Posted: 23 April 2021

Electricity, Magnetism and Electromagnetism are all much more closely inter-related than teaching orders, specifications and exams sometimes imply. Certainly the traditional order of teaching begins with the phenomena as clearly separate entities at Key stage 3.

In this article I hope to share some useful resources and help tie these topics closely together. The first one is, of course, the spark website produced by the institute of physics:


What is a field?

In physics, we deal with forces and we need a language to describe the areas in which those forces would have effect. A field then is a region in which each point is affected by a force. Objects fall to the ground because they are affected by the force of earth’s gravitational field, if a magnet is causing an effect on a compass, for example, then the compass would be described as within the magnets magnetic field.

This concept of a field is often a hard one for students to swallow but there are several things we can do to show the field.

The first in these is an activity I like to do even at A-level; by placing plotting a plotting compass near a bar magnet it is possible to draw a chart or picture representing the effect of the magnet on the compass at any given point. We describe these illustrative lines as “field lines”.

Though it’s a common misconception, field lines are not real, though we talk of them as if they were because they are such a useful mental image.

The other classic visualisation, though fantastic, is often the cause of the misconception. By sprinkling iron filings round a magnet you can show the effect of the magnet at each of the points where there is a bit of iron. (top tip, put the magnet in a plastic bag before sprinkling)

it’s worth taking a slight sidetrack here – Iron, steel, nickel and cobalt are magnetic materials. They are affected by magnets and are attracted to either pole of a magnet. These materials can be made Permanent magnets or induced magnets.
Permanent magnet always causes a force on other magnets, or on magnetic materials. Key features of a permanent magnet:
In the image above the bar magnet is a permanent magnet. The iron filings on the other hand are  induced magnets. They are magnetic, but only because they are  placed in a magnetic field. The induced magnetism is quickly lost when the magnet is removed from the magnetic field. Induced magnets:


One of the great mysteries of Physics is the fact that the effects of the permanent and induced magnets mentioned above can be reproduced with only a wire and a current. In fact there’s a classic investigation where a set-up like this:

is used to pick up various numbers of paperclips. It would be tempting to think that this was a “different kind” of magnetism, however it’s the same effect, the same force. In fact if you put a magnet and a solenoid of the same strength field each into boxes, there would be no possible way to differentiate them from their magnetic properties.

We had better start from the beginning –

Oersted made the discovery for which he is famous in 1820. At the time, most scientists thought electricity and magnetism were not related, though there were some indicators to the contrary – it had long been known that a compass, for example, when struck by lightning, could reverse polarity. Oersted had previously noted a similarity between thermal radiation and light, though he did not determine that both are electromagnetic waves. He seems to have believed that electricity and magnetism were forces radiated by all substances, and these forces might somehow interfere with each other. He was not far off!

The discovery that bears his name came about during the setup for a lecture demonstration, on April 21, 1820. Oersted noticed that when he turned on an electric current by connecting the wire to both ends of the battery, a compass needle held nearby deflected away from magnetic north, where it normally pointed. The compass needle moved only slightly, so slightly that the audience didn’t even notice. But it was clear to Oersted that something significant was happening.

A few months later he published his results in a pamphlet, which was circulated privately to physicists and scientific societies. His results were mainly qualitative, but the effect was clear–an electric current generates a magnetic force. The publication caused an immediate sensation, and raised Oersted’s status as a scientist. Others began investigating the newly found connection between electricity and magnetism.

French physicist André Ampère developed a mathematical law to describe the magnetic forces between current carrying wires for whom we name the Amp and about a decade later Michael Faraday demonstrated that a changing magnetic field induces an electric current. Following Faraday’s work, James Clerk Maxwell developed Maxwell’s equations, formally unifying electricity and magnetism and in turn formalised the fundamental nature of the speed of light spawning relativity!


Thanks to Oersted we know that every current generates a magnetic field. This field is at 90 degrees to the current and is easily predicted, or remembered by using the right hand grip rule – To use the right hand grip rule, point your right thumb in the direction of the current’s flow and curl your fingers. The direction of your fingers will mirror the curled direction of the induced magnetic field: 
We are familiar with the idea of two permanent magnets interacting – and we know that all magnetic fields are indifferentiable – so it should follow logically that this magnetic field will interact with any magnet nearby.

