Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Earth and Sky by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Magnet

Teacher's Story

dropcap image NTIL comparatively recent times, the power of the magnet was so inexplicable that it was regarded as the working of magic. The tale of the Great Black Mountain Island magnet described in the "Arabian Nights Entertainments"—the story of the island that pulled the nails from passing ships and thus wrecked them—was believed by the mariners of the Middle Ages. Professor George L. Burr assures me that this mountain of lodestone and the fear which it inspired were potent factors in the development of Medieval navigation. Even yet, with all our scientific knowledge, the magnet is a mystery. We know what it does, but we do not know what it is. That a force unseen by us is flowing off the ends of a bar magnet, the force flowing from one end attracted to the force flowing from the other and repellent to a force similar to itself, we perceive clearly. We also know that there is less of this force at a point in the magnet half-way between the poles; and we know that the force of the magnet acts more strongly if we offer it more surface to act upon, as is shown in the experiment in drawing a needle to a magnet by trying to attract it first at its point and then along its length. That this force extends out beyond the ends of the magnet, the child likes to demonstrate by seeing across how wide a space the magnet, without touching the objects, can draw to it iron filings or tacks. That the magnet can impart this force to iron objects is demonstrated with curious interest, as the child takes up a chain of tacks at the end of the magnet; and yet the tacks when removed from the magnet have no such power of cohesion. That some magnets are stronger than others is shown in the favorite game of "stealing tacks," the stronger magnet taking them away from the weaker; it can also be demonstrated by a competition between magnets, noting how many tacks each will hold.

One of the most interesting things about a magnet is that like poles repel and opposite poles attract each other. How hard must we pull to separate two magnets that have the south pole of one against the north pole of the other! Even more interesting is the repellent power of two similar poles, which is shown by approaching a suspended magnetized needle with a magnet. These attractive and repellent forces are most interestingly demonstrated by the experiment in question 13 of the lesson. These needles floating on cork join the magnet or flee from it, according to which pole is presented to them.

Not only does this power reside in the magnet, but it can be imparted to other objects of iron and steel. By rubbing one pole of the magnet over a needle several times, always in the same direction, the needle becomes a magnet. If we suspend such a needle by a bit of thread from its center, and the needle is not affected by the nearness of a magnet, it will soon arrange itself nearly north and south. It is well to thrust the needle through a cork, so it will hang horizontally, and then suspend the cork by a thread. The magnetized needle will not point exactly north, for the magnet poles of the earth do not quite coincide with the poles of the earth's axis.

The direction assumed by the magnetized needle may be explained by the fact that the earth is a great magnet, but the south pole of the great earth magnet lies near the North Pole of the earth. Thus, a magnet on the earth's surface, if allowed to move freely, will turn its north pole toward the south pole of the great earth magnet. Then, we might ask, why not call the earth's magnetic pole that lies nearest our North Pole its north magnetic pole? That is merely a matter of convenience for us. We see that the compass needle points north and south, and the arm of the needle which points north we conveniently call its north pole.

The above experiment with a suspended needle shows how the mariner's compass is made. This most useful instrument is said to have been invented by the Chinese, at least 1400 B. C., and perhaps even longer ago. It was used by them to guide armies over the great plains, and the needle was made of lodestone. The compass was introduced into Europe about 1300 A. D., and has been used by mariners ever since. To "box the compass" is to tell all the points on the compass dial, and is an exercise which the children will enjoy.

We are able to tell the direction of the lines of force flowing from a magnet, by placing fine iron filings on a pane of glass or a sheet of paper and holding close beneath one or both poles of a magnet; instantly the filings assume certain lines. If the two ends of a horseshoe magnet are used, we can see the direction of the lines of force that flow from one pole to the other., It is supposed that these lines of magnetic force streaming from the ends of the great earth magnet cause the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis.

Lodestone is a form of iron with a special chemical composition, and it is a natural magnet. Most interesting stories are told of the way the ancients discovered this apparently bewitched material, because it clung to the iron ends of their staffs or pulled the iron nails from their shoes. In the Ward's collection of minerals sent out to schools, which costs only one dollar, there is included a piece of lodestone, which is of perennial interest to the children.

Magnets made from lodestone are called natural magnets. A bar magnet or a horseshoe magnet has received its magnetism from some other magnet or from electrical sources. An electro magnet is of soft iron, and is only a magnet when under the influence of a coil of wire charged with electricity. As soon as the current is shut off the iron immediately ceases to be a magnet.

Lesson CCXIX

The Magnet

Leading thought—Any substance that will attract iron is called a magnet, and the force which enables it to attract iron is called magnetism. This force resides chiefly at the ends of magnets, called the poles. The forces residing at the opposite ends of a magnet act in opposite directions; in two magnets the like poles repel and the unlike poles attract each other. The needle of the mariner's compass points north and south, because the earth is a great magnet which has its south pole as a magnet at the North Pole of the world.

