships of miners; as we shall prove in the sequel. And these we shall take pains so to prepare by an easy operation that their languid and dormant virtue shall be made manifest. It is called by the Greeks52 ἑράκλιος, as by Theophrastus, and μαγνῆτις; and μάγνης, as by Euripides, as quoted by Plato in the Io: by Orpheus53 too μαγνῆοσα, and σιδερίτης as though of iron: by the Latins magnes, Herculeus; by the French aimant54, corruptly from adamant; by the Spaniards piedramant: by the Italians calamita55; by the English loadstone and adamant stone56, by the Germans magness57 and siegelstein: Among English, French, and Spaniards it has its common name from adamant; perhaps because they were at one time misled by the name sideritis being common to both: the magnet is called σιδερίτης from its virtue of attracting iron: the adamant is called σιδερίτης from the brilliancy of polished iron. Aristotle designates it merely by the name of the stone:58 Ἔοικε δὲ καὶ θαλῆς ἐξ ὧν ἀπομνημονεύουσι, κινητικόν τι τὴν ψυχὴν ὑπολαβεῖν, ἔιπερ τὸν λίθον ἔφη ψυχὴν ἔχειν, ὅτι τὸν σίδηρον κινεῖ: De Anima, Lib. I. The name of magnet is also applied to another stone differing from siderite, having the appearance of silver; it is like Amianth in its nature; and since it consists of laminæ (like specular stone)59, it differs in form: in German Katzensilber and Talke60.

48 Page 8, line 14. Page 8, line 21. illo fabuloso Plinij bubulco. — The following is Pliny's account from Philemon Holland's English version of 1601 (p. 586): "As for the name Magnes that it hath, it tooke it (as Nicander saith) of the first inventor and deviser thereof, who found it (by his saying) upon the mountaine Ida (for now it is to be had in all other countries, like as in Spaine also;) and (by report) a Neat-heard he was: who, as he kept his beasts upon the aforesaid mountaine, might perceive as he went up and downe, both the hob-nailes which were on his shoes, and also the yron picke or graine of his staffe, to sticke unto the said stone."

49 Page 9, line 22. Page 9, line 30. Differentiæ priscis ex colore. — Pliny's account of the loadstones of different colours which came from different regions is mainly taken from Sotacus. The white magnet, which was friable, like pumice, and which did not draw iron, was probably simply magnesia. The blue loadstones were the best. See p. 587 of Holland's translation of Pliny, London, 1601. St. Isidore (Originum seu Etymologiarum, lib. xvi., cap. 4) says: "Omnis autem magnes tanta melior est, quanto [magis] cæruleus est."

50 Page 10, line 29. Page 10, line 42. Suarcebergo . . . Snebergum & Annæbergum. — In the Stettin editions of 1628 and 1633 these are spelled Swarcebergs . . . Schnebergum & Annebergum. The Cordus given as authority for these localities is Valerius Cordus, the commentator on Dioscorides.

51 Page 11, line 3. Page 11, line 12. Adriani Gilberti viri nobilis. —"Adrian Gylbert of Sandridge in the Countie of Devon, Gentleman" is the description of the person to whom Queen Elizabeth granted a patent for the discovery of a North-West passage to China. See Hakluyt's Voyages, vol. iii., p. 96.