We can calculate the strength of this interaction using one of Fleming’s excellent mnemonics –  the left-hand rule for electric motors.When current flows through a conducting wire, and an external magnetic field is applied across that flow, the conducting wire experiences a force perpendicular both to that field and to the direction of the current flow (i.e they are mutually perpendicular). A left hand can be held, as shown in the illustration below, so as to represent three mutually orthogonal axes on the thumb, fore finger and middle finger. Each finger is then assigned to a quantity (mechanical force, magnetic field and electric current). The right and left hand are used for generators and motors respectively.

The force F on the wire in Figure 4 can be shown to be proportional to
(a) the current on the wire I,
(b) the length of the conductor in the field L,
(c) the sine of the angle θ that the conductor makes with the field , and
(d) the strength of the field – this is measured by a quantity known as the magnetic flux density B of the field.
To calculate the magnitude of this force:
F = BIL sin θ
A nice demonstration of this interaction comes in the form of Pohl’s swing (The motor Effect) shown below. When a current is passed through the wire, the interaction causes the wire to swing in the direction predicted by the left hand rule. 

The simplest motor:

Now that we have the difficult bit out of the way (the idea that electricity and magnetism interact) it’s relatively easy to build devices that exploit this effect. The simplest motor is probably the homopolar motor:

Though it’s possible to show it in all manner of fantastic ways:


More complex motors:

The rotary electric motors that power so much of our world are the very same physics as above, the only complex part is how to stop the wires of the coils from tangling up as the motor spins – this is accomplished by the commutator, the function of which can be seen below.

It can be tempting to try and build a rotary electric motor in the classroom however this is best avoided – the mechanical sensitivity of the commutator makes it hard to produce a satisfactorily working motor in any reasonable time. Luckily for us there’s a fantastic application that really lends itself to classroom manufacture – the speaker:

Bruce Yeany has a great video on paper speakers here:


Lenz’s law 

As with so many things in physics – there is a mirror to the motor effect. The work of Faraday tells us that “Any change in the magnetic environment of a coil of wire will cause a voltage (emf) to be “induced” in the coil”.

In other words, no matter how the change is produced, a voltage will be generated. The change could be produced by changing the magnetic field strength, moving a magnet toward or away from the coil, moving the coil into or out of the magnetic field, rotating the coil relative to the magnet, etc.

Phet has a great simulation of this:

In practical terms this means that any electric motor, which takes a changing current and produces rotation can be run in reverse as a generator. In fact this is all that a generator is. Spinning the coil moves it back and forth through a magnetic field which causes a current to be induced in the wire.


It’s a small step from realising that the effect is reversible to the transformer, a device that uses this interchange between oscillating magnetic and electric to useful effect, either increasing voltage or decreasing it.

$$\frac{primary~voltage}{secondary~voltage} = \frac{number~of~turns~on~primary~coil}{number~of~turns~on~secondary~coil}$$
$$\left [ \frac{V_p}{V_s} = \frac{N_p}{N_s}\right ]$$
This blog post is already longer than expected and I’d like to finish by tying in the Electromagnetic spectrum.
In this image, a magnetic handle is used to move a magnetic brush inside an aquarium.
JRing Fish Tank Cleaner Brush, Floating Aquarium Magnetic Fish Tank Glass Algae Scrubber Cleaner Brush Tools: Amazon.co.uk: Pet Supplies
But how does the magnet inside the aquarium know the one outside has moved? – it must be true that one is affecting the other. They are technically exchanging information. If you wiggle the handle back and forth the brush also wiggles. This IS electromagnetism. The brush and handle are exchanging electromagnetic information – remember that a wave is a transfer of energy/information. If you were to move them further apart, the effect would become less pronounced but would still be there. At some point you would need to use very sensitive measuring equipment to detect the oscillation.
In a radio transmitter the electrons move back and forth causing all of the other electrons within their influence that are free to move to oscillate in response – as always Phet has a great simulation:
To conclude then, all this time you have been reading, the magnets and wires in a turbine have been transferring energy from steam through induction, this has been stepped-up and down by transformers using the same technology. Eventually this has caused electrons in the screen to wiggle back and forth causing electrons in your eyes to wiggle back and forth and your brain has interpreted the rest. Isn’t the universe amazing!

Triangle mountains