Method—Cheap toy horseshoe magnets are sufficiently good for this lesson, but the teacher should have a bar magnet, also a cheap toy compass, and a specimen of lodestone, which can be procured from any dealer in minerals. In addition, there should be nails, iron filings and tacks of both iron and brass, pins, darning needles or knitting needles, pens, etc. Each child, during play time, should have a chance to test the action of the magnets on these objects, and thus be able to answer for himself the questions which should be given a few at a time.


1. How do we know that an object is a magnet? How many kinds of magnets do you know? Of what substance are the objects made which the magnets can pick up? Does a magnet pick up as many iron filings at its middle as at its ends? What does this show?

2. How far away from a needle must one end of the magnet be before the needle leaps toward it? Does it make any difference in this respect, if the magnet approaches the needle toward the point or along its length? Does this show that the magnetic force extends out beyond the magnet? Does it show that the magnetic force works more strongly where it has more surface to act upon?

3. Take a tack and see if it will pick up iron filings or another tack. Place a tack on one end of the magnet, does it pick up iron filings now? What do you think is the reason for this difference in the powers of the tack?

4. Are some magnets stronger than others? Will some magnets pull the iron filings off from others? In the game of "stealing tacks," which can be played with two magnets, does each end of the magnet work equally well in pulling the tacks away from the other magnet?

5. Pick up a tack with a magnet. Hang another tack to this one end to end. How many tacks will it thus hold? Can you hang more tacks to some magnets than to others? Will the last tack picked up attract iron filings as strongly as the first next to the magnet? Why? Pull off the tack which is next to the magnet. Do the other tacks continue to hold together? Why? Instead of placing the tacks end to end, pick up one tack with the magnet and place others around it. Will it hold more tacks in this way? Why? If a magnet is covered with iron filings will it hold as many tacks without dropping the filings?

6. Take two horseshoe magnets and bring their ends together. Then turn one over and again bring the ends together. Will they cling to each other more or less strongly than before? Bring two ends of two bar magnets together; do they hold fast to each other? Change ends with one, now do the two magnets cling more or less closely than before? Does this show that the force in the two ends of a magnet is different in character?

7. Magnetize a knitting needle or a long sewing needle by rubbing one end of a magnet along its length twelve times, always in the same direction, and not back and forth.  Does a needle thus treated pick up iron filings? Why?

8. Suspend this magnetized needle by a thread from some object where it can swing clear. When it finally rests does it point north and south or east and west?

9. Bring one end of a bar magnet or of a horseshoe magnet near to the north end of the suspended needle; what happens? Bring the other end of the magnet near the north end of the needle; what happens?

10. Magnetize two needles so that their eyes point in the same direction when they are suspended. Then bring the point of one of these needles toward the eye of the other, what happens? Bring the eye of one toward the eye of the other, what happens? When a needle is thus magnetized the end which turns toward the north is called the north pole, and the end pointing south is called the south pole.

11. Try this same experiment by thrusting the needles through the top of a cork and float them on a pan of water. Do the north poles of these needles attract or repel each other? Do the south poles of these needles attract or repel each other? If you place the north pole of one needle at the south pole of the other do they join and make one long magnet pointing north and south?

12. Take a pocket compass; place the north end of one of the magnetized needles near the north arm of the compass needle; what happens? Place the south pole of the needle near the north arm of the compass needle, what happens? Can you tell by the action of your magnet upon the compass needle which end of your magnet is the north pole and which the south pole?

13. Magnetize several long sewing needles by rubbing some of them toward the eye with the magnet and some from the eye toward the point. Take some small corks, cut them in cross sections about one-fourth inch thick, thrust a needle down through the center of each leaving only the eye above the cork. Then set them afloat on a pan of water. How do they act toward each other? Try them with a bar magnet first with one end and then with the other, how do they act?

14. Describe how the needle in the mariner's compass is used in navigation.

15. Place fine iron filings on a pane of glass or on a stiff paper. Pass a magnet underneath; what forms do the filings assume? Do they make a picture of the direction of the lines of force which come from the magnet? Describe or sketch the direction of these lines of force, when the poles of a horseshoe magnet are placed below the filings. Place two similar poles of a bar magnet beneath the filings; what form do they take now?

16. What is lodestone? Why is it so called?

17. What is the difference between lodestone and a bar magnet? What is an electro magnet?

18. Write an English theme on "The Discovery and Early Use of the Mariner's Compass."

Supplementary reading—Electrical Experiments, Bonney; The Wonder Book of Magnetism, Houston; "The Third Royal Calendar" from Arabian Nights Entertainments.

"Now, chief of all, the magnet's power I sing,

And from what laws the attractive functions spring;

The magnet's name the observing Grecians drew

From the magnetic regions where it grew;

Its viewless potent virtues men surprise,

Its strange effects they view with wondering eyes,

When, without aid of hinges, links, or springs,

A pendant chain we hold of steely rings

Dropt from the stone—the stone the binding source,—

Ring cleaves to ring, and owes magnetic force:

Those held superior, those below maintain,

Circle 'neath circle downward draws in vain,

Whilst free in air disports the oscillating chain."

—"De Rerum Naturae," Lucretius, 93-52 B. C.

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