On the Magnet, by William Gilbert

headpiece

Book Fourth.

Chap. i.

On Variation.

D irection has hitherto been spoken of as if in nature there were no variation; for in the preceding natural history we wished to omit and neglect this, inasmuch as in a terrestrial globe, perfect and in every sense complete, there would be none. Since, however, in fact, the earth's magnetick direction, owing to some fault and slip, deviates from its right course and from the meridian, we must extract and demonstrate the obscure and hidden cause of that variance which has troubled and sore racked in vain the minds of many. Those who before us have written on the magnetick movements have made no distinction between direction and variation, but consider the motion of magnetick iron to be uniform and simple. Now true direction is the motion of the magnetick body to the true meridian and its continuance therein with its appropriate ends towards the poles. But it very often happens at sea and on land that the magnetick iron does not point to the true pole, and that not only a versorium and magnetick pieces of iron, and the needle of a compass, or a mariners' compass, but also a terrella in its boat, as well as * iron ore, iron stones, and magnetick earths, properly prepared, are drawn aside and deviate towards some point of the Horizon very near to the meridian. For they with their poles frequently face termini away from the meridian. This variation (observed by means of instruments or a nautical variation compass) is therefore the arc of the horizon between the common point of intersecion of it with the true meridian, and the terminus of the deflecion on the horizon or projection of the deviating needle. That arc varies and differs with change of locality. To the terminus of the variation is commonly assigned a great circle, called the circle of variation, and also a magnetick meridian passing through the zenith and the point of variation on the horizon. In the northern regions of the earth this variation is either from the north toward the east or from the north toward the west: similarly in the southern regions it is from the south toward the east or toward the west. Wherefore one should observe in the northern regions of the earth * that end of the versorium or compass which turns toward the North; but in the southern regions the other end looking to the south — which seamen and sciolists for the most part do not understand, for in both regions they observe only the boreal lily of the compass (that which faces North). We have before said that all the motions of the magnet and iron, all its turning, its inclination, and its settlement, proceed from bodies themselves magnetical and from their common mother the earth, which is the source, the propagatrix, and the origin of all these qualities and properties. Accordingly the earth is the cause of this variation and inclination toward a different point of the horizon: but how and by what powers must be more fully investigated. And here we must at the outset reject that common opinion of recent writers concerning magnetick mountains, or any magnetick rock, or any phantasmal pole distant from the pole of the earth, by which the motion of the compass or versorium is controlled. This opinion, previously invented by others, Fracastorio himself adopted and developed; but it is entirely at variance with experience. For in that case in different places at sea and on land the point of variation would change toward the east or west in proportion and geometrical symmetry, and the versorium would always respect the magnetick pole: but experience teaches that there is no such definite pole or fixed terminus on the earth to account for the variation. For the arcs of * variation are changed variously and erratically, not only on different meridians but on the same meridian; and when, according to this opinion of the moderns, the deviation should be more and more toward the east, then suddenly, with a small change of locality, the deviation is from the north toward the west as in the northern regions near Nova Zembla. Moreover, in the southern regions, and at sea at a great distance from the æquator towards the antarctick pole, there are frequent and great variations, and not only in the northern regions, from the magnetick mountains. But the cogitations of others are still more vain and trifling, such as that of Cortes about a moving influence beyond all the heavens; that of Marsilius Ficinus about a star in the Bear; that of Peter Peregrinus about the pole of the world; that of Cardan, who derives it from the rising of a star in the tail of the Bear218; of Bessardus, the Frenchman, from the pole of the Zodiack; that of Livio Sanuto from some magnetick meridian; that of Franciscus Maurolycus from a magnetical island; that of Scaliger from the heavens and mountains; that of Robert Norman, the Englishman, from a point respective. Leaving therefore these opinions, which are at variance with common experience or by no means proved, let us seek the true cause of the variation. The great magnet or terrestrial globe directs iron (as I have said) toward the north and south; and excited iron quickly settles itself toward those termini. Since, however, the globe of the earth is defective and uneven on its surface and marred by its diverse composition, and since it has parts very high and convex (to the height of some miles), and those uniform neither in composition nor body, but opposite and dissimilar: it comes to pass that the whole of that force of the earth diverts magnetical bodies in its periphery toward the stronger and more prominent connected magnetick parts. Hence on the outermost surface of the earth magnetical bodies are slightly perverted from the true meridian. Moreover, since the surface of the globe is divided into high lands and deep seas, into great continental lands, into ocean and vastest seas, and since the force of all magnetical motions is derived from the constant and magnetick terrestrial nature which is more prevalent on the greater continent and not in the aquæous or fluid or unstable part; 219it follows that in certain parts there would be a magnetick inclination from the true pole east or west away from any meridian (whether passing through seas or islands) toward a great land or continent rising higher, that is, obviously toward a stronger and more elevated magnetick part of the terrestrial globe. For since the diameter of the earth is more than 1,700 German miles, those large lands can rise from the centre of the earth more than four miles above the depth of the ocean bottom, and yet the earth will retain the form of a globe although somewhat uneven at the top. Wherefore a magnetical body is turned aside, so far as the true verticity, when disturbed, admits, and departs from its right (the whole earth moving it) toward a vast prominent mass of land as though toward what is stronger. But the variation does really take place, not so much because of the more prominent and imperfect terrestrial parts and continent lands as because of the inæquality of the magnetick globe, and because of the real earth, which stands out more under the continent lands than under the depths of the seas. We must see, therefore, how the apodixis of this theory can be sustained by more definite observations. Since throughout all the course from the coast of Guinea to Cape Verde, the Canary Isles, and the border of the kingdom of Morocco, and thence along the coasts of Spain, France, England, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, and Norway, there lie on the right hand and toward the east a continent and extensive connected regions, and on the left extensive seas and a vast ocean lie open far and wide, it is consonant with the theory (as has been carefully observed by many) that magnetical bodies should turn slightly to the East from the true pole toward the stronger and more remarkable elevations of the earth. But it is far otherwise on the eastern shores of northern America; for from Florida by Virginia and Norumbega to Cape Race and away to the north the versorium is turned toward the west. But in the middle spaces, so to speak, as in the more westerly Azores, it looks toward the true pole. That any magnetick body turns itself similarly to the same regions of the earth is not, however, because of that meridian or because of the concordancy of the meridian with any magnetick pole, as the crowd of philosophizers reckon, for it is not so throughout the whole of that meridian. For on the same meridian * near Brazil something very different occurs, as we will show further on. The variation (cæteris paribus) is always less near the æquator, greater in higher latitudes, with the limitation that it be not very near the pole itself. Hence the variation is greater on the coast of * Norway and Belgium than on the coast of Morocco or Guinea: greater also near Cape Race than in the harbours of Norumbega or of Virginia. On the coast of Guinea magnetick implements deviate by a third part of one rumbe to the East: in Cape Verde Islands by a half: on the coast of Morocco by two thirds: in England at the mouth of the Thames by a whole rumbe: and at London by nearly eleven degrees and one third. For indeed the moving magnetick virtue is stronger in a higher latitude; and the larger regions extending toward the poles dominate the more, as is easily apparent anywhere on a terrella. For as in the case of true Direction magnetick bodies tend toward the pole (namely, toward the stronger end, the whole earth causing the motion), so also do they incline a little toward the stronger and higher parts by the action of the whole along with the conjoint action of iron bodies.

