How It All Began

Pierre de Maricourt. Epistola de Magnete, 1558

Pierre de Maricourt – more commonly known as Peregrinus – is responsible for the first comprehensive account of magnetism. In his Epistola de Magnete, he describes the lodestone and its magnetic properties, the two poles of a magnet, and the fundamental properties of magnetic attraction and repulsion. He describes how to make a compass, and what exactly it can do for his reader: “Per hoc item instrumentum,” Peregrinus begins in his original Latin. “By this very instrument, you may direct your course to any cities and islands, to whatever other places, wherever you wish to by land or sea, with the longitude and latitude of the these places always known to you.”

Compass illustration from Pierre de Maricourt. Epistola de Magnete, 1558

 

We know very little about Peregrinus the man. One of the manuscripts of his Epistola de Magnete bears a note indicating that it was created during the siege of Lucera, in present-day Italy, on 8 August 1269. This date has since come to represent the accepted date of composition for the work. MIT is fortunate enough to own a copy of the editio princeps, or first printed edition, of this important text, printed at Augsburg in 1558. By way of comparison, the Vail Collection also offers a facsimile of a 14th-century manuscript of the work.

Pierre de Maricourt. Epistle of Petrus Peregrinus on the Magnet, 1900

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