On the Magnet, by William Gilbert

To the Most Eminent and Learned Man

Dr. William Gilbert,

a distinguished Doctor of Medicine amongst the Londoners, and Father of Magnetick Philosophy, an Encomiastic Preface of Edward Wright on the subject of these books Magnetical.

S hould there by chance be any one, most eminent Sir, who reckons as of small account these magnetical books and labours of yours, and thinks these studies of yours of too little moment, and by no means worthy enough of the attention of an eminent man devoted to the weightier study of Medicine: truly he must deservedly be judged to be in no common degree void of understanding. For that the use of the magnet is very important and wholly admirable is better known for the most part to men of even the lowest class than to need from me at this time any long address or commendation. Nor truly in my judgment could you have chosen any topick either more noble or more useful to the human race, upon which to exercise the strength of your philosophic intellect; since indeed it has been brought about by the divine agency of this stone, that continents of such vast circuit, such an infinite number of lands, islands, peoples, and tribes, which have remained unknown for so many ages, have now only a short time ago, almost within our own memory, been quite easily discovered and quite frequently explored, and that the circuit of the whole terrestrial globe also has been more than once circumnavigated by our own countrymen, Drake and Cavendish; a fact which I wish to mention to the lasting memory of these men. For by the pointing of the iron touched by a loadstone, the points of South, North, East, and West, and the other quarters of the world are made known to navigators even under an overcast sky and in the darkest night; so that thus they always very easily understand to which point of the world they ought to direct their ship's course; which before the discovery of this wonderful virtue of the magnetick βορεοδείξις was clearly impossible. Hence in old times (as is established in histories), an incredible anxiety and immense danger was continually threatening sailors; for at the coming on of a tempest and the obscuring of the view of sun and stars, they were left entirely in ignorance whither they were making; nor could they find out this by any reasoning or skill. With what joy then may we suppose them to have been filled, to what feelings of delight must all shipmasters have given utterance, when that index magnetical first offered itself to them as a most sure guide, and as it were a Mercury, for their journey? But neither was this sufficient for this magnetical Mercury; to indicate, namely, the right way, and to point, as it were, a finger in the direction toward which the course must be directed; it began also long ago to show distinctly the distance of the place toward which it points. For since the index magnetical does not always in every place look toward the same point of the North, but deviates from it often, either toward the East or toward the West, yet always has the same deviation in the same place, whatever the place is, and steadily preserves it; it has come about that from that deviation, which they call variation, carefully noticed and observed in any maritime places, the same places could afterwards also be found by navigators from the drawing near and approach to the same variation as that of these same places, taken in conjunction with the observation of the latitude. Thus the Portuguese in their voyages to the East Indies had the most certain indications of their approach to the Cape of Good Hope; as appears from the narrations of Hugo van Lynschoten and of the very learned Richard Hakluyt, our countryman. Hence also the experienced skippers of our own country, not a few of them, in making the voyage from the Gulf of Mexico to the islands of the Azores, recognized that they had come as near as possible to these same islands; although from their sea-charts they seemed to be about six hundred British miles from them. And so, by the help of this magnetick index, it would seem as though that geographical problem of finding the longitude, which for so many centuries has exercised the intellects of the most learned Mathematicians, were going to be in some way satisfied; because if the variation for any maritime place whatever were known, the same place could very readily be found afterward, as often as was required, from the same variation, the latitude of the same place being not unknown.

