|Dr Stephen Pumfrey, Department of History, Furness College, Lancaster University, LA1 4YG UK|
|History Home > Gilbert Home > Works of William Gilbert > De Mundo|
Gilbert of Colchester's' fame encouraged his half-brother to collate the writings in Latin he left behind after his sudden death. The brother, William Gilbert of Melford, edited them and had them copied as a manuscript book. A lavish copy was presented to James I's son, Prince Henry. Now in the British Library, it is the only copy to have survived. It is obvious to an expert that the papers comprising the book were not fully understood. They include Gilbert's short transcriptions of or notes on other people's books, and they juxtapose draft paragraphs on the same topic from different phases in Gilbert's life. On top of this, the doubtless baffled copyist made numerous mistakes.
"De Mundo" is interesting because it contains more evidence of Gilbert's radical and wide-ranging philosophy. Unlike De Magnete, it was explicit that the universe is infinite, that the stars and planets move through a vacuum, that the Earth moves and is not the centre of the universe; in short that conventional science was badly wrong. It is also interesting in containing very little of the innovative experimental and practical work which makes De Magnete look so modern.
A few expert English philosophers read it, notably Thomas Harriot and Francis Bacon. Indeed, some of Bacon's books borrow whole passages. It was not printed, however, until 1651. Isaac Gruter, a Dutch scholar, was preparing some of the deceased Bacon's manuscript works for the press when he found among them two copies of Gilbert's "De Mundo". By 1651, however, Gilbert's philosophy was no longer at the cutting edge, and it had very little impact. A facsimile edition was reprinted in 1965 but again got little attention. In part this was because there was no translation, and also because De Mundo did not (and does not) reinforce the image of Gilbert the modern experimental scientist.
I and my colleague Dr Ian G. Stewart are about to publish the first translation of De Mundo.
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