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What took electromagnetism so long to be discovered?

  1. Dec 24, 2012 #1
    From a historical point of view, I don't see how people like Newton were studying the solar system and the effects of gravity on the moon before figuring out the electromagnetic phenomenon. It seems like it would be much harder to study the orbits of the planets than electricity, since at least the electricity could be harnessed on earth, whereas figuring out jupiters orbital patterns would be extremely difficult.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 24, 2012 #2
    Sure electricity is 'harnessed' to the Earth, but the effects of gravity are constant and visible. The effects of electromagnetism while they are always present, they are not always observed. Surely something that effects EVERYONES everyday life would naturally be studied first.
  4. Dec 24, 2012 #3


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    Batteries weren't invented until 1800 by Volta which would be the first ingredient to discovery and then Faraday discovered it in 1831 or thereabouts.

    see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Faraday
  5. Dec 24, 2012 #4


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    Not until there was a reliable way of storing it. The Leyden jar was invented about 1745. That was when electrical research really started to take off. Benjamin Franklin's Experiments and Observations on Electricity was published in 1751.
  6. Dec 25, 2012 #5
    For hundreds of years after Galileo stressed the importance of empirical evidence experiments often remained little more than parlor tricks performed for wealthy audiences and given elaborate metaphysical explanations to satisfy their curiosity. Newton himself practiced alchemy and the fact his theory of motion was 95% accurate blew everybody's mind. Slowly a more methodical mechanistic approach became a lot more attractive, but it still required time for the idea to catch on and the genius of Volta and Faraday as jedshrfu points out to take that next step.

    A similar trend was the advent of Big Science in the 1920s when industries began investing heavily into researching washing machines, cars, and all the other gizmos of modern civilization. They could have done so at any point in history, but suddenly it became a sure bet with the newly acquired 95% literacy rate and success of such inventors as Thomas Edison. At one point Henry Ford raised the salary of his assembly line workers from a dollar a day to five dollars just so he could sell him the same cars they made. It's very much a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps affair that sometimes takes awhile to get right.
  7. Dec 25, 2012 #6


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    I seem to remember that Ørsted discovered the relationship between electricity and magnetism. He was building on the successes of those who developed sources of electricity, or electric current.

    3. Hans Christian Ørsted (1997). Karen Jelved, Andrew D. Jackson, and Ole Knudsen, translators from Danish to English. Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted, ISBN 0-691-04334-5, pp.421-445
    4. Martins, Roberto de Andrade, "Resistance to the discovery of electromagnetism: Ørsted and the symmetry of the magnetic field", in: Fabio Bevilacqua & Enrico Giannetto (eds.), Volta and the History of Electricity, Pavia / Milano, Università degli Studi di Pavia / Editore Ulrico Hoepli, 2003, pp. 245-265. (Collana di Storia della Scienza) ISBN 88-203-3284-1

    http://ppp.unipv.it/Collana/Pages/L...tory of Electricity/V&H Sect3/V&H 245-265.pdf
  8. Dec 25, 2012 #7
    Are you implying Newton got motion right by accident? If not, what are you saying?

    Newton and the other members of the Royal Society were conducting rigorous experiments in mechanics on the lines of Galileo less than a hundred years after Galileo's death. Newton never proposed any "theory of motion". He asserted the three laws as axiomatic (and attributed their discovery to the joint efforts of Galileo and the other members of the Royal Society). What blew people away was his case for "Universal Gravitation". Before Newton no one was sure if gravity was a purely terrestrial phenomenon or if other planets and the sun also had it. He tediously proved that if we ascribed gravity to all masses it explained the motion of the planets.
  9. Dec 25, 2012 #8
    I think it's because explorers generally try to search outwards towards the stars rather then inwards themselves.
  10. Dec 25, 2012 #9


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    In fact, Galileo died 8 January 1642, and Newton was born 25 December the same year (according to the Julian calendar). Newton's birthday was 4 January 1643 in the 'corrected' Gregorian calendar. (The Gregorian calendar was not adopted in England until 1752.) http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Biographies/Newton.html


    There is this - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_electromagnetic_theory (I dislike having to resort to Wikipedia). One should corroborate with other, hopefully more reliable, sources.

