From the compass to electricity, the accidental discovery of magnetic rock altered the course of humanity way beyond decorative refrigerator magnets. Originally dismissed as magic (it's true), it took scientists thousands of years to fully understand their potential, from ancient Greece to Thomas Edison and the light bulb.
And it all started with a simple sheep shepherd in ancient Greece.
Like many things, the discovery of magnets goes back to the ancient 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. That first magnetized rock was referred to as "lodestones" and then "magnetite."
While little was understood about magnets after their discovery, scientists studying them were eager to find uses for them. One of the rumored early uses of the material known as "magnetite," was created by the inventor Archimedes who allegedly used the metal to rip out the nails from hostile ships so they came apart in the sea and sunk. It's an interesting but unlikely rumor.
Roman author Pliny the Elder, a naturalist who conducted early studies into magnetism, discovered a hill made of stone that attracted iron objects, causing him to label magnetism a form of magic. Soon, superstitions about the power of magnetism sweep through Rome. Romans even attributed the disappearance of ships at sea to the idea that they might have been attracted to magnetic islands.
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 later 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.