It seems, however, that there has been some inconvenience and hindrance connected with the observation of this variation; because it cannot be observed excepting when the sun or the stars are shining. Accordingly this magnetick Mercury of the sea goes on still further to bless all shipmasters, being much to be preferred to Neptune himself, and to all the sea-gods and goddesses; not only does it show the direction in a dark night and in thick weather, but it also seems to exhibit the most certain indications of the latitude. For an iron index, suspended on its axis (like a pair of scales), with the most delicate workmanship so as to balance in æquilibrio, and then touched and excited by a loadstone, dips to some fixed and definite point beneath the horizon (in our latitude in London, for example, to about the seventy-second degree), at which it at length comes to rest. But under the æquator itself, from that admirable agreement and congruency which, in almost all and singular magnetical experiments, exists between the earth itself and a terrella (that is, a globular loadstone), it seems exceedingly likely (to say the very least), and indeed more than probable, that the same index (again stroked with a loadstone) will remain in æquilibrio in an horizontal position. Whence it is evident that this also is very probable, that in an exceedingly small progress from the South toward the North (or contrariwise) there will be at least a sufficiently perceptible change in that declination; so that from that declination in any place being once carefully observed along with the latitude, the same place and the same latitude may be very easily recognized afterward, even in the darkest night and in the thickest mist by a declination instrument. Wherefore to bring our oration at length back to you, most eminent and learned Dr. Gilbert (whom I gladly recognize as my teacher in this magnetick philosophy), if these books of yours on the Magnet had contained nothing else, excepting only this finding of latitude from magnetick declination, by you now first brought to light, our shipmasters, Britains, French, Belgians, and Danes, trying to enter the British Channel or the Straits of Gibraltar from the Atlantick Ocean in dark weather, would still most deservedly judge them to be valued at no small sum of gold. But that discovery of yours about the whole globe of the earth being magnetical, although perchance it will seem to many "most paradoxical," producing even a feeling of astonishment, has yet been so firmly defended by you at all points and confirmed by so many experiments so apposite and appropriate to the matter in hand, in Bk. 2, chap. 34; Bk. 3, chap. 4 and 12; and in almost the whole of the fifth book, that no room is left for doubt or contradiction. I come therefore to the cause of the magnetick variation, which hitherto has distracted the minds of all the learned; for which no mortal has ever adduced a more probable reason than that which has now been set forth by you for the first time in these books of yours on the Magnet. The ὀρθοβορεοδείξις of the index magnetical in the middle of the ocean, and in the middle of continents (or at least in the middle of their stronger and more lofty parts), its inclining near the shore toward those same parts, even by sea and by land, agreeing with the experiments Bk. 4, chap. 2, on an actual terrella (made after the likeness of the terrestrial globe, uneven, and rising up in certain parts, either weak or wanting in firmness, or imperfect in some other way) — this inclination having been proved, very certainly demonstrates the probability that that variation is nought else than a certain deviation of the magnetick needle toward those parts of the earth that are more vigorous and more prominent. Whence the reason is readily established of that irregularity which is often perceived in the magnetick variations, arising from the inæquality and irregularity of those eminences and of the terrestrial forces. Nor of a surety have I any doubt, that all those even who have either imagined or admitted points attractive or points respective in the sky or the earth, and those who have imagined magnetick mountains, or rocks, or poles, will immediately begin to waver as soon as they have perused these books of yours on the Magnet, and willingly will march with your opinion. Finally, as to the views which you discuss in regard to the circular motion of the earth and of the terrestrial poles, although to some perhaps they will seem most supposititious, yet I do not see why they should not gain some favour, even among the very men who do not recognize a sphærical motion of the earth; since not even they can easily clear themselves from many difficulties, which necessarily follow from the daily motion of the whole sky. For in the first place it is against reason that that should be effected by many causes, which can be effected by fewer; and it is against reason that the whole sky and all the sphæres (if there be any) of the stars, both of the planets and the fixed stars, should be turned round for the sake of a daily motion which can be explained by the mere daily rotation of the earth. Then whether will it seem more probable, that the æquator of the terrestrial globe in a single second (that is, in about the time in which any one walking quickly will be able to advance only a single pace) can accomplish a quarter of a British mile (of which sixty equal one degree of a great circle on the earth), or that the æquator of the primum mobile in the same time should traverse five thousand miles with celerity ineffable; and in the twinkling of an eye should fly through about five hundred British miles, swifter than the wings of lightning, if indeed they maintain the truth who especially assail the motion of the earth). Finally, will it be more likely to allow some motion to this very tiny terrestrial globe; or to build up with mad endeavour above the eighth of the fixed sphæres those three huge sphæres, the ninth (I mean), the tenth, and the eleventh, marked by not a single star, especially since it is plain from these books on the magnet, from a comparison of the earth and the terrella, that a circular motion is not so alien to the nature of the earth as is commonly supposed. Nor do those things which are adduced from the sacred Scriptures seem to be specially adverse to the doctrine of the mobility of the earth; nor does it seem to have been the intention of Moses or of the Prophets to promulgate any mathematical or physical niceties, but to adapt themselves to the understanding of the common people and their manner of speech, just as nurses are accustomed to adapt themselves to infants, and not to go into every unnecessary detail. Thus in Gen. i. v. 16, and Psal. 136, the moon is called a great light, because it appears so to us, though it it is agreed nevertheless by those skilled in astronomy that many of the stars, both of the fixed and wandering stars, are much greater. Therefore neither do I think that any solid conclusion can be drawn against the earth's mobility from Psal. 104, v. 5; although God is said to have laid the foundations of the earth that it should not be removed for ever; for the earth will be able to remain evermore in its own and self-same place, so as not to be moved by any wandering motion, nor carried away from its seat (wherein it was first placed by the Divine artificer). We, therefore, with devout mind acknowledging and adoring the inscrutable wisdom of the triune Divinity (having more diligently investigated and observed his admirable work in the magnetical motions), induced by philosophical experiments and reasonings not a few, do deem it to be probable enough that the earth, though resting on its centre as on an immovable base and foundation, nevertheless is borne around circularly.

