The “Souls” of Magnets in the 17th Century


A lodestone encased in a gilded stand / Wikimedia Commons

Lodestones are dull, lumpy, and slate-gray, but their “magnetic intelligence” made them fabulously expensive.


By Amelia Soth
Chicago-based Writer and Editor


Magnets have souls. At least, that was the leading scientific explanation for magnetism circa 1600, as laid out in the highly influential De Magnete. Its author, William Gilbert, experimented with lodestones, lumps of magnetite that, after being struck by lightning, turn into natural magnets. As he watched the lodestone pull the iron to it (or the iron leaping to the lodestone), Gilbert imagined them possessed of a magnetic intelligence that drew them together, like lovers into one another’s arms.

William Gilbert was no crackpot. In fact, he was the first to propose the existence of the Earth’s magnetic field. Of course, for him that meant that the Earth was imbued with a living soul. Gilbert was a diehard Copernican, and he attributed the Earth’s rotation to its magnetic intelligence:

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