Permanent Magnets

Permanent magnets are known since ancient times. It took until the late middle ages, before a first description of the properties of magnets was written down. Magnets wre known at that time only from natural origin (often meteorite oar, which made them rare and expensive). These magnetic stones were clad with iron balls and thus gave the so-called lodestones. In 1269, Pierre de Maricourt wrote his famous epistola de magnete, which subsequently was circulated in at least fifty hand-written copies. It clearly described the attracting an repelling forces of a magnet. Pierre also found out that there are two different types of poles and defined for them the names north and south pole.

***image*** Whenever the word magnet is mentionend, many people have the classical horse shoe magnet in mind. This type was made of several separate layers of steel, which were magnetized separately. Then they were combined to form a stronger magnet. An old book on experimental physics gives these data about the forces for permanent magnets:
 Mass   Force 
1000kg 10000N

(Units transcribed into modern units)

***image*** Today, horse shoe magnets are rare and normally only sold as toys. Modern engineering demands other types and shapes and modern technology provides many variants of permanent magnets. Today's high-force magnets are not made of steel but of alloys like the famous AlNiCo. These magnets are considerably stronger than the classical mentioned before:
 Mass   Force 
1kg 3500N

Magnets seem to be a mystery even today due to their ability to cause forces on remote iron objects.

Modern magnats are not made by rubbing a steel bar on a permanent magnet, like this was done until the end of the nineteenth century. Making magnetic material is a science of its own, and the manufacturers guard their secrets. Normally, high-force magnets are produced by applying a very strong magnetic field onto the molten alloy and then cooling it down in a defined way. Because of the technical effort and complexity of the process, these magnets aren't cheap.


  An electro magnet basically consists of a coil made of wire. If current runs through the coil, a magnetic field is generated. The field strength depends from the number of windings of the coil, voltage and current and if the magnet has an iron core or not. An argument frequently issued by perpetual motion inventors, who compare permanent magnets with electromagnets of the same force runs this way: "The permanent magnet works for free. The electro magnet consumes power to produce the same force. This energy consumption can add up considerably over time. Thus the permanent magnet has an advantage over the electromagnet due to a hidden secret physics cannot explain or scientists are unwilling to reveal."
This sounds very convincing, but is simply wrong, at least for electro magnets powered by DC. If you unwind the magnet, throw the whole ratsnest randomly onto the ground, and then apply current, you will learn that it consumes the same power, but does not generate a magnetic field worth mentioning. Now: what is the reason for the difference between permanet magnet and electro magnet? The reason is electric resistance of the wire. If you had a wire with no resistance, you could power up the magnet and then disconnect it from the power supply after you closed the loop. This is no science fiction idea, but can be demonstrated in many laboratories all over the world. The magnet I've written of, is based on superconduction.

The main advantage of an electromagnet is the possibility to control its force.


Up to now, I've written about electromagnets powered by DC.

As transformers and electrodynamic machines are closely connected, you will find more material in the electrics section.

Magnetic Floating

For a long time, the opinion was that with static magnets a floating device cannot be built. With electromagnets and some electronic trickery, it is possible to keep a ferromagnetic object floating in the air by magnetic forces. The discovery of the effect on which the floating gyro "levitron" is based, came as a little surprise. This device is made of permanent magnets!


Funny enough, there is a report by Pliny the Elder from 79ad. Pliny mentiones a temple, where in a niche an iron statue is freely floating hold by the forces of magnetic lodestones.

Magnetic PMMs

Early suggestions were already made by Pierre de Maricourt, but the time when magnetic perpetual motion devices were extensively suggested, is the seventeenth century.

Further Reading

If you are interested in experiments with magnets, check the magnet man home page. The author has profound knowledge and offers a very wide range of magnetic experiments and some theory.
A good historical review can be found at yyy of the university of yyy.

Last update: 7 July 2003 /
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