But passing over these matters (concerning which I believe no one has ever demonstrated anything with greater certainty), without any doubt those matters which you have discussed concerning the causes of the variation and of the magnetick dip below the horizon, not to mention many other matters, which it would take too long to speak of here, will gain very great favour amongst all intelligent men, and especially (to speak after the manner of the Chemists) amongst the sons of the magnetick doctrine. Nor indeed do I doubt that when you have published these books of yours on the Magnet, you will excite all the diligent and industrious shipmasters to take no less care in observing the magnetick declination beneath the horizon than the variation. Since (if not certain) it is at least probable, that the latitude itself, or rather the effect of the latitude, can be found (even in very dark weather) much more accurately from that declination alone, than can either the longitude or the effect of the longitude from the variation, though the sun itself is shining brightly or all the stars are visible, with the most skilful employment likewise of all the most exact instruments. Nor is there any doubt but that those most learned men, Peter Plancius (not more deeply versed in Geography than in observations magnetical), and Simon Stevinus, the most distinguished mathematician, will rejoice in no moderate degree, when they first see these magnetical books of yours, and observe their λιμενευρετική, or Haven-finding Art, enlarged and enriched by so great and unexpected an addition; and without doubt they will urge all their own shipmasters (as far as they can) to observe also everywhere the magnetick declination below the horizon no less than the variation. May your Magnetical Philosophy, therefore, most learned Dr. Gilbert, come forth into the light under the best auspices, after being kept back not till the ninth year only (as Horace prescribes), but already unto almost a second nine, a philosophy rescued at last by so many toils, studyings, watchings, with so much ingenuity and at no moderate expense maintained continuously through so many years, out of darkness and dense mist of the idle and feeble philosophizers, by means of endless experiments skilfully applied to it; yet without neglecting anything which has been handed down in the writings of any of the ancients or of the moderns, all which you did diligently peruse and perpend. Do not fear the boldness or the prejudice of any supercilious and base philosophaster, who by either enviously calumniating or stealthily arrogating to himself the investigations of others seeks to snatch a most empty glory. Verily

Envy detracts from great Homer's genius;

but

Whoever thou art, Zoilus, thou hast thy name from him.

May your new physiology of the Magnet, I say (kept back for so many years), come forth now at length into the view of all, and your Philosophy, never to be enough admired, concerning the great Magnet (that is, the earth); for, believe me

(If there is any truth in the forebodings of seers),

these books of yours on the Magnet will avail more for perpetuating the memory of your name than the monument of any great Magnate placed upon your tomb.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gilbert/william/on-the-magnet/frontmatter3.html

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