600 BC - 1599

Humans discover the magnetic lodestone as well as the attracting properties of amber. Advanced societies, in particular the Chinese and the Europeans, exploit the properties of magnets in compasses, a tool that makes possible exploration of the seas, “new worlds” and the nature of Earth’s magnetic poles.

c. 600 BC

Discovering static electricity

lodestone Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus noted that amber attracts feathers and other lightweight materials when rubbed, the first historical reference to static electricity. He also experimented with the lodestone, or magnetite, and observed that it can attract iron.
c. 100 BC

Soothsaying stones

Lodestones are used in the divining boards of fortune tellers in China.
c. 50 BC

Waxing poetic on lodestones

In his long poem De Rerum Natura (“On the Nature of Things”), Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius relates the physical theory of Greek philosopher Epicurus, including his attempt at an explanation for the activity of the lodestone.

Compasses at sea

Chinese compassChinese astronomer and mathematician Shen Kua reports the use of magnetic compasses for navigation in Meng ch'i pi t'an (“Dream Pool Essays”).

Compasses in Europe

Alexander Neckam, an English monk, provides the earliest European account of the use of magnetic compasses by mariners in his text De utensilibus (“On Instruments”).

Experimenting with compasses

The French crusader Pierre de Maricourt, also known as Petrus Peregrinus, carries out simple experiments with magnets and writes his Epistola de magnete (“Letter on the magnet”), in which he discusses compasses, magnetic poles and the ability of strong magnets to reverse the polarity of weaker magnets.

Columbus's compass

During his voyage westward from Spain, Christopher Columbus reportedly observes that the declination of the magnetic needle of his compass changes midway across the ocean from easterly to westerly.

Cardano's discovery

Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardano recognizes that magnetism and the attraction of small objects to excited amber are distinct from one another.

Magnetic dip

Robert Norman, a British compass maker, describes the inclination or dip of a magnetic needle in The Newe Attractive, having measured the angle with a device of his own invention called the dip circle.

Earth's poles

Italian geographer Livio Sanuto first notes the idea that the Earth has two magnetic poles.
More in this category: 1600 - 1699 »