History of Magnets and Their Uses

By: Robert Thomson

Magnets have been in use at least as far back as the 4th Century BC and likely even earlier. A Chinese tome from that era titled "Book of the Devil Valley Master" details the magnetic properties found in certain types of rock. It wasn't much later that Chinese sailors were taking advantage of magnets by developing compasses.

Ancient Uses for Magnets

As knowledge of magnets and their properties spread around the world, some of the applications proved quite unusual. Magnets were at one point believed to restore youthful properties to skin, so much so that Cleopatra is rumored to have slept on a bed of magnetized rock. In the middle ages, various practices arose centered around magnets; some were merely superstitious and some have been found to have merit to this day.

The Chinese continued to find practical applications for magnets, including within the realm of medicine. In ancient China, heated magnets were often placed along the spine in order to align the spirit, and this belief is still practiced by some to this day. There is even currently work being done examining the curative effect that magnets and magnetic pulses can have on brain function, pain reception, blood properties, and nerve damage.

Magnets in Today's World

The use of magnets in modern medicine continues as magnets are sometimes used in reflexology and even play a large part in modern medical technology such as the magnetoencephalography devices used to monitor brain activity.

Today, magnets are commonly used in thousands of mechanized applications. Electric motors and generators are entirely based around magnets. In such devices, magnets surrounded by electrical coils are moved by the current being passed through the coils, generating energy. Variations on this electro-magnet technology can be found in dozens of common modern devices and appliances, including cell phones, doorbells, computers, video game systems, and others.

And it's not just the tiny magnets. Massive magnets play an integral part in construction and industrial applications. Large truck-mounted magnets are commonly used to clear construction sites of debris. Giant crane-mounted magnets are responsible for heavy lifting at construction and shipping sites. And large industrial magnets are installed in factory conveyor belt systems to separate materials.

Ironically, the "ancient" technology of magnets is responsible for one of the most futuristic of modern conveyances-the magnet train. As popularized in Japan, the magnet train relies on a field created between two magnets' north poles (one on the train itself and one along the tracks) to lift the train, causing it to "hover" on a cushion of air. This in turn allows the train to travel safely at incredibly high speeds while providing an uncannily smooth ride. This technology, known as MAGLEV (magnetic levitation) is now making its way to America.

In fact, there are various plans in the works to build a MAGLEV train connecting large US metropolitan areas. This MAGLEV train will reach speeds up to 300 miles per hour, delivering passengers in a fraction of time compared to the same trip by car. As concern grows over energy efficiency and environmental responsibility in transportation, MAGLEV trains truly look poised to be the transportation of the future.

And that's not to mention the fun side of magnets. Refrigerator magnets have a long tradition as an entertaining and colorful method for posting up everything from important reminders to children's artwork. And magnets also have a long history in toys; they can be found in everything from magnetic construction sets to "Magna-Doodle" art devices to wall-crawling Spider-Man action figures.

Magnets have even made their way into the arts. "Magnetic poetry" kits are a popular way to compose random poems by arranging magnetized words against a metal surface. Some professional artists, such as Sachiko Kodoma, have even taken to incorporating magnets into their gallery exhibits. The popular X-Men series of movies and comic books even feature a character, Magneto, who wields power over gravitational forces.

So magnets are truly a unique commodity. They are an ancient discovery that is still utilized in applications as diverse as brain wave analysis, construction, high-speed mass transit, navigation, decoration, and even poetry composition. You can't say that for too many other rocks.

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