In an 18th-century experiment in "natural philosophy" (later to be called "physics") English scientist Francis Hauksbee
works with an early electrostatic generator.
The study and practice of physics is based on an intellectual ladder of discoveries and insights from ancient times to the present. Many mathematical and physical ideas used today found their earliest expression in the work of ancient civilizations, such as the Babylonian astronomers and Egyptian engineers, the Phoenician scholar Thales of Miletus, Euclid in Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Greek writers Archimedes and Aristarchus. Roots also emerged in ancient Asian cultures such as India and China, and particularly the Islamic medieval period, which saw the development of scientific methodology emphasising experimentation, such as the work of Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) in the 11th century, for example. The modern scientific worldview and the bulk of physics education can be said to flow from the scientific revolution in Europe, starting with the work of Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler in the early 1600s. Newton's laws of motion and Newton's law of universal gravitation were formulated in the 17th century. The experimental discoveries of Faraday and the theory of Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism were developmental high points during the 19th century. Many physicists contributed to the development of quantum mechanics in the early-to-mid 20th century. New knowledge in the early 21st century includes a large increase in understanding physical cosmology.
The broad and general study of nature, natural philosophy, was divided into several fields in the 19th century, when the concept of "science" received its modern shape. Specific categories emerged, such as "biology" and "biologist", "physics" and "physicist", "chemistry" and "chemist", among other technical fields and titles. The term physicist was coined by William Whewell (also the originator of the term "scientist") in his 1840 book The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences.