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Scientists have long recognized a connection between electricity and magnetism, but the specifics of this connection, along with the recognition that electromagnetism is one of the fundamental interactions in the universe, were worked out only in the mid-nineteenth century. By that time, geologists had come to an understanding of Earth as a giant magnet. This was the principle that made possible the operation of compasses, which greatly aided mariners in navigating the seas: magnetic materials, it so happened, point northward. As it turns out, however, Earth's magnetic North Pole is not the same as its geographic one, and even the pole's northerly location is not a permanent fact. Once upon a time and, in fact, at many times in Earth's history, the magnetic North Pole lay at the southern end of the planet.



The Greek philosopher Thales (640?-546 b.c.) was the first to observe that when amber is rubbed with certain types of materials, the friction imparts to it the ability to pick up light objects. The word electricity comes from the Greek word for amber, elektron, and, in fact, magnetism and electricity are simply manifestations of the same force. This concept of electric and magnetic interaction seems to have been established early in human history, though it would be almost 2,500 years before scientists came to a mature understanding of the relationship.

As in so much else, studies in electromagnetism made little progress from the time of the Romans to the late Renaissance, a span of nearly 1,500 years. Yet it is worth noting that the first ideas scientists had about studying Earth's history scientifically came from observing the planet's magnetic field. In the course of his work on that subject, the English astronomer Henry Gelli-brand (1597-1636) showed that the field has changed over time. This suggested that it would be possible to form hypotheses about the planet's past, even though humans had no direct information regarding the origins of Earth. Thus, Gellibrand (who, ironically, was also a minister) helped make it possible for geologists to move beyond a strict interpretation of the Bible in studying the history of Earth. (See Earth, Science, and Nonscience for more on the Genesis account and its interpretations.)


Beginning in the 1700s, a number of thinkers conducted experiments concerning the nature of electricity and magnetism and the relationship between them. Among these thinkers were several giants in physics and other disciplines, including one of America's greatest founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). In addition to his famous (and highly dangerous) experiment with lightning, Franklin also contributed the names positive and negative to the differing electric charges discovered earlier by the French physicist Charles Du Fay (1698-1739).

In 1785 the French physicist and inventor Charles Coulomb (1736-1806) established the basic laws of electrostatics and magnetism. He maintained that there is an attractive force that, like gravitation, can be explained in terms of the inverse of the square of the distance between objects (see Gravity and Geodesy). That attraction itself, however, results not from gravity but from electric charge, according to Coulomb.

A few years later, the German mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855) developed a mathematical theory for finding the magnetic potential of any point on Earth. His contemporary, the Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851), became the first scientist to establish a clear relationship between electricity and magnetism. This led to the formalization of electromagnetism, the branch of physics devoted to the study of electric and magnetic phenomena.

The French mathematician and physicist André Marie Ampère (1775-1836) concluded that magnetism is the result of electricity in motion, and in 1831 the British physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) published his theory of electromagnetic induction. This theory shows how an electric current in one coil can set up a current in another through the development of a magnetic field, and it enabled Faraday's development of the first generator. For the first time in history humans were able to convert mechanical energy systematically into electric energy.


By this point scientists were convinced that a relationship between electricity and magnetism existed, yet they did not know exactly how the two related. Then, in 1865, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) published a groundbreaking paper, "On Faraday's Lines of Force," in which he outlined a theory of electromagnetic force. The latter may be defined as the total force on an electrically charged particle, which is a combination of forces due to electric and magnetic fields around the particle.

Maxwell thus had discovered a type of force in addition to gravity, and this reflected a "new" type of fundamental interaction, or a basic mode by which particles interact in nature. Nearly two centuries earlier Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) had identified the first, gravity, and in the twentieth century two other forms of fundamental interactionstrong nuclear and weak nuclearwere identified as well.

In his work Maxwell drew on the studies conducted by his predecessors but added a new statement. According to Maxwell, electric charge is conserved, meaning that the sum total of electric charge in the universe does not change, though it may be redistributed. This statement, which did not contradict any of the experimental work done by other physicists, was based on Maxwell's predictions regarding what should happen in situations of electromagnetism. Subsequent studies have supported his predictions.


What, then, is the difference between electricity and magnetism? It is primarily a matter of orientation. When two electric charges are at rest, it appears to an observer that the force between them is merely electric. If the charges are in motion relative to the observer, it appears as though a different sort of force, known as magnetism, exists between them.

