Story type: Essay
HOW WILD SUPERSTITION SETTLES DOWN INTO SCIENTIFIC REALITY
Everybody knows something of the peculiarities of the magnet. As a boy you led tiny painted ducks around the water basin, holding a magnet in your hand, or you owned a horseshoe magnet that would pick up nails and needles.
You know now in a general kind of way that the magnet is a very useful as well as a somewhat mysterious thing.
The old Greeks and Romans simply knew that some remarkable iron ore found in Lydia, near the town of Magnesia, and hence called magnet, was capable of drawing and holding pieces of metal.
The ancients had the wildest theories concerning the magnet, just as we have wild theories about things that are new and strange to us to-day.
They thought that the magnet could be used in cases of sickness, that it could attract wood and flesh, that it influenced the human brain, causing melancholy. They believed that the power of a magnet could be destroyed by rubbing garlic on it, and that power brought back again by dipping the magnet in goat’s blood. They believed that a magnet could be used to detect bad conduct in a woman; they believed that it would not attract iron in the presence of a diamond. They believed much other nonsense quite as ridiculous as the nonsense that we believe to-day. —-
It must have seemed a great waste of time in wise men in the old days to discuss the magnet or think about it at all. Please observe how the apparent nonsense of early speculation finally ripens into actual utility, and learn to respect those who deal as best they can with questions that seem beyond our comprehension.
First the magnet was made actually and wonderfully useful in the compass. Who discovered the compass nobody knows. It was probably invented by the Chinese and brought to Europe through the Arabs. Anyhow, some genius found out that a small needle brought in contact with the so-called lodestone, or magnetic ore, absorbs the qualities of the lodestone, and when placed on a pivot will always point to the north.
In the magnet there were and there still are many mysteries. A form of perpetual motion seems to be embodied in the principle of magnetism. One strange fact is this, that the weight of the metal is exactly the same before it is magnetized and after it is magnetized.
Early students thought that the magnet pointed toward some particular spot in the sky, perhaps some magnetic star. One genius felt sure that there must be huge mountains of lodestone near the North Pole. This suggestion was followed by ingenious yarns to the effect that in the extreme North ships had to be built with wooden nails, instead of iron nails, as the magnetic mountains would draw the iron nails out of the ship.
After this came the more rational conception that our own earth is a great magnet, and that the little magnet in the compass simply obeys in pointing, the greater force of the earth magnet. —-
This editorial generalizing on the magnet is brought about by an incident telegraphed from Vallejo, California. John Gettegg, apprentice in the Navy Yard, had imbedded in his cheek a flying piece of steel. To get it out would apparently have demanded a painful and difficult surgical operation, as the piece of steel had entered the bone. But the head electrician, Petrio, simply placed near the wounded boy’s face an electro-magnet capable of lifting five hundred pounds, and the sharp piece of steel instantly flew out of the cheek and attached itself to the magnet.
So much for one proof of the value of developing what may seem at first to be a foolish set of experiments.
In thousands of ways to-day this magnetic power is utilized.
You can buy strawberries in baskets very cheap, partly because the baskets cost very little for labor. The man who tacks them together uses a magnetized tack hammer. This magnetic tack hammer picks up the tacks of its own accord, and the man drives them in the basket as fast as he can touch the magnet to the heads of the tacks and strike the basket.
In the great steel works where armor plate is made powerful magnets are used to carry the hot plates from one place to another. The magnet lifts up the hot, soft metal without denting it or damaging it and drops it down where it is wanted. The power which moves trolley cars through the streets is nothing in reality but an application of the force of the magnetic principle. —-
That the earth itself is a great magnet cannot be questioned. And there is no doubt that each of us human beings is a compound magnet on his own account, depending for his welfare on magnetic force.
The millions of red corpuscles in the blood, each with its infinitesimal particles of iron, absorb in the lungs and distribute throughout the body the electric forces on which we depend, and with which we do our work.
When you read of men and women dealing in a blundering kind of a way with abstract, abstruse speculations and problems, do not laugh at them too heartily. They are no more ridiculous than the old Greeks who thought that a magnet could be regulated by garlic or goat’s blood. And their wild theories of to-day may settle down into great utility centuries from now. This applies to Christian Science, faith cures, telepathy, and the many other speculations of the present day. There is unquestionably much future fruit and value in many or all of them.