On the Magnet, by William Gilbert

headpiece

Book Third.

Chap. i.

On Direction.

O n referring to the earlier books it will be found shown that a loadstone has its poles, and that a piece of iron has also poles, and rotation, and a certain verticity; finally, that the loadstone and the iron direct their poles toward the poles of the earth. Now, however, we must make clear the causes of these things and their admirable workings, pointed out indeed before, but not proven. All those who have written before us about these rotations have left us their opinions so briefly, so meagrely, and with such hesitating judgment that they seem hardly likely ever to persuade anyone, or even to be able to satisfy themselves; and all their petty reasons are rejected by the more prudent as useless, uncertain, and absurd, being supported by no proofs or arguments; whence also magnetick science, being all the more neglected and not understood, has been in exile. The true austral pole of a loadstone, not the boreal (as all before us used to think), * if the loadstone is placed in its boat on the surface of water, turns to the North; in the case of a piece of iron also, whether it has been excited by a loadstone or not, the southern end moves toward the North. An oblong piece of iron of three or four digits' length196, when skilfully rubbed with a loadstone, quickly turns north and south. Wherefore mechanicians, taking a piece of iron prepared in this way, balance it on a pin in a box, and fit it up with the requisites of a sun-dial; or they prepare the versorium out of two curved pieces of iron with their ends touching one another, so that the motion may be more constant. In this way the mariners' versorium is arranged, which is an instrument beneficial, useful, and auspicious to sailors for indicating, like a good genius, safety and the right way. But it must be understood on the threshold of this argument (before we proceed further) that these pointings of the loadstone or of iron are not perpetually made toward the true poles of the world, do not always seek those fixed and definite points, or remain on the line of the true meridian; but usually diverge some distance to the East or to the West. Sometimes also at certain places on land or sea they do indicate exactly the true poles. This discrepancy is called the Variation of the iron or of the loadstone; and since this is brought about by other causes, and is merely a certain disturbance and perversion of the true direction, we are directing our attention in this place to the true direction of the compass and of the magnetick iron (which would be equally toward the true poles and on the true meridian everywhere on the earth, unless other obstacles and an untoward pervertency hindered it). Of its variation and the cause of the perversion we shall treat in the next book. Those who wrote about the world and about natural philosophy a century ago, especially those remarkable elementary philosophers, and all those who trace their knowledge and training to them down to our own times, those men, I say, who represented the earth as always at rest and, as it were, a useless weight, placed in the centre of the universe at an equal distance from the sky on every side, and its nature to be simple, imbued only with the qualities of dryness and cold, sought diligently for the causes of all things and of all effects in the heavens, the stars, the planets, in fire, air, waters and substances of mixed natures. Never indeed did they recognize that the terrestrial globe had, besides dryness and cold, some special, effective, and predominant properties, strengthening, directing, and moving the globe itself through its whole mass and its very deepest vitals; nor did they ever inquire whether there were any such. For this reason the crowd of philosophizers, in order to discover the reasons of the magnetical motions, called up causes lying remote and far away. And one man seems to me beyond all others worthy of censure, Martin Cortes, who, since there was no cause which could satisfy him in the whole of nature, dreamed that there was a point of magnetical attraction beyond the heavens, which attracted iron. Peter Peregrinus thinks that the direction arises from the poles of the sky. Cardan thought that the turning of iron was caused by a star in the tail of the Great Bear; Bessard, the Frenchman, opines that a magnetick turns toward the pole of the zodiack. Marsilius Ficinus will have it that the loadstone follows its own Arctick pole; but that iron follows the loadstone, straws amber; whilst this perhaps follows the Antarctick pole — a most foolish dream. Others have recourse to I know not what magnetick rocks and mountains. Thus it is always customary with mortals, that they despise things near home, whilst foreign and distant things are dear and prized. But we study the earth itself and observe in it the cause of so great an effect. The earth, as the common mother, has these causes inclosed in her innermost parts; in accordance with her rule, position, condition, verticity, poles, æquator, horizons, meridians, centre, circumference, diameter, and the nature of the whole interior of her substance, must all magnetical motions be discussed. The earth has been ordered by the highest Artificer and by nature in such a way that it should have parts dissimilar in position, bounds of the whole and complete body, ennobled by certain functions, by which it might itself remain in a definite direction. For just as a loadstone, when it is floated on water in a suitable vessel, or is hung by slender threads in the air, by its implanted verticity conforms its poles to the poles of the common mother in accordance with magnetick laws; so if the earth were to deviate from its natural direction and its true position in the universe, or if its poles were to be drawn aside (if this were possible) toward the sun-rising or the sun-setting or toward any other points whatsoever in the visible firmament, they would return again to the north and south by magnetical motion, and would settle at the same points at which they are now fixed. The reason why the terrestrial globe seems to remain more steadily with the one pole toward those parts and directed toward the Cynosure, and why its pole diverges by 23 degrees 29 minutes, with a certain variation not sufficiently investigated as yet by Astronomers, from the poles of the ecliptick, depends on its virtue magnetical. The causes of the precession of the æquinoxes and the progression of the fixed stars, and of the change, moreover, in the declinations of the sun and of the tropicks, must be sought from magnetick influences; so that neither that absurd motion of trepidation of Thebit Bencora197, which is at great variance with observations, nor the monstrous superstructures of other heavens, are any longer needed. A versatory iron turns to the position of the earth, and if disturbed ever so often returns always to the same points. For in the far regions of the north, in a latitude of 70 or 80 degrees (to which at the milder seasons of the year our sailors are accustomed to penetrate without injury from the cold); in the regions halfway between the poles; on the æquator in the torrid zone; and again in all the maritime places and lands of the south, in the highest latitude which has thus far been reached, always the iron magnetick finds its way, and points to the poles in the same manner (excepting for the difference of variation); on this side of the æquator (where we live), and on the other side to the south, less well known, but yet in some measure explored by sailors: and always the lily of the compass points toward the North. This we have had confirmed by the most eminent captains, and also by very many of the more intelligent sailors. These facts have been pointed out to me and confirmed by our most illustrious Sea-god, Francis Drake, and by another circumnavigator of the globe, Thomas Candish; our terrella also indicates the same thing. This is demonstrated in the case of the . orbicular stone, whose poles are A and B; an iron wire CD, which is placed upon the stone, always points directly along the meridian toward the poles AB, whether the centre of the wire is on the central line or æquator of the stone, or on any other part situated between the æquator and the poles, as at H, G, F, E. So the cusp of a versorium on this side of the æquator points toward the north; * on the other side the cross is always directed toward the south; but the cusp or lily198 does not, as some one has thought, turn toward the south beyond the æquator. Some inexperienced people indeed, who in distant parts beyond the æquator have seen the versorium sometimes become more sluggish and less prompt, thought that the distance from the arctick pole or from the magnetick rocks was the cause of this. But they are very much mistaken; for it is as powerful199, and adjusts itself as quickly to the meridian or to the point of variation in the southern as in the northern parts of the earth. Yet sometimes the motion appears slower, namely, when the supporting pin by lapse of time and long voyaging has become somewhat blunt, or the magnetick iron parts have lost, by age or rust, some of their acquired vigour. This may also be shown experimentally by the versatory iron of a small sun-dial placed on a very short pin set perpendicular to the surface of the stone, for the iron when touched by a loadstone points toward the poles of the stone and leaves the poles of the earth; for the general and remoter cause is overcome by the particular and powerful cause which is so near at hand. Magnetick bodies have of themselves an inclination toward the position of the earth and are influenced by a terrella. Two equal stones of equal strength adjust themselves to a terrella in accordance with magnetick laws. The iron conceives vigour from the loadstone and is influenced by the magnetical motions. Wherefore true direction is the motion of a magnetick body in regard to the verticity of the earth, the natures of both agreeing and working together toward a natural position and unity. For indeed we have found out at length, by many experiments and in many ways, that there is a disposing nature, moving them together by reason of their various positions by one form that is common to both, and that in all magnetick substances there is attraction and repulsion. For both the stone200 and the magnetick iron arrange themselves by inclination and declination, according to the common position of their nature and the earth. And the force of the earth by the virtue of the whole, by attracting toward the poles, and repelling, arranges all magneticks which are unfixed and loose. For in all cases all magneticks conform themselves to the globe of the earth in the same ways and by the same laws by which another loadstone or any magneticks do to a terrella.201