An electromagnetic wave, such as that which is emitted by the Sun, carries both an electric and a magnetic component at mutually perpendicular angles. If you extend your hand, palm flat, with the fingers straight and the thumb pointing at a 90° angle to the fingers, the direction that the fingers are pointing would be that of the electromagnetic wave. Your thumb points in the direction of the electric field, and the flat of your palm indicates the direction of the magnetic field, which is perpendicular both to the electric field and to the direction of wave propagation.

A field, in this sense, is a region of space in which it is possible to define the physical properties of each point in the region at any given moment in time. Thus, an electric field and a magnetic field are simply regions in which the electric and magnetic components, respectively, of electromagnetic force are exerted.


At the atomic level magnetism is the result of motion by electrons (negatively charged subatomic particles) in relation to one another. Rather like planets in a solar system, electrons revolve around the atom's nucleus and rotate on their own axes. (In fact, the exact nature of their movement is much more complex, but this analogy is accurate enough for the present purposes.) Both types of movement create a magnetic force field between electrons, and as a result the electron takes on the properties of a tiny bar magnet with a north pole and south pole. Surrounding this infinitesimal magnet are lines of magnetic force, which begin at the north pole and curve outward, describing an ellipse as they return to the south pole.

In most atoms, electrons are paired such that their magnetic fields cancel out one another. However, in certain cases, such as when there is an odd electron or when other factors become more significant, the fields line up to create what is known as a net magnetic dipole, or a unity of direction. These elements, among them, iron, cobalt, and nickel as well as various alloys or mixtures, are commonly known as magnetic metals, or natural magnets.


Magnetization occurs when an object is placed in a magnetic field. In this field magnetic force acts on a moving charged particle such that the particle would experience no force if it moved in the direction of the magnetic field. In other words, it would be "drawn," as a ten-penny nail is drawn to a common bar or horseshoe (U-shaped) magnet. An electric current is an example of a moving charge, and, indeed, one of the best ways to create a magnetic field is with a current. Often this is done by means of a solenoid, a current-carrying wire coil through which the material to be magnetized is passed, much as one would pass a straight wire up through the interior of a spring.

When a natural magnet becomes magnetized (that is, when a magnetic metal or alloy comes into contact with an external magnetic field), a change occurs at the level of the domain, a group of atoms equal in size to about 5 × 105 meters acrossjust large enough to be visible under a microscope.

In an unmagnetized sample, there may be an alignment of unpaired electron spins within a domain, but the direction of the various domains' magnetic forces in relation to one another is random. Once a natural magnet is placed within an external magnetic force field, however, one of two things happens to the domains. Either they all come into alignment with the field or, in certain types of material, those domains in alignment with the field grow, while the others shrink to nonexistence.

The first of these processes is called domain alignment, or ferromagnetism, and the second is termed domain growth, or ferrimagnetism. Both processes turn a natural magnet into what is known as a permanent magnetor, more simply, a magnet. The magnet is then capable of temporarily magnetizing a ferromagnetic item, as, for instance, when one rubs a paper clip against a permanent magnet and then uses the magnetized clip to lift other paper clips. Of the two varieties, however, a ferromagnet is stronger, because it requires a more powerful magnetic force field to become magnetized. Most powerful of all is a saturated ferromagnetic metal, one in which all the unpaired electron spins are aligned.


The Magnetic Compass

A bar magnet placed in a magnetic field will rotate until it lines up with the field's direction. The same thing happens when one suspends a magnet from a string: it lines up with Earth's magnetic field and points in a north-south direction. The Chinese of the first century b.c. discovered that a strip of magnetic metal always tends to point toward geographic north, though they were unaware of the electromagnetic force that causes this to happen.

This led ultimately to the development of the magnetic compass, which typically consists of a magnetized iron needle suspended over a card marked with the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west). The needle is attached to a pivoting mechanism at its center, which allows it to move freely so that the tip of the needle will always point the user northward. The magnetic compass proved so important that it typically is ranked alongside paper, printing, and gunpowder as one of premodern China's four great gifts to the West. Before the compass, mariners had to depend purely on the position of the Sun and other, less reliable means of determining direction; hence, the invention quite literally helped open up the world.


The compass, in fact, helped make possible the historic voyage of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) in 1492. While sailing across the Atlantic, Columbus noticed something odd: his compass did not always point toward what he knew, based on the Sun's position, to be geographic north. The further he traveled, the more he noticed this phenomenon, which came to be known as magnetic declination.

When Columbus returned to Europe and reported on his observations of magnetic declination (along with the much bigger news of his landing in the New World, which he thought was Asia), his story perplexed mariners. Eventually, European scientists worked out tables of magnetic declination, showing the amount of deviation at various points on Earth, and this seemed to allay sailors' concerns.

Then, in 1544, the German astronomer Georg Hartmann (1489-1564) observed that a freely floating magnetized needle did not always stay perfectly horizontal and actually dipped more and more strongly as he traveled north. When he was moving south, on the other hand, the needle tended to become more closely horizontal. For many years, this phenomenon, along with magnetic declination, remained perplexing. Nor, for that matter, did scientists understand exactly how or why a compass works. Then, in 1600, the English physicist William Gilbert (1540-1603) became the first to suggest a reason.

Earth as a Giant Magnet

Gilbert coined the terms electric attraction, electric force, and magnetic pole. In De magnete (On the magnet), he became the first thinker to introduce the idea, now commonly accepted, that Earth itself is a giant magnet. Not only does it have north and south magnetic poles, but it also is surrounded by vast arcs of magnetic force, called the geomagnetic field. (The term geomagnetism, as opposed to magnetism, refers to the magnetic properties of Earth as a whole rather than those possessed by a single object or place on Earth.)

In the paragraphs that follow, we discuss the shape of this magnetic field, including the positions of the magnetic north and south poles; the origins of the field, primarily in terms of the known or suspected physical forces that sustain it (as opposed to the original cause of Earth's magnetic field, a more complicated and speculative subject); as well as changes in the magnetic field. Those changes, along with techniques for measuring the geomagnetic field, also are discussed at other places in this book.


Hartmann's compass phenomenon can be explained by the fact that Earth is a magnet and that its north and south magnetic poles are close to the geographic north and south. As for the phenomenon observed by Columbus, it is a result of the difference between magnetic and geographic north. If one continued to follow a compass northward, it would lead not to Earth's North Pole but to a point identified in 1984 as 77°N, 102°18 Wthat is, in the Queen Elizabeth Islands of far northern Canada.

Earlier we described the lines that make up the magnetic force field around a bar magnet. A field of similar shape, though, of course, of much larger size (yet still invisible), also surrounds Earth. From the magnetic north and south poles, lines of magnetic force rise into space and form giant curves that come back around and reenter Earth at the opposing pole, so that the planet is surrounded by a vast series of concentric loops. If one could draw a straight line through the center of all these loops, it would reach Earth at a point 11° from the equator. Likewise the north and south magnetic poleswhich are on a plane perpendicular to that of Earth's magnetic fieldare 11° off the planet's axis.


Surrounding the planet is a vast region called the magnetosphere, an area in which ionized particles (i.e., ones that have lost or gained electrons so as to acquire a net electric charge) are affected by Earth's magnetic field. The magnetosphere is formed by the interaction between our planet's magnetic field and the solar wind, a stream of particles from the Sun. (See Sun, Moon, and Earth for more about the solar wind.) Its shape would be akin to that of Earth's magnetic field, as described earlier, were it not for the Sun's influence.

The side of the magnetosphere closer to the Sun does indeed resemble the giant series of concentric loops described earlier. These loops are enormous, such that the forward, or sunlit, edge of the magnetosphere is located at a distance of some 10 Earth radii (about 35,000 mi., or 65,000 km). On the other side from the Sunthe rear, or dark, sidethe shape of the magnetosphere is quite different. Instead of forming relatively small loops that curve right back around into Earth's poles, the lines of magnetic force on this side shoot straight out into space a distance of some 40 Earth radii (about 140,000 mi., or 260,000 km).

The shape of the magnetosphere, then, is a bit like that of a comet moving toward the Sun. Surrounding it is the magnetopause, a sort of magnetic dead zone about 62 mi. (100 km) thick, which shields Earth from most of the solar wind. In front of it (toward the Sun) is an area of magnetic turbulence known as the magnetosheath, and still closer to the Sun is a boundary called the bow shock, a shock-wave front that slows particles of solar wind considerably. Since Earth is turning, the side of the planet away from the Sun is continually changing, of course, but the shape of the magnetosphere remains more or less intact. It is, however, highly affected by solar activity, such that an increase in solar wind can cause a depression in the magnetosphere. (See Sun, Moon, and Earth for a discussion of auroras, produced by an interaction between the solar wind and the magnetosphere.)

