Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Gilbert, Translated: Silvanus P. Thompson, the Gilbert Club, and the Tercentenary Edition of De Magnete

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Gilbert, Translated: Silvanus P. Thompson, the Gilbert Club, and the Tercentenary Edition of De Magnete

Article excerpt

GILBERT, TRANSLATED: SILVANUS P. THOMPSON, THE GILBERT CLUB, AND THE TERCENTENARY EDITION OF DE MAGNETE (1)

Translation can have many meanings. In this essay, I examine an act of linguistic translation that constituted two other kinds of translation as well: a movement of a person or object through space or time, and a fundamental change in form or substance. (2) When a group of British "electricians" (physicists and electrical engineers) published in 1900 a tercentenary commemorative translation of De Magnete, William Gilbert's pioneering treatise on magnetism and electricity, they made more than just the meaning of Gilbert's Latin words available to English readers. (3) In going to great lengths to make their On the Magnet virtually identical in appearance to De Magnete, the Gilbert Club transported the sixteenth-century London physician author into their late nineteenth-century world, and at the same time located the origins of their own electrical science in the revolutionary days of Kepler and Galileo. Their literary translation of the text was also a temporal shifting of man, book, and science through three centuries, and an ontological transformation of William Gilbert himself, from an anti-Afistotelian Renaissance philosopher to the father of English experimental science.

This essay is not a formal textual study of the Gilbert Club's translation of the words of De Magnete from Latin into English, which would be an entirely separate project. (4) Nor, of course, is it a study of William Gilbert (1544-1603), the royal physician and early advocate of experimental methodology who was an important English figure in the Scientific Revolution, and who has himself been the subject of recent substantial re-examination. (5) Instead, my analysis draws on the classic literature concerning late nineteenth-century celebrations of national historical traditions, particularly in Britain and on recent work on both commemorations and translations in science in an effort to interpret the meanings of the Gilbert Club's edition of On the Magnet for its contemporary audience. (6) In particular, I examine the central role of Silvanus P. Thompson (1851-1916), the Quaker scientist-engineer who was, as principal of Finsbury Technical College and a noted textbook author, one of the best-known and most-respected figures in British technical education. (7) With his wide-ranging scientific and literary interests, Thompson obsessively collected and publicized information about Gilbert, acted as the driving force behind the Gilbert Club, and coordinated production of the edition. I argue that Thompson was well aware of the competing roles that De Magnete had to play as an authentic document simultaneously of 1600 and of 1900, and that his self-conscious reflections on this tension are evident in the way he chose to present his own contribution to the edition.

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The Gilbert Club was officially formed on 28 November 1889. Advertised by a specially printed circular sent to select scientists, engineers, and other enthusiasts, the proposed association was also mentioned in the Times and in the leading British and American scientific weeklies, Nature and Science. (8) By the time of the inaugural meeting, eighty-seven members had already signed up, many of whom were gathered in the chambers of the Society of Arts that afternoon to hear Silvanus Phillips Thompson describe the eminence and importance of William Gilbert of Colchester (1544-1603), the doctor whose early experimental investigations "constituted the absolute starting-point of the science of electricity." (9) Thompson argued that Gilbert's pioneering accomplishments in electricity and magnetism had been unduly neglected by British electricians, and he proposed that a Gilbert Club be formed to remedy this in two ways: by organizing the tercentenary celebration of the publication of De Magnete in 1900 and by underwriting a translation of Gilbert's great work into English for the very first time. …

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