1600 – England

‘Gilbert’s principal area of study related to magnetism, however, his method of enquiry is equally significant’

portrait of WILLIAM GILBERT ©


Gilbert rejected the scholastics’ approach to science, preferring the experimental method, which he applied to the Earth’s magnetic properties.
He carried out some of the first systematic studies of the lodestone in Europe and showed that the Earth acts as a bar magnet with magnetic poles.

His celebrated text, ‘De magnete, magnetisque corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure‘ (On the Magnetic, Magnetic Bodies and the Great Magnet Earth – 1600) is considered to be one of the first truly scientific texts.
Gilbert received his medical training in Cambridge and practiced as a physician in London. He became president of the College of Physicians and was physician to Queen Elizabeth I.

In the time of Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, England was still largely a place of superstition and religious fervor. Gilbert concurred with Copernicus, a potentially dangerous sentiment in an era when elsewhere in Europe others such as Giordano Bruno and later GALILEO were being persecuted (and in the case of Bruno, executed) for sharing the same opinion.

Magnetism was to cast its influence in the eighteenth century, displayed through the electric fluid of GALVANI and VOLTA

He distinguished the properties of magnetism from the attractive effect produced by friction with amber. In so doing he introduced the term that was to become electricity.
He introduced a number of expressions to the English language including: magnetic pole, electric force and electric attraction.
A term of magneto motive force, the gilbert, is named after him.

Gilbert and others postulated that magnetism is the force holding the planets in their orbits.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)




1785 – France

‘The force of attraction or repulsion between two charges is directly proportional to the product of the two charges and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them’

The region around a charged object where it exerts a force is called its electric field. Another charged object placed in this field will have a force exerted on it. Coulomb’s rule is used to calculate this force.

Coulomb, a French physicist, made a detailed study of electrical attractions and repulsions between various charged bodies and concluded that electrical forces follow the same type of law as gravitation. Coulomb found a similar principle linking the relationship of magnetic forces. He believed electricity and magnetism, however, to be two separate ‘fluids’.
It was left to HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED, ANDRE-MARIE AMPERE and MICHAEL FARADAY to enunciate the phenomenon of electromagnetism.

The SI unit of electric charge, coulomb (C), one unit of which is shifted when a current of one ampere flows for one second, is named in his honour.

He also articulated Coulomb’s rule of friction, which outlines a proportional relationship between friction and pressure.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)




1820 – Denmark

‘Electric current produces a magnetic field’

drawn portrait of HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED ©

Oersted discovered that an electric current could make the needle of a magnetic compass swivel. It was the first indication of a link between these two natural forces. Although Oersted discovered electromagnetism he did little about it. This task was left to AMPERE and FARADAY.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)




Related articles


1827 – France

‘Two current-carrying wires attract each other if their currents are in the same direction, but repel each other if their currents are opposite. The force of attraction or repulsion (magnetic force) is directly proportional to the product of the strengths of the currents and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them’

portrait of ANDRE AMPERE ©


Another addition to the succession of ‘inverse-square’ laws begun with NEWTON’s law of universal gravitation.
Ampere had noted that two magnets could affect each other and wondered, given the similarities between electricity and magnetism, what effect two currents would have upon each other. Beginning with electricity run in two parallel wires, he observed that if the currents ran in the same direction, the wires were attracted to each other and if they ran in opposite directions they were repelled.

He experimented with other shapes of wires and generalised that the magnetic effect produced by passing a current in an electric wire is the result of the circular motion of that current. The effect is increased when the wire is coiled. When a bar of soft iron is placed in the coil it becomes a magnet. This is the solenoid, used in devices where mechanical motion is required.

Ampere exploited OERSTED’s work, devising a galvanometer which measured electric current flow via the degree of deflection upon its magnetic needle.

He attempted to interpret all his results mathematically in a bid to find an encompassing explanation for what later became referred to as electromagnetism (Ampere had at that time christened it electrodynamics), resulting in his 1827 definition.

Ampere’s name is commemorated in the SI unit of electric current, the ampere.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)



CARL GAUSS (1777-1855)

1832 – Germany

‘The electrical flux through a closed surface is proportional to the sum of the electric charges within the surface’

 Portrait of GAUSS ©


An electric field may be pictured by drawing lines of force. The field is stronger where these lines crowd together, weaker where they are far apart. Electrical flux is a measure of the number of electric field lines passing through an area.