The Source of Earth's Magnetic Field

As noted earlier, scientists at present understand little with regard to the origins of Earth's magnetic fieldthat is, the original action or actions that resulted in the creation of a geomagnetic field that has remained active for billions of years. No less a figure than Albert Einstein (1879-1955) identified this question as one of the great unsolved problems of science. On the other hand, scientists do have a good understanding of the geomagnetic field's source, in terms of the physical conditions that make it possible. (This distinction is rather like that between efficient cause and material cause, as discussed in Earth, Science, and Nonscience.)

It is believed that the source of Earth's magnetism lies in a core of molten iron some 4,320 mi. (6,940 km) across, constituting half the planet's diameter. Within this core run powerful electric currents that create the geomagnetic field. Actually, the field seems to originate in the outer core, consisting of an iron-nickel alloy that is kept fluid owing to the exceedingly great temperatures. The materials of the outer core undergo convection, vertical circulation that results from variations in density brought about by differences in temperature.

This process of convection (imagine giant spirals moving vertically through the molten metal) creates the equivalent of a solenoid, described earlier. Even so, there had to be an original source for the magnetic field, and it is possible that it came from the Sun. In any case, the magnetic field could not continue to exist if the fluid of the outer core were not in constant convective motion. If this convection stopped, within about 10,000 years (which, in terms of Earth's life span, is like a few seconds to a human being), the geomagnetic field would decay and cease to operate. Likewise, if Earth's core ever cooled and solidified, Earth would become like the Moon, a body whose magnetic field has disappeared, leaving only the faintest traces of magnetism in its rocks.

Changes in the Magnetic Field

Though there is no reason to believe that anything so dramatic will happen, there are curious and perhaps troubling signs that Earth's magnetic field is changing. According to data recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey, which updates information on magnetic declination, the field is shiftingand weakening. Over the course of about a century, scientists have recorded data suggesting a reduction of about 6% in the strength of the magnetic field.

The behavior, in terms of both weakening and movement, appears to be similar to changes taking place in the magnetic field of the Sun. Indeed, as we have seen already, Earth's magnetism is heavily affected by the Sun, and it is possible that a period of strong solar-flare activity could shut down Earth's magnetic field. Even the present trend of weakening, if it were to continue for just 1,500 years, would wipe out the magnetic field. Some scientists believe that the planet is simply experiencing a fluctuation, however, and that the geomagnetic field will recover. Others maintain that the geomagnetic field is on its way to a reversal.

A reversal? Odd as it may sound, the direction of the geomagnetic field has reversed itself many, many times in the past. Furthermore, the planet has attempted unsuccessfully to reverse its geomagnetic field many more timesas recently as 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. These reversals are among the interests of paleomagnetism, the area of geology devoted to the direction and intensity of magnetic fields in the past, as discerned from the residual magnetization of rocks.

A compass works, of course, because the metal points toward Earth's magnetic north pole, which is close to its geographic north pole. Likewise, the magnetic materials in the rocks of Earth point northor rather, they would point north if the direction of the magnetic field had not changed over time. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, geologists noticed that whereas some magnetic rocks pointed toward Earth's current North Pole, some were pointing in the opposite direction. This led to the realization that the magnetic field had reversed and to the development of paleomagnetism as a field of study. Studies in paleomagnetism, in turn, have provided confirmation of the powerful theory known as plate tectonics. (See Plate Tectonics for more on paleomagnetism and the shifting of plates beneath Earth's surface.)


Campbell, Wallace Hall. Earth Magnetism: A Guided Tour Through Magnetic Fields. New York: Harcourt Academic Press, 2001.

Dispezio, Michael A., and Catherine Leary. Awesome Experiments in Electricity and Magnetism. New York: Sterling, 1998.

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Hancock, Paul L., and Brian J. Skinner. The Oxford Companion to the Earth. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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Lafferty, Peter. Magnets to Generators. Illus. Alex Pang and Galina Zolfanghari. New York: Gloucester Press, 1989.

