The ancient Greeks are said to have discovered magnets, due to the work of the Greek philosopher Thale, in the 6th century BC. The Greeks hung thin pieces of lodestone to a thread so that it could swing freely and point towards the earth’s north pole and work as a basic direction finder.
Lodestones, also known as ‘leading stones’, are naturally occurring magnetic rocks found in Turkey and Greece. The name ‘magnet’ actually comes from Magnesia, a district in Thessaly, Greece where it is believed that the first lodestone was mined.
It wasn’t just the Greeks experimenting with magnets – the Chinese are said to have created the first maritime compass using magnets around 4500 years ago.
Up until the 1600s, not much was known about magnets and why they worked the way they did. The first man to try and find out was Dr William Gilbert. He researched the properties of lodestones and came up with the theory that magnets have a north and a south pole, just like the earth.
The first artificial magnets were created in 1740 by Gowen Knight and made from magnetised steel. These magnets were then sold to navigators and scientists throughout Europe.
The modern form of the magnet was created during the 20th century, including samarium cobalt (SmCo), created by Dr. Karl J. Strnat in 1966 at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in America. For more information on SmCo magnets, see our page: What are magnets made of?