Center For Integrating Research and Learning

Arrow1600 - 1699


By 1600 the Scientific Revolution was underway in Europe, a period marked by historic advances in science by the likes of Keppler, Galileo, Sir Francis Bacon and many others. The first scientist to leave his mark during this century was an English physician by the name of William Gilbert.

In the first year of this century, amid the intellectual flowering of the Elizabethan era, Gilbert published six volumes known as De Magnete (“On the Magnet”). Many consider this to be the first true scientific text. Departing from existing tradition, Gilbert based his findings on actual experiments – repeated to ensure consistent results, using scientific equipment and resulting in firsthand observations rather than inherited assumptions.

One device invented by Gilbert for these studies was a versorium: a metal arrow that detected an electric force in materials and constituted the first electroscope. Another apparatus he dubbed a “terrella” – meaning little Earth. This magnetized sphere of lodestone was paired with a compass for numerous experiments. Gilbert made many groundbreaking discoveries with this set-up, including that the Earth itself is a big magnet. He also suggested the Earth had a magnetic “sphere of influence” – the seed of a truth that would not be fully grasped by scientists for more than 200 years.

Guericke Machine

After methodically testing a wide array of materials, Gilbert discovered amber was not the only material that, when rubbed, attracted certain light materials. He categorized these materials as “electric,” and those that did not possess the property as “non-electric.” Thus it was Gilbert who coined the term “electric” (based on the Greek word for amber).

Many of Gilbert’s ideas were incorrect: He wrongly deduced that magnetism accounted for the moon’s orbit around the Earth, for example, and conspicuously failed to recognize that static electricity not only attracts, but repels. Still, his intellectual achievements, and the manner in which they were made, were a great leap forward.

As the Renaissance, begun in 15th century Italy, spread to the rest of Europe, scientists explored new territory, embracing a Cartesian, rationalist approach to inquiry. In 1629, Italian philosopher Niccolò Cabeo filled in one of Gilbert’s blanks, noting for the first time that contact between two attracting materials may cause them to subsequently repel each other. Three decades later, German physicist Otto von Guericke picked up the ball (so to speak) of Gilbert’s research by making a “terrella” of his own – not of lodestone but of sulfur. It was part of a device he used to make static electricity. He would use the sulfur globe, the first machine of its kind, to exhibit the repulsive effects of static electricity, first attracting a feather to the rubbed terrella, then proceeding to chase it around the room with the ball. Von Guericke later became the first person to witness the effect of electroluminescence when his sulfur globe began to glow during operation.

1600 - 1699


Following nearly two decades of experimentation, English physician William Gilbert completes his opus on magnetism, De Magnete, Magneticisique Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (“On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet of the Earth”). The work includes the first use of the term electric, which was coined by Gilbert from the Greek word for amber (electron), the first major classification of electric and non-electric substances, and one of the earliest descriptions of the Earth as a magnetic entity.


Italian Jesuit philosopher Niccolò Cabeo publishes his observations on electrical attraction and repulsion in Philososphia Magnetica, noting that contact between two attracting materials may cause them to subsequently repel each other.


English clergyman Henry Gellibrand ascertains that magnetic declination changes over time by comparing new measurements to those he obtained 12 years earlier, and publishes his findings.


French philosopher René Descartes offers one of the first mechanical, rather than animistic, explanations of magnetism, which involves a complex interaction between effluvia, threads and ducts.


In Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many received Tenets, and commonly presumed truths, English physician Sir Thomas Browne first utilizes the term electricity, which he defines as “a power to attract strawes or light bodies, and convert the needle freely placed.”


German physicist Otto von Guericke invents a machine capable of generating static electricity by applying friction against a sulfur ball in a glass globe rotated on an iron shaft with a hand crank.


Noticing that the sulfur ball component of his electric generator could be made to glow by the electricity it produced, Otto von Guericke becomes the first observer of electroluminescence.


Robert Boyle, an avid British experimenter, publishes Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origine or Production of Electricity, in which he describes the transmission of electricity through a vacuum.


Edmond Halley, an English mathematician and astronomer, suggests that the Earth consists of spheres within spheres, each of which slowly rotates with respect to the other spheres and is independently magnetized. Halley utilizes his view of the planet to explain why magnetic declination slowly changes over time.


Edmond Halley carries out the first magnetic declination survey and publishes a chart of his findings two years later.

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