The actual father of electricity

-January 14, 2016

Sir William Gilbert

Recently, while rummaging through the antique book section at my local bookstore, I came across Applied Electrical Measurements, written by Isaac F. Kinnard and copyrighted in 1956 by the General Electric Company. Being a geek for all things that make measurements possible I was giddy to add it to my library.

That night, I began reading the book's opening chapter, "Milestones in the Progress of Electrical Measurements," where I came across a reference to the "Father of Electricity." Much to my surprise, I had no idea who he was. If you asked me who that was, I would have probably guessed Alessandro Volta (credited as the inventor of the electrical battery) or maybe Andre Marie Ampere (one of the founders of the science of classical electromagnetism) or possibly Thales of Miletus (in 600 B.C. he observed and recorded the electrostatic effect produced by rubbing amber). But, I would have been wrong. The person widely considered the "Father of Electricity" is Sir William Gilbert.

Sir William Gilbert was born on 24 May 1544 in Colchester, Essex. He held the position of president of the Royal College of Physicians and was physician to Elizabeth I. In 1600, Sir Gilbert published De Magnete, which became accepted as the defacto standard on electrical and magnetic phenomena throughout Europe. Sir Gilbert's extensive hands-on experiments with magnets and magnetism led him to discover the laws of attraction and repulsion between magnets, disproving many commonly held beliefs at the time. It's interesting to note that it would be over two centuries before new knowledge on magnetism would appear when in 1825 William Sturgeon created the first electromagnet (around the same time Michael Faraday began studying magnetism). Sir Gilbert was first to make the case for differentiating between magnetic attraction and electrical attraction—static electricity—which later proved the foundation for future discoveries about electricity.

Sir Gilbert's work led to the coining the term electricity, a term first used by Sir Thomas Browne in 1646. The word derives from Gilbert's 1600 New Latin electricus, meaning "like amber" because of its attractive properties. He recognized that friction with these objects removed a so-called "effluvium," which causes attraction effect in returning to the object. He didn't realize that this substance (electric charge) worked with all materials.

To his credit, Sir Gilbert's well-documented experiments, detailed observations, and logical conclusions in order to prove or disprove theories was famously celebrated by one of his contemporaries, who credits him with inventing the scientific method. That contemporary was no other than Galileo. In honor of Sir Gilbert's many contributions in understanding electrical and magnetic phenomena, the unit for magnetomotive force, the gilbert, was named after him. The gilbert is defined in terms of centimeter-gram-second of magnetomotive force and is equal to 10/4×π ampere-turn.

On a sad note, Sir Gilbert died in 1603 of the bubonic plague which was running rampant at the time.

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