Gauss’ law describes the relationship between electric charge and electric field. It is an elegant restatement of COULOMB‘s law.


Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)





1831 – England

‘A changing magnetic field around a conductor produces an electric current in the conductor. The size of the voltage is proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic field’

portrait drawing of MICHAEL FARADAY English chemist and physicist (British Library) (1791-1867)

This phenomenon is called ‘electromagnetic induction’ and the current produced ‘induced current’. Induction is the basis of the electric generator and motor.

Faraday developed HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED’s 1820 discovery that electric current could deflect a compass needle. In his experiment Faraday wrapped two coils of insulated wire around opposite sides of an iron ring. One coil was connected to a battery, the other to a wire under which lay a magnetic compass needle. He anticipated that if he passed a current through the first wire it would establish a field in the ring that would induce a current in the second wire. He observed no effect when the current was steady but when he turned the current on and off he noticed the needle moving. He surmised that whenever the current in the first coil changed, current was induced in the second. To test this concept he slipped a magnet in and out of a coil of wire. While the magnet was moving the compass needle registered a current, as he pushed it in it moved one way, as he pulled it out the needle moved in the opposite direction. This was the first production of electricity by non-chemical means.

In 1831, by rotating a copper disc between the poles of a magnet, Faraday was able to produce a steady electric current. This was the world’s first dynamo.

NEWTON, with his concept of gravity, had introduced the idea of an invisible force that exerted its effect through empty space, but the idea of ‘action-at-a-distance’ was rejected by an increasing number of scientists in the early nineteenth century. By 1830, THOMAS YOUNG and AUGUSTIN FRESNEL had shown that light did not travel as particles, as Newton had said, but as waves or vibrations. But if this was so, what was vibrating? To answer this, scientists came up with the idea of a weightless matter, or ‘aether’.

Faraday had rejected the concept of electricity as a ‘fluid’ and instead visualised its ‘fields’ with lines of force at their edges – the lines of force demonstrated by the pattern of iron fillings around a magnet. This meant that action at a distance simply did not happen, but things moved only when they encountered these lines of force. He believed that magnetism was also induced by fields of force and that it could interrelate with electricity because the respective fields cut across each other. Proving this to be true by producing an electric current via magnetism, Faraday had demonstrated electromagnetic induction.

When Faraday was discovering electromagnetic induction he did so in the guise of a natural philosopher. Physics, as a branch of science, was yet to be given a name.

The Russian physicist HEINRICH LENZ (1804- 65) extended Faraday’s work when in 1833 he suggested that ‘the changing magnetic field surrounding a conductor gives rise to an electric current whose own magnetic field tends to oppose it.’ This is now known as Lenz’s law. This law is in fact LE CHATELIER‘s principle when applied to the interactions of currents and magnetic fields.


Fluctuating Electromagnetic Fields and EM Waves

It took a Scottish mathematician by the name of JAMES CLERK MAXWELL to provide a mathematical interpretation of Faraday’s work on electromagnetism.

Describing the complex interplay of electric and magnetic fields, he was able to conclude mathematically that electromagnetic waves move at the speed of light and that light is just one form of electromagnetic wave.
This led to the understanding of light and radiant heat as moving variations in electromagnetic fields. These moving fields have become known collectively as radiation.

Faraday continued to investigate the idea that the natural forces of electricity, magnetism, light and even gravity are somehow ‘united’, and to develop the idea of fields of force. He focused on how light and gravity relate to electromagnetism.
After conducting experiments using transparent substances, he tried a piece of heavy lead glass, which led to the discovery of the ‘Faraday Effect’ in 1845 and proved that polarised light may be affected by a magnet. This opened the way for enquiries into the complete spectrum of electromagnetic radiation.

In 1888 the German physicist HEINRICH HERTZ confirmed the existence of electromagnetic waves – in this case radio waves – traveling at the speed of light.

The unit of capacitance, farad (F) is named in honour of Faraday.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)



Faraday Lecture -‘The chemical history of a candle’
Faraday as a discoverer

<< top of page


1864 Scotland

‘Four equations that express mathematically the way electric or magnetic fields behave’

The Scottish physicist examined Faraday’s ideas concerning the link between electricity and magnetism interpreted in terms of fields of force and saw that they were alternative expressions of the same phenomena. Maxwell took the experimental discoveries of Faraday in the field of electromagnetism and provided his unified mathematical explanation, which outlined the relationship between magnetic and electric fields. He then proved this by producing intersecting magnetic and electric waves from a straightforward oscillating electric current.

In 1831 – following the demonstration by HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED that passing an electric current through a wire produced a magnetic field around the wire, thereby causing a nearby compass needle to be deflected from north – MICHAEL FARADAY had shown that when a wire moves within the field of a magnet, it causes an electric current to flow along the wire.
This is known as electromagnetic induction.

In 1864 Maxwell published his ‘Dynamical Theory of the Electric Field’, which offered a unifying, mathematical explanation for electromagnetism.

In 1873 he published ‘Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism’.

The equations are complex, but in general terms they describe:

  • a general relationship between electric field and electric charge
  • a general relationship between magnetic field and magnetic poles
  • how a changing magnetic field produces electric current
  • how an electric current or a changing electric field produces a magnetic field

The equations predict the existence of electromagnetic waves, which travel at the speed of light and consist of electric and magnetic fields vibrating in harmony in directions at right angles to each other. The equations also show that light is related to electricity and magnetism.

Maxwell worked out that the speed of these waves would be similar to the speed of light and concluded, as Faraday had hinted, that normal visible light was a form of electromagnetic radiation. He argued that infrared and ultraviolet light were also forms of electromagnetic radiation, and predicted the existence of other types of wave – outside the ranges known at that time – which would be similarly explainable.

Verification came with the discovery of radio waves in 1888 by HEINRICH RUDOLPH HERTZ. Further confirmation of Maxwell’s theory followed with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

photo portrait of JAMES CLERK MAXWELL ©


Maxwell undertook important work in thermodynamics. Building on the idea proposed by JAMES JOULE, that heat is a consequence of the movement of molecules in a gas, Maxwell suggested that the speed of these particles would vary greatly due to their collisions with other molecules.

In 1855 as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Maxwell had shown that the rings of Saturn could not be either liquid or solid. Their stability meant that they were made up of many small particles interacting with one another.

In 1859 Maxwell applied this statistical reasoning to the general analysis of molecules in a gas. He produced a statistical model based on the probable distribution of molecules at any given moment, now known as the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases.
He asked what sort of motion you would expect the molecules to have as they moved around inside their container, colliding with one another and the walls. A reasonably sized vessel, under normal pressure and temperature, contains billions and billions of molecules. Maxwell said the speed of any single molecule is always changing because it is colliding all the time with other molecules. Thus the meaningful quantities are molecular average speed and the distribution about the average. Considering a vessel containing several different types of gas, Maxwell realized there is a sharp peak in the plot of the number of molecules versus their speeds. That is, most of the molecules have speeds within a small range of some particular value. The average value of the speed varies from one kind of molecule to another, but the average value of the kinetic energy, one half the molecular mass times the square of the speed, (1/2 mv2), is almost exactly the same for all molecules. Temperature is also the same for all gases in a vessel in thermal equilibrium. Assuming that temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of the molecules, then absolute zero is absolute rest for all molecules.

The Joule-Thomson effect, in which a gas under high pressure cools its surroundings by escaping through a nozzle into a lower pressure environment, is caused by the expanding gas doing work and losing energy, thereby lowering its temperature and drawing heat from its immediate neighbourhood. By contrast, during expansion into an adjacent vacuüm, no energy is lost and temperature is unchanged.

The explanation that heat in gas is the movement of molecules dispensed with the idea of the CALORIC  fluid theory of heat.

The first law of thermodynamics states that the heat in a container is the sum of all the molecular kinetic energies.
Thermal energy is another way of describing motion energy, a summing of the very small mechanical kinetic energies of a very large number of molecules; energy neither appears nor disappears.
According to BOYLE’s, CHARLES’s and GAY-LUSSAC’s laws, molecules beating against the container walls cause pressure; the higher the temperature, the faster they move and the greater the pressure. This also explains Gay-Lussac’s experiment. Removing the divider separating half a container full of gas from the other, evacuated half allows the molecules to spread over the whole container, but their average speed does not change. The temperature remains the same because temperature is the average molecular kinetic energy, not the concentration of caloric fluid.

In 1871 Maxwell became the first Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory. He died at age 48.

Wikipedia-logo © (link to wikipedia)



<< top of page