William Gilbert

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William Gilbert was a distinguished astronomer and physician

May 24, 1544

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Personal Details

  • Birthday: May 24, 1544
  • Died on: November 30, 1603
  • Nationality: British
  • Famous: Physicians, Physicists, Scientists, Astronomers, Physicists
  • Siblings: William Gilbert Junior
  • Universities:
    • St John's College
    • Cambridge
    • University of Cambridge
    • St. John's College
    • U.S.
  • Birth Place: Colchester

William Gilbert born at


Birth Place

Childhood & Early Life William Gilbert was born to Jerome Gilberd and his wife on May 24, 1544 in Colchester. Most of the information on Gilbert’s childhood has vanished into obscurity, but there are a few vague sources of information about his early life. It is believed that Gilbert was educated at St. John’s College at Cambridge, where he developed a passion for science. Following high school, Gilbert earned his MD from the University of Cambridge. From here, he worked for a short while as bursar before leaving Cambridge to practice medicine in London. In 1573, he was elected a Fellow of the College of Physicians and was also elected as the President of the College in 1600, just after his career kick-started.Career The accredited father of the science of electricity, William Gilbert, started his career as a physician practicing medicine in London in 1573. His principal work, ‘De Magnete’, ‘Magnetisque Corporibus’ and ‘Magno Magnete Tellure’ were all written and published in 1600, giving a full account of his research on electrical attractions and magnetic bodies. Much of these works were inspired by his predecessor, Robert Norman. During the years of his astronomical study, Gilbert used a model earth called ‘terrella’ to describe most of his experiments and observations.From one of these experiments, Gilbert concluded that the earth was infact ‘magnetic’ in the core and this was one of the reasons as to why the pins of compasses pointed towards the north. He refuted the theories of his predecessors wherein they believed the pole star (North Pole) was a large magnetic island, which is why the arrows pointed towards the north. Gilbert was the first to argue correctly that the center of the Earth, in fact, comprised of iron and there were two distinct hemispheres in the Earth, the north and south poles. Some of his other astronomical works focused on the diurnal rotation of celestial objects. Through some of his observations, Gilbert concluded that the stars were also located at remote variable distances rather than fixed spots in an imaginary sphere.William Gilbert also invented the first electrical measuring instrument, the electroscope and a pivoted needle, which he called the ‘versorium’. Like other scientists in his day, he also believed that crystal (quartz) was compressed ice and a solid form of water.Gilbert & ‘Electricus’The word ‘electricity’ was first coined by Sir Thomas Browne, which he derived from Gilbert’s publication in 1600. The term that Gilbert used was ‘electricus’ which meant ‘like amber’. Gilbert studied that the friction with two or more objects released a substance called ‘effluvium’, which would cause the attraction to return back to the object in the form of an electric charge. What Gilbert did not discover was that this theory was applicable to almost all materials.Gilbert’s Arguments & Later LifeWilliam Gilbert argued that magnetism and electricity were entirely two different theories. He proposed that electricity disappeared with heat and not magnetism, even though this theory was proved wrong later. Following Gilbert’s death, a couple of scientists argued that both electric and magnetic fields were indeed the same and had common effects. This led to the birth of ‘electromagnetism’. The theories of Gilbert’s magnetism misled many of his successors such as Kepler, while governing planetary motions and the attraction among other celestial objects. Towards the end of his life, Gilbert was appointed as a physician to Queen Elizabeth I, and upon her death, he was appointed as physician to King James I, shortly before his own death.Death & Legacy William Gilbert died on November 30, 1603, aged 59, in London. Though there have been various discussions on the causes behind his death, it is often said that Gilbert could have possibly died due to the bubonic plague. Known as the father of the science of ‘electricity’, Gilbert’s works became extremely popular following his death and his unfinished publication, ‘De Mundo Nostro Sublunari Philosophia Nova’ was also published posthumously. ‘The Gilberd School’ in Colchester was also named after him.  

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