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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. The Beginnings of English Philosophy

§ 8. William Gilbert and Experimental Science

While these questions occupied the schools, William Gilbert, fellow of St. John’s college, Cambridge, 1561, president of the royal college of physicians, 1600, was engaged in the laborious and systematic pursuit of experiments on magnetism which resulted in the publication of the first great English work of physical science, De Magnete, magneticisque corporibus (1600). Gilbert expressed himself as decidedly as did Bacon afterwards on the futility of expecting to arrive at knowledge of nature by mere speculation or by a few vague experiments. He had, indeed, no theory of induction; but he was conscious that he was introducing a “new style of philosophising.” His work contains a series of carefully graduated experiments, each one of which is devised so as to answer a particular question, while the simpler and more obvious facts set forth and their investigation led by orderly stages to that of the more complex and subtle. It is unfortunate that Bacon was so little appreciative of Gilbert’s book, as a careful analysis of the method actually employed in it might have guarded him from some errors. Gilbert has been called “the first real physicist and the first trustworthy methodical experimenter.” He was also the founder of the theory of magnetism and electricity; and he gave the latter its name, vis electrica. He explained the inclination of the magnetic needle by his conception of the earth as a magnet with two poles; he defended the Copernican theory; and, in his discussion of the attraction of bodies, there is a suggestion of the doctrine of universal gravitation. He had also reached a correct view of the atmosphere as extending only a few miles from the surface of the earth, with nothing but empty space beyond.

On an altogether different plane from Gilbert were two younger contemporaries of Bacon. Robert Fludd, a graduate of Oxford, was a man of fame in his day. He followed Paracelsus, defended the Rosicrucians and attacked Copernicus, Gilbert, Kepler and Galileo. His works are distinguished by fantastic speculation rather than by scientific method. Nathanael Carpenter, a fellow of Exeter college, Oxford, attacked the physical theory of Aristotle in his Philosophia libera (1621). The works of William Harvey belong to the period following Bacon’s death, although he had announced his discovery of the circulation of the blood in 1616.