The Discovery, Creation and Uses of Electromagnets

By: Robert Thomson

Most people are not aware of the many applications electromagnets have in our modern day life. Though we may be awed to see a car being lifted, we may not realize there are much smaller applications that make our life easier and more productive, all thanks to a few ingenious engineers and scientist who made this great discovery just over two centuries ago.

How the Electro Magnet was invented

In 1820 a Danish physicist named Hans Christian Oerstead discovered there was a relationship between magnetism and electricity, concluding that electricity had the ability to create a magnetic field. Using this theory, three years later British Scientist William Sturgeon created the first electromagnet out of a simple horseshoe shaped core with copper wire wound around. This crude device became magnetized when current was run through it and demagnetized when the electricity was switched off. The only drawback was that the magnet was not particularly strong as the copper wire used to create the electromagnet was not insulated and therefore could not be very tightly wound around the core without short circuiting.

Four years later an American scientist named Joseph Henry found a way to overcome this problem by insulating the copper wires with silk thread, enabling the wires to be wound closer together. This simple advancement created a much stronger magnetic force capable of lifting over 2000 pounds when the electric current was switched on.

Making an Electromagnet

The principle of an electromagnet remains fairly simple -a core with magnetic properties such as iron with a conducting wire wound around it. At this stage the atoms within the iron are aligned in different directions, canceling the magnetic effects. However, when an electric source is connected to the wire and switched on the wire develops a magnetic field around the core, aligning the atoms in the core and amplifying the magnetic field.

At its essence, a magnet is created using electricity combined with a conducting wire and core. The minute the electric current is switched off the magnetic field disappears and the components return to a neutral state. The ability to turn an electromagnet on and off is a great benefit and one of the reasons they have so many industrial applications.

Modern Day uses for Electromagnets

The engineering, mining, and manufacturing industries use electromagnets for many applications, most commonly to hoist containers and freight. At the more individual level, speakers in your stereo, television, and even doorbell use electromagnets. Perhaps the most impressive applications can be seen in Germany and Japan with the maglev trains -high speed trains that travel up to 350 miles per hour, courtesy of electromagnets. Amazingly these trains actually levitate above the tracks because of an electromagnetic field. And, because there are no wheels and therefore no friction the trains run more efficiently and at far greater speeds than normal trains.

Advanced applications of Electromagnets

As the field has become more specialized, different types of electromagnets have been developed for advanced applications. Used in a wide variety of industrial applications, common flat faced electromagnets are used to hoist objects that have a similar smooth flat surface. Another common type is a polar electromagnet, characterized by two widely spaced poles that form a magnetic field, allowing objects with uneven surfaces to be lifted. Scientific applications use electromagnets in research labs for micro engineering and precision handling of materials and delicate processes. Additionally, different core materials and configurations enable engineers to vary the strength of the electromagnets, which allows for further specialized applications.

Electromagnetism is a fascinating property that modern engineering will continue to find more uses for. As additional applications develop, Oerstead, Sturgeon, and Henry can be thanked for the core principle that after more than two hundred years still remains the same. What would life be like without that stereo in your car?

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