Gilbert's De Magnete: An early study of magnetism and electricity



Four hundred years might seem an excessively long time to wait for a book review, but there are reasons why a prompt review would have been difficult. Not only is De Magnete written in Latin, but it is also in the form of a scientific textbook. The language problem was overcome by Paul Fleury Mottelay and Silvanus P. Thompson, who translated the book into English in 1893 and 1900, respectively. The latter was published in connection with a beautiful tercentenary limited edition by the Chiswick Press that retains much of the flavor and appearance of the original. But the notion of a scientific textbook was unfamiliar when De Magnete first appeared in 1600. Certainly, scientific subjects and even geomagnetism had been written about (for example, by Petrus Peregrinus in his Epistola De Magnete, 1269), but as reports of equipment and phenomena rather than as in-depth investigations of a subject with experimental evidence and interpretation.