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A magnetic world: understanding the lodestone in the early modern Iberian empires

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Jules Skotnes-Brown.

There is a well-known historical narrative about magnets that ranges from Petrus Peregrinus’s findings (1269) to William Gilbert’s earth-magnetic theory (1600). That is, broadly speaking, from one of the first systematic descriptions of the magnet and the magnetic compass to the idea that the Earth itself behaves as a giant magnet, with two opposite poles. In my talk I will propose a different approach to this topic by addressing the question of how the lodestone was understood, used and commercialized in the early modern Iberian empires. Drawing upon sources from different domains (natural history, literature, legal disputes) my aim will be to discuss how the global expansion of Iberian empires challenged the understanding of the magnet and its uses. A more general question might arise from this discussion: what would a new social and intellectual history of such a key ‘stone’ look like, seen from the perspective of early modern Iberian empires?

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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