Magnets. We just take them for granted, right? It’s easy not to notice that they’ve been a crucial part of our lives since before we can remember. Well, here’s a news flash: magnets are not an invention. They were found. Then humans proceeded to learn a lot more about them.
The story behind the discovery of magnets is interesting and unique, even mysterious. Once you learn about their history, you may see them in a whole new light.
Depending on who you ask about the discovery of magnets, you may hear or read multiple stories. That’s because there are varying written records from ancient times. The magnets people discovered then (and continue to find today) are a naturally occurring mineral called magnetite. Back in the day, it was also called lodestone. It’s an iron ore with natural magnetic properties.
The Chinese are reported to have used primitive magnetic compasses as early as 200 BC. At first, such a compass was just a tiny piece of lodestone floating in some water. Marco Polo brought the concept back to Europe, enhancing navigation significantly. The Vikings were known to use a similar kind of compass (especially as large quantities of magnetite are found in Scandinavia).
But the purported ‘true’ discovery is credited to the Greeks over 4,000 years ago. A huge area of lodestone was found in the region called Magnesia. In the first century AD, a Roman called Pliny the Elder wrote a mythical story of a shepherd called Magnes who noticed the iron nails in his shoes sticking fast to a specific rocky patch of ground while he was tending sheep. There’s a clear connection between Magnesia and the word magnet, as there is between Magnes and magnet. Both the Greek and Latin languages adopted similar root words.
What the murky and mixed stories really mean is that this enormously important discovery was likely a chance event and wasn’t recognized as significant at the time. But magnets became vital in discovering so much about our world.
We’re not talking the difference between Pink Floyd and Metallica. Since the discovery of magnets, there has been a great deal of testing and discovery. Magnetite is an iron ore that attracts heavy metal. In 1819, a Dane named Hans Christian Oersted was the first person to dabble in electricity and magnetism, demonstrating the significant correlation between the two. As he was demonstrating how an electric current could heat a wire it was passing through, the needle on a nearby magnetic compass pointed toward the current and then returned to normal after the current was turned off. By demonstrating how electricity affects lodestone – and thus how it can make a compass inaccurate - Oersted proved the existence of an invisible magnetic field in electricity (electromagnetism). Then in 1862, James Maxwell developed the basis of electromagnetic theory. A little over 30 years after that, J.J. Thomson discovered the electron in a process involving electric and magnetic fields.
Without these little miracles, we would not have things like electric motors, cell phones, compasses, television, audio speakers, microphones, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and the list goes on and on.
If you get yourself some small but powerful neodymium magnets, you can do a lot more things than simply stick stuff to your refrigerator. Attaching several together can create enough power to remove stuck batteries or to find wall studs (by locating nails/screws in them). Use them to repair a refrigerator door that won’t stay closed or to hold a car cover in place. You can even fix broken clasps, show fun experiments to kids, you name it. Like in the old days, you can take some magnets and go experimenting around your home to see how incredibly useful they can be.
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