52 Page 11, line 17. Page 11, line 28. Dicitur a Græcis ηρακλιος. — The discussion of the names of the magnet in different languages by Gilbert in this place is far from complete. He gives little more than is to be found in Pliny. For more complete discussions the reader is referred to Buttmann, Bemerkungen über die Benennungen einiger Mineralien bei den Alten, vorzüglich des Magnetes und des Basaltes (Musæum der Alterthumswissenschaft, Bd. II., pp. 5-52, and 102-104, 1808); G. Fournier, Hydrographie (livre xi., chap. I, 1643); Ulisse Aldrovandi, Musæum Metallicum (Bononiæ, 1648, lib. iv., cap. 2, p. 554); Klaproth, Lettre à M. le Baron A. de Humboldt, sur l'invention de la Boussole, Paris, 1834; T. S. Davies, The History of Magnetical Discovery (Thomson's British Annual, 1837, pp. 250-257); Th. Henri Martin, De l'Aimant, de ses noms divers et de ses variétés suivant les Anciens (Mémoires présentés par divers savants a l'Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-lettres, Ire série, t. vi., Ire partie, 1861); G. A. Palm, Der Magnet in Alterthum (Programm des k. württembergischen Seminars Maulbronn, Stuttgart, 1867). Of these works, those of Klaproth and of Martin are by far the most important. Klaproth states that in modern Greek, in addition to the name μαγνῆτις, the magnet also has the names ἀδάμας and καλαμίτα. The former of these, in various forms, adamas, adamant, aimant, yman, and piedramon, has gone into many languages. Originally the word ἀδάμας (the unconquered) was applied by the Greeks to the hardest of the metals with which they were acquainted, that is to say, to hard-tempered iron or steel, and it was subsequently because of its root-signification also given by them to the diamond for the same reason; it was even given to the henbane because of the deadly properties of that plant. In the writings of the middle ages, in St. Augustine, St. Isidore, Marbodeus, and even in Pliny, we find some confusion between the two uses of adamas to denote the loadstone as well as the diamond. Certainly the word adamas, without ceasing to be applied to the diamond, also designated the loadstone. At the same time (says Martin) the word magnes was preserved, as Pliny records, to designate a loadstone of lesser strength than the adamas. On the other hand, the word diamas, or deamans, had already in the thirteenth century been introduced into Latin to signify the diamond as distinguisht from the magnet. Adamas was rendered aymant in the romance version of the poem of Marbodeus on stones (see Beckmann's variorum edition of 1799, p. 102), and in this form it was for a time used to denote both the magnet and the diamond. Then it gradually became restricted in use to the stone that attracts iron.

Some confusion has also arisen with respect to the Hebrew name of the magnet. Sir W. Snow Harris makes the following statement (Magnetism, p. 5): "In the Talmud it [the loadstone] is termed achzhàb'th, the stone which attracts; and in their ancient prayers it has the European name magnēs." On this point Dr. A. Löwy has furnisht the following notes. The loadstone is termed in one of the Talmudical sections and in the Midrash, Eben Shoebeth (lapis attrahens). This would of course be written אבן שואבת‎. Omitting the ו‎ which marks the participial construction, the words would stand thus: אבן שאבת‎ A person referring to Buxtorf's Lexicon Talmudicum would in the index look out for "Lapis magnesius," or for "magnes." He would then, in the first instance, be referred to the two words already quoted. Not knowing the value of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, he reads אבן שאבת‎ thus: אכזשאבת‎ achzhab'th. It is true that Buxtorf has inserted in his Lexicon the vocable מַגְנִיסֵס‎, "corruptum ex gr. μάγνης, μαγνήτης, μαγνῆτις, named after the Asiatic city Magnesia." He goes on to say, "Inde Achilles Statius istum lapidem vocavit μαγνήσιαν λίθον. Hinc אבן המגניסס חמשוך הברזל‎. Lapis Magnesius trahit ferrum." Here he quotes from (Sepher) Ikkarem IV., cap. 35.

Kircher, in his Magnes, sive de Arte magnetica (Coloniæ, 1643), gives several other references to Hebrew literature. Others have supposed that the word חלמישkhallamish, which signifies pebble, rock, or hard rock, to be used for the magnet.

As to the other Greek name, σιδηρῖτις, or λίθος σιδηρῖτις this was given not only to the loadstone but also to non-magnetic iron. In the Etymologicum magnum (under the word μαγνῆτις), and in Photius (Quæst. amphiloch., q. 131), it is stated that the name sideritis was given to the loadstone either because of its action on iron, or of its resemblance in aspect to iron, or rather, they say, because the loadstone was originally found in the mines of this metal. Alexander of Aphrodisias expressly says (Quætiones Physicæ, II. 23) that the loadstone appears to be nothing else than γῆ σιδηρῖτις, the earth which yields iron, or the earth of iron.

