A Source Book in Physics

Author: Hans Christian Oersted  | Date: 1877

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The Action of Currents on Magnets

The first experiments on the subject which I undertake to illustrate were set on foot in the classes for electricity, galvanism, and magnetism, which were held by me in the winter just past. By these experiments it seemed to be shown that the magnetic needle was moved from its position by the help of a galvanic apparatus, and that, when the galvanic circuit was closed, but not when open, as certain very celebrated physicists in vain attempted several years ago. As, however, these experiments were conducted with somewhat defective apparatus, and, on that account, the phenomena which were produced did not seem clear enough for the importance of the subject, I got my friend Esmarch, the King’s Minister of Justice, to join me, that the experiments might be repeated and extended with the great galvanic apparatus which we fitted up together. A distinguished man, Wleugel, Knight of the Danish Order, and President of our Pilot Board, was also present at our experiments as a partner and a witness. Besides these there were witnesses at these experiments that most excellent man, decorated by the King with the highest of honours,—Hauch, whose acquaintance with natural science has long been celebrated,—that most acute man Reinhardt, Professor of Natural History; Jacobsen, Professor of Medicine, a man of the utmost sagacity in conducting experiments; and the most experienced chemist, Zeise, Doctor of Philosophy. I have indeed somewhat frequently carried out by myself experiments relating to the matter proposed, but the phenomena which it thus befel me to disclose I repeated in the presence of these most learned men.

In reviewing my experiments I will pass over everything which, though they conduced to the discovery of the reason of the thing, yet, when this is discovered, cannot any further illustrate it. Those things, therefore, which clearly demonstrate the reason of the thing, let us take for granted.

The galvanic apparatus which we made use of consists of 20 rectangular copper receptacles, the length and height of which are alike 12 inches, the breadth, however, scarcely exceeding 2½ inches. Every receptacle is furnished with two copper plates, so inclined that they can carry a copper bar which supports a zinc plate in the water of the next receptacle. The water of the receptacles contains

of its weight of sulphuric acid and likewise
of its weight of nitric acid. The part of each plate which is immersed in the solution is square, the side being about 10 inches long. Even smaller apparatus may be used, provided they are able to make a metallic wire red hot.

Let the opposite poles of the galvanic apparatus be joined by a metallic wire, which, for brevity, we will call hereafter the joining conductor or else the joining wire. To the effect, however, which takes place in this conductor and surrounding space, we will give the name of electric conflict.

Let the rectilinear part of this wire be placed in a horizontal position over the magnetic needle duly suspended, and parallel to it. If necessary, the joining wire can be so bent that the suitable part of it may obtain the position necessary for the experiment. These things being thus arranged, the magnetic needle will be moved, and indeed, under that part of the joining wire which receives electricity most immediately from the negative end of the galvanic apparatus, will decline towards the west.

If the distance of the joining wire from the magnetic needle does not exceed ¾ of an inch, the declination of the needle makes an angle of about 45°. If the distance is increased the angles decrease as the distances increase. The declination, however, varies according to the efficiency of the apparatus.

The joining wire can change its place either eastward or westward, provided it keeps a position parallel to the needle, without any other change of effect than as respects magnitude; and thus the effect can by no means be attributed to attraction, for the same pole of the magnetic needle which approaches the joining wire while it is placed at the east side of it ought to recede from the same when it occupies a position at the west side of it if these declinations depended upon attractions or repulsions.

The joining conductor may consist of several metallic wires or bands connected together. The kind of metal does not alter the effects, except, perhaps, as regards quantity. We have employed with equal success wires of platinum, gold, silver, copper, iron, bands of lead and tin, a mass of mercury. A conductor is not wholly without effect when water interrupts, unless the interruption embraces a space of several inches in length.

The effects of the joining wire on the magnetic needle pass through glass, metal, wood, water, resin, earthenware, stones: for if a plate of glass, metal, or wood be interposed, they are by no means destroyed, nor do they disappear if plates of glass, metal, and wood be simultaneously interposed; indeed, they seem to be scarcely lessened. The result is the same if there is interposed a disc of amber, a plate of porphyry, an earthenware vessel, even if filled with water. Our experiments have also shown that the effects already mentioned are not changed if the magnetic needle is shut up in a copper box filled with water. It is unnecessary to state that the passing of the effects through all these materials in electricity and galvanism has never before been observed. The effects, therefore, which take place in electric conflict are as different as possible from the effects of one electric force or another.

If the joining wire is placed in a horizontal plane under the magnetic needle, all the effects are the same as in the plane over the needle, only in an inverse direction, for the pole of the magnetic needle under which is that part of the joining wire which receives electricity most immediately from the negative end of the galvanic apparatus will decline towards the east.