Lefkowitz, R. J., and J. Carol Yake. Forces in the Earth: A Book About Gravity and Magnetism. New York: Parents' Magazine Press, 1976.

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Stern, David P. 400 Years of "De magnete" (Web site). <>.



In physics and other sciences, "to conserve" something means "to result in no net loss of" that particular component. It is possible that within a given system the component may change form or position, but as long as the net value of the component remains the same, it has been conserved.


A pair of equal and opposite electric charges, or an entire body having the characteristics of a dipolefor instance, a magnet with north and south poles.


A form of energy with electric and magnetic components that travels in waves.


The total force on an electrically charged particle, which is a combination of forces due to electric and magnetic fields around the particle. Electromagnetic force reflects electromagnetic interaction, one of the four fundamental interactions in nature.


A negatively charged particle in an atom, which spins around the nucleus.


A substance made up of only one kind of atom. Unlike compounds, elements cannot be broken chemically into other substances.


A region of space in which it is possible to define the physical properties of each point in the region at any given moment in time.


The basic mode by which particles interact. There are four known fundamental interactions in nature: gravitational, electromagnetic, strong nuclear, and weaknuclear.


A term referring to the magnetic properties of Earth as a wholerather than those possessed by a single object or place on Earth.


The angle between magnetic north and geographic north.


An area surrounding Earth, reaching far beyond the atmosphere, in which ionized particles(i.e., ones that have lost or gained electrons so as to acquire a net electric charge) are affected by Earth's magnetic field.


An area of historical geology devoted to studying the direction and intensity of magnetic fields in the past, as discerned from the residual magnetization of rocks.


Position in a field, such as a gravitational force field.


A stream of particles continually emanating from the Sun and moving outward through the solar system.


Any set of interactions that can be set apart mentally from the rest of the universe for the purposes of study, observation, and measurement.

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geomagnetic field

geomagnetic field The Earth's magnetic field shows variability on all time-scales, ranging from nanoseconds to millions of years. Most transient variations are of external origin, reflecting interactions between the solar wind and the Earth's atmosphere. Longer-term changes, called secular variations, are of internal origin. The average annual field has been closely defined by satellite observations for 1980. Previous annual patterns were based on geomagnetic observatories, supplemented by field surveys and corrected to some particular time on the basis of observed secular variation in the preceding years. The intensity of the field varies from about 30 μT near the equator to 60 μT near the observed geomagnetic poles at 73° N 100° W and 68° S 143° E. Most of the field (80%) can be accounted for mathematically by a single microgeocentric dipole inclined at 11.3° to the Earth's rotation pole, known as the geomagnetic dipole, with a magnetic moment of 8.01 × 1022 A/m2. The remaining field, the micro-non-dipole field, forms 12 main areas, varying by ± 1.5μT. An improved mathematical fit to the observed field was obtained using an inclined dipole offset from the geocentre by 340 km. During this century, the pattern of the field shows a tendency to drift westwards at about 0.2°/year, but this is not considered to be persistent on archaeological time-scales. The field shows an ability to reverse polarity on a geologic time-scale, with three polarity changes per million years during the last 60 million years, but long periods, of about 50 million years, of constant polarity are also known. The geomagnetic field is generally attributed to fluid motions within the outer core; these carry magnetic lines of force with them (magnetohydrodynamics), creating a coupled self-exciting dynamo that allows polarity reversals.

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geomagnetic field

geomagnetic field The Earth's magnetic field; this shows variability on all time-scales, ranging from nanoseconds to millions of years. Most transient variations are of external origin, reflecting interactions between the solar wind and the Earth's atmosphere. Longer-term changes (secular variations) are of internal origin. The intensity of the field varies from about 30 μT near the equator to 60 μT near the observed geomagnetic poles at 73°N 100°W and 68°S 143°E.

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ge·o·mag·net·ism / ˌjēōˈmagniˌtizəm/ • n. the branch of geology concerned with the magnetic properties of the earth. DERIVATIVES: ge·o·mag·net·ic / -ˌmagˈnetik/ adj. ge·o·mag·net·i·cal·ly / -ˌmagˈnetik(ə)lē/ adv.

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geomagnetism Branch of geophysics that studies Earth's magnetic field. Geomagnetism is thought to be caused by the metallic composition of Earth's core. The gradual movements of magnetic north result from currents within the mantle.

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geomagnetism: see magnetism.

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