Do you ever think about something that people these days take for granted and wonder how in the world we ever figured it out? Magnets, for example. So cool and totally like magic! People back in the day probably thought magnets were magic (it's true they did), so how did we come to understand them and use them to their full potential?It's a safe bet that you love electricity and you love a good compass. But do you know anything about the history of magnets that led to the creation of that compass? It's easy to take our modern day utilities for granted, but they were really thousands of years in the making. Thomas Edison didn't simply invent the light bulb, he built his work on countless of other scientists that came before him. The same thing applies to electromagnets, which are the product of thousands of years of study starting with a simple sheep shepherd in ancient Greece.
That accidental discovery of magnetic rock gave way to one of the most influential fields of science in existence today. The compass was certainly a byproduct of this research, but so were many other inventions culminating in the field of quantum mechanics. Even today, we're still working to understand magnets and their relationship to electricity better, which may yield even more advancements in the future. Until then, check out the list below to see how we discovered the forces behind magnetism.
The Discovery Of Magnets Goes Back 4,000 Years (And It Involves Sheep)
While it's easy to think that magnets have only been around for a few hundred years, their discovery actually goes back to (like many things) the Greeks. The story goes that a Greek shepherd named Magnes was tending to his sheep in a region of Greece called Magnesia. While walking along, he discovered that the metal nails in his shoe and the tip of his walking staff became stuck to a rock below his feet. Thus, we have our first magnetized rock, referred to as "lodestones" and then "magnetite."
They Were Rumored To Be An Early Weapon of War
While magnets were shrouded in mystery for quite a while after their discovery, people were still constantly studying them. One of the rumored uses of the material known as "magnetite," was by the inventor Archimedes. It's been said that he used the metal to rip out the nails from hostile ships so they came apart in the sea and sunk. However, even today's everyday refined magnets can't do that... so the plausibility of this rumor is pretty low. Still, how cool!
In Rome, Magnetism Was Feared
Roman author Pliny the Elder was a naturalist who conducted early studies into magnetism. While researching a hill made of stone that apparently attracted iron objects, he claimed that magnetism was a form of magic. Soon, superstitions about the power of magnetism began to sweep through Rome. They even attributed the disappearance of ships at sea to the idea that they might have been attracted to magnetic islands.
The Chinese Invented The First Compass
During the Han Dynasty, Chinese scientists made the first compasses by putting a spoon-shaped piece of magnetite ore on a cast bronze plate. The plate in question would have directions based on the constellations with the big dipper at the center. These early compasses were used to determine the best places for burial locations, but alchemists eventually realized these devices always pointed to magnetic north.The first compass used by Chinese sailors involved a small piece of magnetite floating on water in a bowl. By the time of the Sung dynasty, trading ships were able to navigate all the way to Saudi Arabia.