1600 - 1699

The Scientific Revolution takes hold, facilitating the groundbreaking work of luminaries such as William Gilbert, who took the first truly scientific approach to the study of magnetism and electricity and wrote extensively of his findings.


Magnetic opus

GilbertFollowing nearly two decades of experimentation, English physician William Gilbert completes his opus on magnetism, De Magnete, Magneticisique Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet, Magnetic Bodies, and the Great Magnet of the Earth). The work includes the first use of the term electric, which was coined by Gilbert from the Greek word for amber (electron), the first major classification of electric and non-electric substances, and one of the earliest descriptions of the Earth as a magnetic entity.

Attraction and repulsion

Italian Jesuit philosopher Niccolò Cabeo publishes his observations on electrical attraction and repulsion in Philososphia Magnetica, noting that contact between two attracting materials may cause them to subsequently repel each other.

Gellibrand's insights

English clergyman Henry Gellibrand ascertains that magnetic declination changes over time by comparing new measurements to those he obtained 12 years earlier, and publishes his findings.

Descartes's take on magnetism

French philosopher René Descartes offers one of the first mechanical, rather than animistic, explanations of magnetism, which involves a complex interaction between effluvia, threads and ducts.

Browne's take on electricity

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or, Enquiries into Very many received Tenets, and commonly presumed truths, English physician Sir Thomas Browne first uses the term electricity, which he defines as “a power to attract strawes or light bodies, and convert the needle freely placed.”

Sulfur globe

sulfur ballGerman physicist Otto von Guericke invents a machine capable of generating static electricity by applying friction against a sulfur ball in a glass globe rotated on an iron shaft with a hand crank.


Noticing that the sulfur ball component of his electric generator could be made to glow by the electricity it produced, Otto von Guericke becomes the first observer of electroluminescence.

Electricity in a vacuum

Robert Boyle, an avid British experimenter, publishes Experiments and Notes about the Mechanical Origine or Production of Electricity, in which he describes the transmission of electricity through a vacuum.

Halley's spheres

Edmond Halley, an English mathematician and astronomer, suggests that the Earth consists of spheres within spheres, each of which slowly rotates with respect to the other spheres and is independently magnetized. Halley uses his view of the planet to explain why magnetic declination slowly changes over time.

Halley's survey

Edmond Halley carries out the first magnetic declination survey and publishes a chart of his findings two years later.