Magnetic forces are among the most potent power sources in the known universe. And just like the force of (1)gravity, magnetic forces are ever-present, constantly at work, and they have a dramatic impact on our daily lives. In fact, were it not for magnetism and all of its inherent forces, our species would not (could not) exist on this planet.
We owe our existence to magnetism
At the center of our small solar system resides a massive nuclear power plant. We call it the Sun. It is a rather puny, mediocre star – as stars go. Still, its constant, countless nuclear explosions create unimaginable forces, one of which is referred to as the 'solar winds.' By the time these radiation-laden solar winds reach Earth, they are still hundreds of thousands of degrees, and traveling at about 1,000,000 miles per hour. Yes – that's one MILLION miles per hour. That equates to about 16,666 miles per minute, or 278 miles per second. Were it not for the Earth's natural magnetism, and massive magnetic field, the solar winds would course unimpeded over the planet's surface. Remove the Earth's magnetism and our beautiful blue planet would instantly become an uninhabitable place teeming with intense radiation, unbelievable winds, and temperatures capable of melting or disintegrating almost everything.
Magnetism was one of the first controllable power sources that man became aware of. Then, only naturally occurring magnets were present in the form of (2)lodestone. And while it is clear that humans became aware of magnetism thousands of years ago, it was not until much more recently that the powers were implemented for the benefit of the species. Save for folklore-based applications, the first known practical use of magnetism was in the making of the compass – an invention of the Chinese in the 12th century AD.
An early application of magnetism
The Chinese used lodestones as early as the 4th century AD in a divination ritual called "Geomancy." Geomancy, which is believed to be of Arabic origin, is about 'reading' various natural markings on the ground, or by having someone throw dirt in the air, and then reading the 'signs' created by the pattern of the dirt after it falls to the ground. There are absolute ties between Geomancy and various religious belief structures. By using lodestones in the practice of Geomancy, the Chinese were able to create exciting, unique readable patterns that were unmatched by any other civilization of the era. Part of the allure of this practice in China was the fact that the dirt could move 'on its own,' even after it had hit the ground. Subtle shifts in gentle winds, or small vibrations on the ground were enough to cause the stationery dirt to move – right in front of the eyes of believers.
Prehistoric navigation with magnetism
There is bacterium that is composed of single pieces of magnetite that form a string inside of its microscopic-sized body. It is actually a "living magnet" as the majority of its bulk is comprised of the magnetite pieces. The creation of minerals inside of living organisms is not uncommon. The teeth and bones of humans, for example, are minerals formed by, and inside of, living tissues. These have only recently been discovered, and it took an electron microscope set at 100,000x to see the miniscule magnetite chains. Many animals, including humans, have similar magnetic components. It is widely believed that because some animals are clearly using magnetism for their navigation, such as the notorious homing pigeons, that magnetic tissues and minerals exist for the host's navigational purposes. Recently, some researchers have started to think it's there for much more than just helping us find north. It is quite possible that magnetism, for example, guides the directional growth and strength of bones in humans. In humans, by the way, these tiny living magnetic systems are in our brains – and maybe in other places as well.
Oddly, humans still don't really know how magnetism works – anymore than we know how gravity works. We have equations to express both, and rules to follow regarding both – but we really don't know how they work. It was not until the mid-20th century that man actually started to get a solid understanding of the rules of magnetism, and ways to implement it. In 1950, the average American household had fewer than five magnets employed. By the end of the century, the average household employed hundreds of magnets. They are everywhere in our culture today – controlling and powering and amazing.
Magnetism and marriage
It was once believed, and not that long ago, that if you placed a piece of lodestone under the pillow of your spouse while they slept, in the morning, they would voluntarily tell all about their illicit, extra-marital affairs. They say all folklore has a basis in fact – one's mind boggles at contemplating how this one got started…
Magnetism and medicine
Late 1700's, a Frenchman named Franz Anton (3)Mesmer announced that he had discovered "animal magnetism." But not the way we use it colloquially – meaning when one person attracts another. Franz Anton Mesmer believed the magnetism of the earth flowed around and through people. If it flowed correctly, you were healthy. If it didn't, you got sick. He treated people by rubbing them with magnets. He held "séances," during which the participants sat around a vat of sulfuric acid (H2 SO4) holding lengths of iron. It was said they were "Mesmerized." As a result of this man's activities, an entire branch of charlatan-driven 'medicine' arose. Magnets were said to be able to cure anything, though their track record in that arena was utterly disastrous.