218 Page 153, line 2. Page 153, line 2. Cardani ab ortu stellæ in cauda vrsæ.— What Cardan said (De Subtilitate, Edit. citat., p. 187) was: "ortum stellæ in cauda ursæ minoris, quæ quinque partibus orientalior est polo mundi, respicit."

219 Page 153, line 21. Page 153, line 26. sequitur quod versus terram magnam, siue continentem . . . à vero polo inclinatio magnetica fiat.— Gilbert goes on to point out how, at that date, all the way up the west European coast from Morocco to Norway, the compass is deflected eastward, or toward the elevated land. He argued that this was a universal law.

In Purchas his Pilgrimes (Lond., 1625), in the Narrative, in vol. iii., of Bylot and Baffin's Voyage of 1616, there is mentioned an island between Whale-Sound and Smith's Sound, where there had been observed a larger variation than in any other part of the world. Purchas, in a marginal note, comments on this as follows: "Variation of the Compass 56° to the West, which may make questionable D. Gilbert's rule, tom. 1., l. 2, c. 1, that where more Earth is more attraction of the Compass happeneth by variation towards it. Now the known Continents of Asia, &c., must be unspeakably more than here there can be, & yet here is more variation then about Jepan, Brasil, or Peru, &c."

Gilbert's view was in truth founded on an incomplete set of facts. At that time, as he tells us, the variation of the compass at London was 11⅓ degrees eastward. But he did not know of the secular change which would in about fifty-seven years reduce that variation to zero. Still less did he imagine that there would then begin a westward variation which in the year 1816 should reach 24° 30', and which should then steadily diminish so that in the year 1900 it should stand at 16° 16' westward. For an early discussion of the changes of the variation see vol. i. of the Philosophical Transactions (Abridged), p. 188. Still earlier is the classical volume of Henry Gellibrand, A Discovrse Mathematical on the Variation of the Magneticall Needle (Lond., 1635). Gilbert heads chapter iii. of book iiii. (p. 159) with the assertion Variatio uniuscuiusque loci constans est, declaring that to change it would require the upheaval of a continent. Gellibrand combats this on p. 7 of the work mentioned. He says:

"Thus hitherto (according to the Tenents of all our Magneticall Philosophers) we have supposed the variations of all particular places to continue one and the same. So that when a Seaman shall happly returne to a place where formerly he found the same variation, he may hence conclude he is in the same former Longitude. For it is the Assertion of Mr. Dr. Gilberts. Variatio vnicuiusq; Loci constans est, that is to say, the same place doth alwayes retaine the same variation. Neither hath this Assertion (for ought I ever heard) been questioned by any man. But most diligent magneticall observations have plainely offred violence to the same, and proved the contrary, namely that the variation is accompanied with a variation."

In 1637 Henry Bond wrote in the Sea-Mans Kalendar that in the year 1657 the variation would be zero at London. Compare Bond's Longitude Found (Lond., 1676, p. 3).

As to inconstancy of the variation in one place see further Fournier's Hydrographie (Paris, 1667, liv. xi., ch. 12, p. 413), and Kircher, Magnes (Colon. Agripp., 1643, p. 418).

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