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How To Repeat Hans Christian Oersted's Experiment with Magnetic Fields


19th century Magnetic compass, close-up
Kim Steele/ Photodisc/ Getty Images
In 1820, Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851) proved electric current can affect a compass needle. However,Oersted could not explain why.
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: thirty minutes

Here's How:

  1. Lay the compass on a table, face upwards. Wait until it points north.
  2. Lay the middle of the wire above the compass needle, also in the north-south direction (compare to the above image "What Oersted Saw"). Bend the ends of the wire so that they are close to each other.
  3. Grab one end of the wire in one hand and press against one end of the battery.
  4. Grab the other end with your other hand, and press momentarily against the other terminal of the battery. The needle will swing strongly by 90 degrees.
  5. Quickly disconnect (it is not good for the battery to draw such a large current). The needle will swing back to the north-south direction.
  6. Note that no iron is involved in producing the magnetic effect!
  7. Repeat with the connections of the battery reversed. Note that the needle now swings 90 degrees in the opposite direction.
  8. Take a piece of paper 2"x4" (5x10 centimeters) and fold the longer side into pleats, about 3/8" (1 centimeter) high. Put the wire on the table, its middle in the north south direction, put the pleated paper above it so that the wire is below one of the pleats, and place the compass on top of the pleats. (Or else, use a small block of wood, with a groove cut in its bottom for the wire.)
  9. You can now repeat the experiment with the compass above the wire (if two people perform the experiment, they need no pleats or table--one can old the compass, the other the wire and battery). Note that the needle swings in the opposite direction than when the compass was below the wire.

What You Need

  • A pocket compass
  • A one-foot (30 cm) length of fairly thick wire, insulated or bare.
  • A 1.5 volt electric cell ("battery") of size "D" or "C".
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