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Dr Stephen Pumfrey, Department of History, Furness College, Lancaster University, LA1 4YG UK
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De Magnete

Searchable PDF of De Magnete

English Translation by S.P. Thompson (1900) - HTML version with notes by Thompson

English Translation by P. Fleury Mottelay (1893) (pdf)

Written in Latin for an international readership, De Magnete translates as On the Magnet or more precisely as On Loadstone . Unlike contemporaries such as Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei and Johann Kepler, and successors such as Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle, Gilbert's fame rests entirely on this one ground-breaking book. Despite the obscurity of the author and its subject, and the small print run, its 240 quarto pages rapidly made an impression. Gilbert argued that his novel experiments proved that the Earth was magnetic and that it rotated on its axis. By the 1620s it was becoming one of the most controversial works of natural philosophy, and was uniquely condemned during the trial of Galileo in 1633.

The first, and only authorised, edition was printed by Peter Short in London in 1600. As interest grew, two related pirate editions, of 1628 and 1633, were printed in Stettin (modern Gdansk).

As the year 1900 approached, the 300 th anniversary of De Magnete, the only two translations in English appeared. By far the better is that of the first Gilbert scholar, the Quaker physicist Silvanus P. Thompson. On the Magnet in a limited, privately printed edition. Thompson attempted to preserve the appearance of the original, using the same font and pagination. The notes are valuable and the translation is good, although arguably it suffers from Thompson's attempt to recreate an Elizabethan English idiom.

In a deliberate pre-emption of Thompson, the American P. Fleury Mottelay brought out his translation in New York in 1893. The translation is stilted and inferior, as are the notes and biographical essay. However, reprinted as a Dover edition and still available (an in part on Google Books), it has the merit of being accessible. However, it is Mottelay's essay which, being widely read, is mainly responsible for perpetuating biographical howlers such as the inaccurate date of Gilbert's birth (1540 for 1544).

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