The Almighty, Much Overlooked Magnet

By: Robert Thomson

What do microwave ovens, high-speed trains, and your credit card have in common? Why magnets, of course.

Like many of life's important discoveries, there is much contested debate about how the magnet was actually discovered. According to one fable, about 4000 years ago a Greek Cretan named Magnes was herding his sheep when the nails on his shoe became stuck to a large black rock. Magnes dug at the earth and found lodestone, which contains a natural magnetic material. Years later the magnetic rock was later named 'Magnet' after its discoverer.

The Chinese tell a different story: fortunetellers used the same lodestone to build their boards, leading to the first magnetic compass around 210 B.C. In the 8th century A.D. the Chinese replaced lodestone with magnetized needles and between 850 and 1050 A.D. developed the sea compass.

Continuing the history lesson, the first comprehensive effort to explain magnetic properties was compiled by Peter Peregrinus in 1269 A.D. In 1600 William Gilbert, a member of the Royal College of Physicians in London, published a work titled De Magnete ("On the Magnet") where he argued Earth was merely a giant magnet. Additionally, Gilbert revealed that heat occurred when the loss of magnetism was induced. Filled with information from experimentation, De Magnete became the standard reference material for electrical and magnetic phenomena throughout Europe.

In 1820 Hans Christian Oersted, a Dane, connected the magnet to electricity. In 1862 Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell, considered one of the world's greatest physicists, developed a series of equations explaining the basis of electromagnetic theory. Thirty-five years later, a professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge by the name of Joseph John Thomson discovered the electron.

Fast forward to the present where magnets are used in everything from microwave ovens and credit cards to more esoteric examples such as power generators and flexible magnetic curtains. Of course, let's not forget the almighty refrigerator magnet holding our papers, pictures, and memos to the fridge without complaint.

Whether magnets are used in high-speed trains, health care applications, cell phones or the motor in your Prius, magnetic lines of force have four consistent qualities:

- They originate from the North Pole and end at the South Pole
- They come close to each other near the poles of a magnet and are widely separated at other places
- They cannot intersect each other
- When a compass is placed at different points on a magnetic line of force it aligns itself along the tangent to the line of force at that point

Indeed, as we reflect upon our every day existence why not ponder just exactly where our civilization would be had the nail in Magnes' boots not locked on that magical stone 4000 years ago. Or maybe it was the fortune telling of the Chinese...

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