196 Page 115, line 23. Page 115, line 23. trium vel quatuor digitorum.— Here as in all other places in Gilbert, digitus means a finger's breadth, so that three or four digits means a length of two or three inches, or from six to eight centimetres.

197 Page 117, line 26. Page 117, line 25. ille Thebit Bencoræ trepidationis motus.

"Trepidation in the ancient Astronomy denotes a motion which in the Ptolemaic system was attributed to the firmament, in order to account for several changes and motions observed in the axis of the world, and for which they could not account on any other principle." (Barlow's Mathematical Dictionary.)

198 Page 118, line 10. Page 118, line 8. cuspis is aut lilium.— Gilbert uses cuspis or lilium always of the North-pointing end of the needle. Sir Thomas Browne speaks of "the lilly or northern point"; but he differs from Gilbert in saying "the cuspis or Southern point" (Pseudodoxia Epidemica, 1650, p. 46). Only in one place (p. 101, line 5) does Gilbert speak of cuspis meridionalis. Everywhere else the south-pointing end is called the crux.

199 Page 118, line 15. Page 118, line 13. nam æquè potens est.— Later observation showed this view to be incorrect. The horizontal component of the earth's magnetic field is not equally strong all over the globe, and the sluggishness of the needle's return to its position of rest is not due to the supporting pin becoming blunt with wear. The value of the horizontal component is zero at the north magnetic pole, and increases toward the magnetic equator. It is greatest near Singapore and in Borneo, being there more than twice as great as it is at London. (See Captain Creak in Report of Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger, Physics and Chemistry, vol. ii., part vi., 1889.)

200 Page 119, line 5. Page 119, line 2. lapis.— Both Stettin editions read lapidis.

201 Page 119, lines 9-11. Page 119, lines 7-9. The gist of the whole book is summarized in these lines. They furnish a cardinal example of that inductive reasoning which was practist by Gilbert, and of which Bacon subsequently posed as the apostle. Compare pages 41 and 211.

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