Although conceived of as distinct phenomena until the 19th century, electricity and magnetism are now known to be components of the unified theory of electromagnetism.
A connection between electricity and magnetism had long been suspected, and in 1820 the Danish physicist Hans Christian Orsted showed that an electric current flowing in a wire produces its own magnetic field. Andre-Marie Ampere of France immediately repeated Orsted’s experiments and within weeks was able to express the magnetic forces between current-carrying conductors in a simple and elegant mathematical form. He also demonstrated that a current flowing in a loop of wire produces a magnetic dipole indistinguishable at a distance from that produced by a small permanent magnet; this led Ampere to suggest that magnetism is caused by currents circulating on a molecular scale, an idea remarkably near the modern understanding.


Faraday, in the early 1800’s, showed that a changing electric field produces a magnetic field, and that vice-versa, a changing magnetic field produces an electric current. An electromagnet is an iron core which enhances the magnetic field generated by a current flowing through a coil, was invented by William Sturgeon in England during the mid-1820s. It later became a vital component of both motors and generators.

The unification of electric and magnetic phenomena in a complete mathematical theory was the achievement of the Scottish physicist Maxwell (1850’s). In a set of four elegant equations, Maxwell formalized the relationship between electric and magnetic fields. In addition, he showed that a linear magnetic and electric field can be self-reinforcing and must move at a particular velocity, the speed of light. Thus, he concluded that light is energy carried in the form of opposite but supporting electric and magnetic fields in the shape of waves, i.e. self-propagating electromagnetic waves.

In doing this, Maxwell moved physics to a new realm of understanding. By using field theory as the core to electromagnetism, we have moved beyond a Newtonian worldview where objects change by direct contact and into a theory that uses invisible fields. This introduces a type of understanding which can only be described with a type of mathematics that cannot be directly translated into language. In other words, scientists where restricted in talking about electromagnetic phenomenon strictly through the use of a new type of language, one of pure math.

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