Twenty centuries separate us from Thales, the first to have cited the attractive properties of amber and of the natural magnet.
The Greek science which had taken refuge in the Egypt of Alexandria found its heirs among the Arab scholars. Europe awakens from the "Middle Ages", this long succession of centuries traditionally, and often unjustly, described as those of the deepest obscurantism.
It was not without danger, in the heart of the 13th century, to be interested too closely in the attraction properties of amber or magnet. The Franciscan Roger Bacon (1214-1294), considered one of the first medieval experimenters, made of it the painful experience. His practices having been denounced and condemned, he had to suffer many years of imprisonment. Some of his colleagues did not have the same luck, their career and their writings ended on the pyres of the Inquisition.
So we reached the heart of the "Renaissance". A new freedom reigns in the arts and letters. One can again be interested in the attractive phenomena without being suspected of trade with the devil. William Gilbert (1544-1603), physician to Queen Elizabeth of England, decided to work about it. Under the title "De Magnete" (about the magnet), he published the results of the in-depth study of magnetism to which he devoted himself. He also studies the attraction of rubbed yellow amber. On this occasion he forges the word "electric".
Bust of William Gilbert in the library of Trinity College in Dublin.
How could he have imagined that the rigor of his experimental conduct and the perceptiveness of his conclusions would not only open a royal road to a new branch of knowledge, but also revolutionize human civilization as a whole.
Gilbert followed, in Cambridge, the classical studies of a medical student. Mathematics and astronomy, dialectics, philosophy, Aristotelian physics, metaphysics and ethics occupy his first four years. Medical studies by themselves consist mostly of readings of Galen and his commentators. The Greek physician who had structured in Rome, in the second century of our era, the theory of the four "moods" (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) and the four "temperaments" (sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric and melancholic) , is still the only authority recognized by the Royal College of Physicians. Everything happens as if no observation, no new technique, had come to enrich the art of healing for more than ten centuries. Gilbert refuses a knowledge thus frozen. He completes his studies in a self-taught way. Even before getting his doctorate, in 1569, he began to study the properties of the magnet.
The new doctor creates a cabinet in London in the middle of the year 1570. He quickly gets a clientele in the aristocracy and intellectual circles of the capital and becomes an influential member of the College of Physicians. In parallel, he continues his private studies with many "troubles, insomnias and expenses". Two books are from this work. The most remarkable, "De Magnete", appears in 1600. Happy New Year for its author! At the same time, he was chosen as the Queen's appointed physician and promoted to the presidency of the Royal College of Medicine.
Birth of electricity:
As its title suggests, De Magnete is essentially devoted to the magnet, that is to say to the ore that we now call "magnetic oxide" and which is naturally magnetized. The book is a good synthesis of the knowledge of the moment. He substantiates the idea that the earth is, itself, a huge magnet. We will talk about it again.
For the moment, the aspect of the work that deserves our immediate interest lies elsewhere. It is contained in the long chapter devoted to amber. In doing so, Gilbert aims at an objective : he wishes to establish, in a sure and definitive way, the difference between the attraction of amber and that of the magnet.
This work was of first urgency. Tradition regularly confused these two types of action. Thales, the first, had been quoted as "communicating life to inanimate things" by using both amber and magnet. However, the differences could only imposed themselves on those who decided to rely on observation rather than just texts inherited from the ancients.
Gilbert was not the first to insist on these differences. In the middle of the 16th century the Italian Girolamo Cardano had already established a first list of them. Cardano himself was a physician ; the natural magnet powder, like that of amber, was probably one of the remedies he proposed to his patients.
Cardano found five different behaviors to amber and magnet. We will retain three of them:
1) Amber attracts all kinds of bodies. The magnet only attracts the iron.
2) The action of amber is caused by heat and friction, that of the magnet is permanent.
3) The magnet only attracts towards its poles. the amber to any rubbed part.
Gilbert resumes these propositions on his account. He adds two observations:
1) A wet surface or a humid atmosphere removes the effect of amber. Which is not the case for the magnet.
2) the attractive property of amber, unlike that of the magnet, belongs to a wide variety of substances.
With regard to the history of electricity, it is naturally this last observation which is the most remarkable.
Electricity is a general property of matter.
Gilbert already knew, after reading the Greek authors, that amber was not the only body with attraction properties. The diamond, other adornment of men and gods, was itself endowed with it. The question naturally arises : can we still enlarge the list of the bodies presenting the property which it designates by the term "electric"? This word, coined by Gilbert in reference to amber, will have, as we know, a beautiful career.
Guided by an intuition still influenced by tradition, Gilbert begins his investigations with gems and precious stones.
To help in his research he uses an instrument inspired by his study of magnetism : a metal needle of about ten centimeters mounted on a pivot. Any metal is suitable. Copper, for example, or even money. Iron would also be appropriate, but it is better to dismiss it if one wishes to avoid any confusion with magnetism : a magnet has no action on a copper or silver needle. This "versorium", as Gilbert calls it, is a very sensitive detector. It allows you to highlight attractions that would remain hidden if you were trying to attract only bits of string or paper placed on a table. Gilbert thus establishes a list of at least 23 "electric" bodies.
The most humble are often found to be the most active. Two in particular stand out : sulfur and glass. What's more banal than these two materials ? Yet they are much more effective than a ball of amber of good size. They are so so that it is astonishing to note that it took twenty centuries before one became aware of it.
We measure the obstacle erected on the path of knowledge by the mythical valorization of amber. As if the very idea of searching attraction property in ordinary materials might have seemed sacrilegious. After Gilbert, glass and sulfur will become experimental materials of choice.
But let's not forget that the goal was to highlight the different natures of the magnetic attraction and electric attraction. He was thus reached beyond all hope. On the one hand, there is a property that is found only in the "magnet stone" or, temporarily, in the steel put in contact with a magnet. On the other hand it is already possible to draw up a list of more than twenty bodies which, rubbed, can manifest the attraction property of amber.
With hindsight, this distinction could appear as an obstacle on the road that, two centuries later, will lead to the fusion of the two disciplines and the birth of electromagnetism. In fact, this temporary separation must be considered as an essential first step. By letting both knowledge develop in parallel, we have allowed each to flourish. It was the slow journey that led from amber to the "Leyden Bottle" and then to the "Voltaic generator" which produced the electric currents that will soon power the electromagnets.
William Gilbert M.D. demonstrating his experiments before queen Elizabeth (painting by A. Auckland Hunt).
If Gilbert is to be credited with having substantiated the distinction between "electric" and "magnetic", we owe him above all to have been able to "trivialize" the attraction property of amber and to have erased his "magic" character. To have, at the same time, opened the way of a new discipline and to have baptized it.
Gilbert died three years after the publication of his book on magnetism. He will not have had time to write the one who would come to complete it and that could have been entitled: "About electric bodies".