53 Page 11, line 19. Page 11, line 29. ab Orpheo. — The reference is to v. 301-328 of the Λιθικά. The passage, as given in Abel's edition (Berol., 1881), begins:

Τόλμα δ' ἀθανάτους καὶ ἑνήεϊ μειλίσσεθαι

μαγνήσσῃ, τὴν δ' ἔξοχ' ἐφίλατο θούσιος Ἄρης,

οὕνεκεν, ὁππότε κεν πελάσῃ πολιοῖο σιδήρου,

ἠύτε παρθενικὴ τερενόχροα χερσὶν ἑλοῦσα

ἠΐθεον στέρνῳ προσπτύσσεται ἱμεροέντι,

ὥς ἥγ' ἁρπάζουσα ποτὶ σφετερὸν δέμας αἱεὶ

ἂψ πάλιν οὐκ ἐθέλει μεθέμεν πολεμιστὰ σὶδηρον.

54 Page 11, line 20. Page 11, line 31. Gallis aimant. — The French word aimant, or aymant, is generally supposed to be derived from adamas. Nevertheless Klaproth (op. citat., p. 19) suggests that the word aimant is a mere literal translation into French of the Chinese word thsu chy, which is the common name of the magnet, and which means loving stone, or stone that loves. All through the east the names of the magnet have mostly the same signification, for example, in Sanskrit it is thoumbaka (the kisser), in Hindustani tchambak.

55 Page 11, line 20. Page 11, line 32. Italis calamita. — The name calamita, universal in Italian for the magnet, is also used in Roumanian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Wendish. Its supposed derivation from the Hebrew khallamîsh is repudiated by Klaproth, who also points out that the use of καλαμιτα in Greek is quite modern. He adds that the only reasonable explanation of the word calamita is that given by Father Fournier (op. citat.), who says:

"Ils (les marins français) la nomment aussi calamite, qui proprement en français signifie une grenouille verte, parce qu'avant qu'on ait trouvé l'invention de suspendre et de balancer sur un pivot l'aiguille aimantée, nos ancêtres l'enfermaient dans une fiole de verre demi-remplie d'eau, et la faisaient flotter, par le moyen de deux petits fétus, sur l'eau comme une grenouille." Klaproth adds that he entirely agrees with the learned Jesuit, but maintains that the word calamite, to designate the little green frog, called to-day le graisset, la raine, or la rainette, is essentially Greek. For we read in Pliny (Hist. Nat. lib. xxxii., ch. x.): "Ea rana quam Græci calamiten vocant, quoniam inter arundines, fruticesque vivat, minima omnium est et viridissima."

56 Page 11, line 20. Page 11, line 32. Anglis loadstone & adamant stone.

The English term loadstone is clearly connected with the Anglo-Saxon verb lœdan, to lead, and with the Icelandic leider-stein. There is no doubt that the spelling lodestone would be etymologically more correct, since it means stone that leads not stone that carries a load. The correct form is preserved in the word lode-star.

The word adamant, from adamas, the mediæval word for both loadstone and diamond, also occurs in English for the loadstone, as witness Shakespeare:

"You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant

But yet you draw not iron; for my heart

Is true as steel."

Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II, Scene 1.

57 Page 11, line 21. Page 11, line 33. Germanis magness, & siegelstein. The Stettin edition of 1628 reads Germanis Magnetstein, Belgis Seylsteen; while that of 1633 reads Germanis Magnetstein, Belgis Sylsteen.

58 Page 11, line 26. Page 11, line 39. In this line the Greek sentence is, in every known copy of the folio of 1600, corrected in ink upon the text, θαλῆς being thus altered into Θαλῆς, and απομνεμονύουσι into απομνεμονεύουσι. Four lines lower, brackets have been inserted around the words (lapidum specularium modo). These ink corrections must have been made at the printers', possibly by Gilbert's own hand. They have been carried out as errata in the editions of 1628 and 1633. The "facsimile" Berlin reprint of 1892 has deleted them, however. Other ink corrections on pp. 14, 22, 38, 39, 47, 130, and 200 of the folio edition of 1600 are noted in due course.

59 Page 11, line 29. Page 11, line 45. lapis specularis. This is the mediæval name for mica, but in Elizabethan times known as talc or muscovy stone. Cardan, De Rerum Varietate (Basil., 1557, p. 418), lib. xiiii., cap. lxxii., mentions the use of lapis specularis for windows.

60 Page 11, line 31. Page 11, line 46.: Germanis Katzensilbar & Talke. — In the editions of 1628 and 1633 this is corrected to Germanis Katzensilber & Talcke. Goethe, in Wilhelm Meister's Travels, calls mica "cat-gold."

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Last updated Friday, March 14, 2014 at 22:17