  11. Dec 25, 2012 #10
    In this universe the laws of motion include gravity and the standards of the time were about as relaxed as they could be to encourage progress. Newton's Opticks in particular was a borderline case.
  12. Dec 25, 2012 #11
    Yes. Newton told Halley he had calculated that an orbit caused by mutual gravitation had to be an ellipse back in 1666, which is about a mere 24 years after Galileo. Huygens determined that momentum was a conserved quantity in 1657, fourteen years after Galileo. I'm sure we could assemble a huge list of discoveries resulting from rigorous experiments in all the sciences that disproves the notion Galileo's scientific method was ignored for "hundreds of years".
  13. Dec 25, 2012 #12


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    Not sure I follow your post, but while it's true science progresses in fits and starts I wouldn't dismiss things that happened "hundreds of years" after Galileo. As Astronuc mentioned, significant progress was made in the 17th century. And Newton was not simply playing parlor tricks!
  14. Dec 26, 2012 #13
    The OP asked why electromagnetism was ignored for so long. Even by this logic it wasn't so much ignored as merely difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff and academia was understaffed for the job. Sure, we'd all like to claim academia has never had its own quacks and nut cases, funding problems, and all sorts of problems, but it has never been true and in Newton's day it was even more of a problem. The amazing thing is how rapidly they made progress under the conditions and to this day Faraday is celebrated as having used the equivalent of "Bear claws and stone knives" to work his magic.
  15. Dec 26, 2012 #14


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    At the time of Newton, there was already a legacy of celestial observation. For example, Tycho Brahe (14 December 1546 – 24 October 1601), the Danish nobleman, made accurate and comprehensive astronomical and planetary observations. (Ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tycho_Brahe, http://galileo.rice.edu/sci/brahe.html, http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/history/brahe.html, http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Mathematicians/Brahe.html )

    In fact, the legacy of astronomy goes back to BCE to folks like Hipparchus, followed by Ptolemy - http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/starry/hipparchus.html

    Nice reference - http://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/starry/starrymessenger.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Gilbert_(astronomer [Broken])

    BTW - Gilbert was a contemporary of Galileo, and apparently Gilbert inspired Galileo.

    March 20, 1800: Volta describes the Electric Battery

    Not exactly. The OP asked why the discovery of electromagnetism took so long as compared to the understanding of planetary orbits.

    Scientific discovery is a progression. Sometimes the progress is hampered by old ideas/prejudices, or perhaps by a lack of funds, or by a lack of a population of students, or by slow communications. At other times, there is a leap/surge in discovery when one discovery sets off others.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  16. Dec 26, 2012 #15
    Feynman (in his lectures) gave a take on the topic something like this:

    It's because of the precision of the cancelation of the negative and positive charges in electrostatics that makes the effects of electricity so profoundly difficult to detect in ordinary life. Magnetism, on the other hand, has to deal not only with this balancing effect, but also the hard to detect nature due to it being a relativistic effect of the electric field. It is, however, more noticeable than the time/space dilation effects of special relativity, but only because the strength of electrical forces is absolutely huge, so as a consequence we can detect magnetic fields from relatively slow moving electrically charged particles (and we did detect magnetism well before special relativity considerations.)
  17. Dec 26, 2012 #16
    Before Galileo no one appreciated scientific rigor. He gave that to science and he also simultaneously managed to make himself the center of the huge storm of church vs science controversy with his views on a heliocentric 'universe'. He made planetary motion the hot issue and anyone who was anyone went after that fruit, so to speak. Newton plucked it. Electromagnetism came next and between Faraday and Maxwell it was firmly integrated into classical physics.

    So, the reason may well lie in the timing of the invention of the telescope. Without it Galileo might have turned his spare attention to magnets and amber. You never know.
  18. Dec 26, 2012 #17


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    According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_the_history_of_scientific_method#1st_through_12th_centuries, there are examples of people employing scientific rigor, or at least, some form of the 'scientific method'. Perhaps it was few and far between.
  19. Dec 26, 2012 #18
    There were certainly plenty of rigorous thinkers all through history before Galileo, and Galileo owes a huge debt to Euclid and Archimedes. In his day, though, science was completely dominated by Aristotelian thinking which completely ignored experimentation. Galileo showed that way of doing science lead to ridiculous conclusions not supported by anything in the real world.
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