Even today we are flooded with magical and mystical cures based on magnetism. Unfortunately, they do not bear up well under scientific inspection, or even close scrutiny. But there are some amazing applications of magnetism in modern medicine. The most commonly known implementation of magnetism is surely MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), which allows physicians to see incredibly clear, quasi-3D images of the inner workings of the human body – and without radiation.
The uses and applications of magnetism are constantly growing, and constantly yielding some amazing products and tools. The hard drive in your computer uses magnetism to write and read your files. Magnetism is responsible for the electric motors that run everything from your car's windshield wipers to your office escalator. Magnetism is used to manufacture traffic light signal changers, such as the industry pioneering Signal Sorcerer – legally used worldwide on vehicles to trigger traffic signals. Magnetism keeps your kitchen cabinets closed, and tells your icemaker when to refill. Magnetic locks are famous for being secure, and magnetic sensors called "inductive loops" sense everything from baskets of goods in automated packing systems, to traffic waiting at intersections.
There are places in the world where small hills have large magnetite deposits in them – towards the top. This means that when iron is placed at the bottom of the hills or inclines, it will 'defy' gravity and move upward! One such hill in Mexico is said to be able to pull a small car up the hill in direct defiance of the Big G. Needless to say, great legends have arisen over time about these inclines.
The most famous magnetic magic of all is the Aurora Borealis – aka the Northern Lights. Under specific conditions, at the ends of the earth's magnetic field, one can observe the solar winds passing overhead in a brilliant display of color and light. These openings in the earth's magnetic field can also be deadly. Records have shown that people, and perhaps even small villages have been sucked up into space by these amazingly beautiful, unbelievably powerful natural phenomenon.
Magnetism and transportation
Magnetism plays such a huge part in the world of transportation that it's hard to know which things to mention. Magnets are used throughout vehicles nowadays. Of course they run all the electric motors that control windshield wipers, fans, etc. They also are used to control sensors in transmissions, gearboxes, shifters, fuel systems, and more. Motorcycles, mopeds, and smaller vehicles have benefited greatly from the newest applications of magnets. One giant leap for automotive technology has been the invention of magnetic oil filtration systems such as the universal fit Engine Sentry. These little spheres drop into your disposable oil filter, and using the immutable forces of magnetics, provide a wealth of benefits – starting with 2-5 TIMES the engine life. It's simple, really. The abrasive particles of steel that wear engines down, rob them of power, and are way too small for conventional oil filters to seine out, are effectively plucked from the re-circulating oil. And let us not forget about all those tiny specialty magnets that are at the hearts of all the computer technology inside of our modern vehicles. No doubt, magnetism has made an indelible and eminently worthwhile mark on automotive technology.
The future of magnetism in the world
The sky's the limit - really! It has been proffered that if a perpetual motion machine is possible, it will run on magnetism. And there is some extremely promising research which implements magnetism to drive starships. It's an incredible concept that seems to only require some creative engineering. Magnets are awesome sources of power that have unbelievably long lives. If you go to your local hardware store and buy a small ceramic magnet, it will likely retain its power for something like 10,000 years. AND if you break it in half, each half is just as powerful as the other – though the poles will instantly reverse on both pieces.
Magnetism is interesting and amazing. It drives and improves our lives in ways most people never even know. It saves lives, keeps our foods cold, or cooks them, protects our fragile planet, and someday, may be the source of power that drives vast fleets of interstellar vehicles through space – on trade and discovery missions to other worlds. Beam me up, Scotty!
(1) Early man actually engaged the force of gravity in a number of ways. One way he engaged it was to drive large animals over cliffs to kill them, instead of risking injury in a direct confrontation. Also, a rock or log rolled down a hill, courtesy of gravity, makes and excellent defensive weapon.
(2) Also spelled "loadstone." Herein referring to: oxide Fe3 O4 – the mineral form of iron known as "magnetite."
(3) Franz Mesmer's actions did have one good effect. Because of his readings about the works of Mesmer, a physician named James Braid pioneered hypnosis in 1842. This is largely why some people still interchange (incorrectly) the words "hypnosis" and "Mesmerize."
Signal Sorcerer is a registered trademark of Iron Horseman Technologies™, Tucson Arizona.
Engine Sentry is a registered trademark of Iron Horseman Technologies™, Tucson Arizona.
Eric Scribener is a 30-year veteran freelance writer and photographer currently on assignment for http://www.dotcomtucson.com/ - putting Tucson Arizona in the palm of your hand.