"Some may wonder that I affirm this power to be in the air of keeping plate of brass or silver above water, as if in a certain sense I would attribute to the air a kind of magnetic virtue for sustaining heavy bodies with which it is in contact. To satisfy all these doubts I have contrived the following experiment to demonstrate how truly the air does support these bodies; for I have found, when one of these bodies which floats when placed lightly on the water is thoroughly bathed and sunk to the bottom, that by carrying down to it a little air without otherwise touching it in the least, I am able to raise and carry it back to the top, where it floats as before. To this effect, I take a ball of wax, and with a little lead make it just heavy enough to sink very slowly to the bottom, taking care that its surface be quite smooth and even. This, if put gently into the water, submerges almost entirely, there remaining visible only a little of the very top, which, so long as it is joined to the air, keeps the ball afloat; but if we take away the contact of the air by wetting this top, the ball sinks to the bottom and remains there. Now to make it return to the surface by virtue of the air which before sustained it, thrust into the water a glass with the mouth downward, which will carry with it the air it contains, and move this down towards the ball until you see, by the transparency of the glass, that the air has reached the top of it; then gently draw the glass upward, and you will see the ball rise, and afterwards stay on the top of the water, if you carefully part the glass and water without too much disturbing it."[3]

It will be seen that Galileo, while holding in the main to a correct thesis, yet mingles with it some false ideas. At the very outset, of course, it is not true that water has no resistance to penetration; it is true, however, in the sense in which Galileo uses the term—that is to say, the resistance of the water to penetration is not the determining factor ordinarily in deciding whether a body sinks or floats. Yet in the case of the flat body it is not altogether inappropriate to say that the water resists penetration and thus supports the body. The modern physicist explains the phenomenon as due to surface-tension of the fluid. Of course, Galileo's disquisition on the mixing of air with the floating body is utterly fanciful. His experiments were beautifully exact; his theorizing from them was, in this instance, altogether fallacious. Thus, as already intimated, his paper is admirably adapted to convey a double lesson to the student of science.


It will be observed that the studies of Galileo and Stevinus were chiefly concerned with the force of gravitation. Meanwhile, there was an English philosopher of corresponding genius, whose attention was directed towards investigation of the equally mysterious force of terrestrial magnetism. With the doubtful exception of Bacon, Gilbert was the most distinguished man of science in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He was for many years court physician, and Queen Elizabeth ultimately settled upon him a pension that enabled him to continue his researches in pure science.

His investigations in chemistry, although supposed to be of great importance, are mostly lost; but his great work, De Magnete, on which he labored for upwards of eighteen years, is a work of sufficient importance, as Hallam says, "to raise a lasting reputation for its author." From its first appearance it created a profound impression upon the learned men of the continent, although in England Gilbert's theories seem to have been somewhat less favorably received. Galileo freely expressed his admiration for the work and its author; Bacon, who admired the author, did not express the same admiration for his theories; but Dr. Priestley, later, declared him to be "the father of modern electricity."

Strangely enough, Gilbert's book had never been translated into English, or apparently into any other language, until recent years, although at the time of its publication certain learned men, unable to read the book in the original, had asked that it should be. By this neglect, or oversight, a great number of general readers as well as many scientists, through succeeding centuries, have been deprived of the benefit of writings that contained a good share of the fundamental facts about magnetism as known to-day.

Gilbert was the first to discover that the earth is a great magnet, and he not only gave the name of "pole" to the extremities of the magnetic needle, but also spoke of these "poles" as north and south pole, although he used these names in the opposite sense from that in which we now use them, his south pole being the extremity which pointed towards the north, and vice versa. He was also first to make use of the terms "electric force," "electric emanations," and "electric attractions."

It is hardly necessary to say that some of the views taken by Gilbert, many of his theories, and the accuracy of some of his experiments have in recent times been found to be erroneous. As a pioneer in an unexplored field of science, however, his work is remarkably accurate. "On the whole," says Dr. John Robinson, "this performance contains more real information than any writing of the age in which he lived, and is scarcely exceeded by any that has appeared since."[4]