A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter VII
The modern development of electricity and magnetism
Electricity and magnetism
For many years there had been a growing suspicion, amounting in many instances to belief in the close relationship existing between electricity and magnetism. Before the winter of 1815, however, it was a belief that was surmised but not demonstrated. But in that year it occurred to Jean Christian Oersted, of Denmark, to pass a current of electricity through a wire held parallel with, but not quite touching, a suspended magnetic needle. The needle was instantly deflected and swung out of its position.

"The first experiments in connection with the subject which I am undertaking to explain," wrote Oersted, "were made during the course of lectures which I held last winter on electricity and magnetism. From those experiments it appeared that the magnetic needle could be moved from its position by means of a galvanic battery - one with a closed galvanic circuit. Since, however, those experiments were made with an apparatus of small power, I undertook to repeat and increase them with a large galvanic battery.

"Let us suppose that the two opposite ends of the galvanic apparatus are joined by a metal wire. This I shall always call the conductor for the sake of brevity. Place a rectilinear piece of this conductor in a horizontal position over an ordinary magnetic needle so that it is parallel to it. The magnetic needle will be set in motion and will deviate towards the west under that part of the conductor which comes from the negative pole of the galvanic battery. If the wire is not more than four-fifths of an inch distant from the middle of this needle, this deviation will be about forty-five degrees. At a greater distance the angle of deviation becomes less. Moreover, the deviation varies according to the strength of the battery. The conductor can be moved towards the east or west, so long as it remains parallel to the needle, without producing any other result than to make the deviation smaller.

"The conductor can consist of several combined wires or metal coils. The nature of the metal does not alter the result except, perhaps, to make it greater or less. We have used wires of platinum, gold, silver, brass, and iron, and coils of lead, tin, and quicksilver with the same result. If the conductor is interrupted by water, all effect is not cut off, unless the stretch of water is several inches long.

"The conductor works on the magnetic needle through glass, metals, wood, water, and resin, through clay vessels and through stone, for when we placed a glass plate, a metal plate, or a board between the conductor and the needle the effect was not cut off; even the three together seemed hardly to weaken the effect, and the same was the case with an earthen vessel, even when it was full of water. Our experiments also demonstrated that the said effects were not altered when we used a magnetic needle which was in a brass case full of water.

"When the conductor is placed in a horizontal plane under the magnetic needle all the effects we have described take place in precisely the same way, but in the opposite direction to what took place when the conductor was in a horizontal plane above the needle.

"If the conductor is moved in a horizontal plane so that it gradually makes ever-increasing angles with the magnetic meridian, the deviation of the magnetic needle from the magnetic meridian is increased when the wire is turned towards the place of the needle; it decreases, on the other hand, when it is turned away from that place.

"A needle of brass which is hung in the same way as the magnetic needle is not set in motion by the influence of the conductor. A needle of glass or rubber likewise remains static under similar experiments. Hence the electrical conductor affects only the magnetic parts of a substance. That the electrical current is not confined to the conducting wire, but is comparatively widely diffused in the surrounding space, is sufficiently demonstrated from the foregoing observations."[2]

 The effect of Oersted's demonstration is almost incomprehensible. By it was shown the close relationship between magnetism and electricity. It showed the way to the establishment of the science of electrodynamics; although it was by the French savant Andre Marie Ampere (1775-1836) that the science was actually created, and this within the space of one week after hearing of Oersted's experiment in deflecting the needle. Ampere first received the news of Oersted's experiment on September 11, 1820, and on the 18th of the same month he announced to the Academy the fundamental principles of the science of electro-dynamics - seven days of rapid progress perhaps unequalled in the history of science.

Ampere's distinguished countryman, Arago, a few months later, gave the finishing touches to Oersted's and Ampere's discoveries, by demonstrating conclusively that electricity not only influenced a magnet, but actually produced magnetism under proper circumstances - a complemental fact most essential in practical mechanics

Some four years after Arago's discovery, Sturgeon made the first "electro-magnet" by winding a soft iron core with wire through which a current of electricity was passed. This study of electro-magnets was taken up by Professor Joseph Henry, of Albany, New York, who succeeded in making magnets of enormous lifting power by winding the iron core with several coils of wire. One of these magnets, excited by a single galvanic cell of less than half a square foot of surface, and containing only half a pint of dilute acids, sustained a weight of six hundred and fifty pounds.

Thus by Oersted's great discovery of the intimate relationship of magnetism and electricity, with further elaborations and discoveries by Ampere, Volta, and Henry, and with the invention of Daniell's cell, the way was laid for putting electricity to practical use. Soon followed the invention and perfection of the electro-magnetic telegraph and a host of other but little less important devices.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.