That these things may be more easily remembered let us use this formula: the pole over which negative electricity enters is turned towards the west, that under which it enters towards the east.

If the joining wire is so turned in a horizontal plane as to form with the magnetic meridian a gradually increasing angle, the declination of the magnetic needle is increased if the motion of the wire tends towards the place of the disturbed needle, but is lessened if the wire goes away from this place.

The joining wire placed in the horizontal plane in which the magnetic needle moves balanced by means of a counterpoise, and parallel to the needle, disturbes the same neither eastward nor westward but only makes it quiver in the plane of inclination, so that the pole near which the negative electric force enters the wire is depressed when it is situated at the west side and elevated when at the east.

If the joining wire is placed perpendicular to the plane of the magnetic meridian, either above or below the needle, the latter remains at rest, unless the wire is very near to the pole, for then the pole is elevated when the entrance is made from the western part of the wire and depressed when it is made from the eastern.

When the joining wire is placed perpendicular to the pole of the magnetic needle, and the upper end of the wire receives electricity from the negative end of the galvanic apparatus, the pole is moved towards the east; but when the wire is placed opposite to a point situated between the pole and the middle of the needle it is driven towards the west. When the upper end of the wire receives electricity from the positive end reverse phenomena will occur.

If the joining wire is so bent that it is made parallel to itself at both parts of the bend, or forms two parallel legs, it repels or attracts the magnetic poles according to the different conditions of the case. Let the wire be placed opposite to either pole of the needle so that the plane of the parallel legs is perpendicular to the magnetic meridian, and let the eastern leg be joined with the negative end of the galvanic apparatus, the western with the positive, and when this is so arranged the nearest pole will be repelled either eastward or westward according to the position of the plane of the legs. When the eastern leg is joined with the positive end, and the western with the negative, the nearest pole is attracted. When the plane of the legs is placed perpendicular to a spot between the pole and the middle of the needle the same effects occur, only inverted.

A needle of copper, suspended like a magnetic needle, is not moved by the effect of a joining wire. Also needles of glass, or of so-called gum-lac, subjected to the like experiments, remain at rest.

From all this it may be allowable to adduce some considerations in explanation of these phenomena.

Electric conflict can only act upon magnetic particles of matter. All non-magnetic bodies seem to be penetrable through electric conflict; but magnetic bodies, or rather their magnetic particles, seem to resist the passage of this conflict, whence it is that they can be moved by the impulse of contending forces.

That electric conflict is not inclosed in the conductor, but as we have already said is at the same time dispersed in the surrounding space, and that somewhat widely is clear enough from the observations already set forth.

In like manner it is allowable to gather from what has been observed that this conflict performs gyrations, for this seems to be a condition without which it is impossible that the same part of the joining wire, which, when placed beneath the magnetic pole, carries it eastward, drives it westward when placed above; for this is the nature of a gyration, that motions in opposite parts have an opposite direction. Moreover, motion by circuits combined with progressive motion, according to the length of the conductor, seems bound to form a cochlea or spiral line, which, however, if I am not mistaken, contributes nothing to the explanation of phenomena hitherto observed.

All the effects on the northern pole, here set forth, are easily understood by stating that negatively electric force or matter runs through a spiral line bending to the right, and propels the northern pole, but does not act at all upon the southern. The effects on the southern pole are similarly explained if we attribute to force or matter positively electrified a contrary motion and the power of acting on the southern pole but not on the northern. The agreement of this law with nature will be better seen by the repetition of experiments than by a long explanation. To judge of the experiments, however, will be made much easier if the course of the electric force on the joining wire is indicated by marks, either painted or incised.

I will add this only to what has been said: that I have demonstrated in a book, published seven years ago, that heat and light are in electric conflict. From observations lately brought to bear we may now conclude that motion by gyrations also occurs in these effects; and I think that this does very much to illustrate the phenomena which they call the polarity of light.


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Chicago: Hans Christian Oersted, "The Action of Currents on Magnets," A Source Book in Physics, trans. Rev. J. E. Kempe in A Source Book in Physics, ed. William Frances Magie (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), 436–441. Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=U76CK9JKY26G1MV.

MLA: Oersted, Hans Christian. "The Action of Currents on Magnets." A Source Book in Physics, translted by Rev. J. E. Kempe, Vol. 5, in A Source Book in Physics, edited by William Frances Magie, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1935, pp. 436–441. Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=U76CK9JKY26G1MV.

Harvard: Oersted, HC, 'The Action of Currents on Magnets' in A Source Book in Physics, trans. . cited in 1935, A Source Book in Physics, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.436–441. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=U76CK9JKY26G1MV.