What Were the First Magnets?
The first magnets were stones found in ancient times near the city of magnesia in Syria. The stones were a type of iron ore called magnetite. Traditionally, the ancient Greeks were the discoverers of magnetite. This hard black mineral has the property of attracting other bits of iron. It is an iron oxide that is easily magnetized when it forms. Magnetite is also known as Lodestone. Today’s steel magnets are far stronger than pieces of magnetite.
The early Greeks called this iron ore (magnes, there is a story about a shepherd named Magnes whose shoe nails stuck to a rock containing magnetite), from which our modern words, magnet and magnetism, are derived. Long ago, people found that magnetite would point to the north and south when the stone was hung from a string.
This major discovery made compasses possible. The Vikings invented the first practical magnetic compass and used it extensively in their travels to colonize or in war. This enabled them to cross oceans to reach the new world and to invade England at will, even in the dense fog. The Vikings kept the existence of the magnetic compass a secret.
The Chinese also invented the magnetic compass, probably earlier than the Vikings. After commercial trade with China was started by the Italians, especially after Marco Polo’s trip, the magnetic compass was introduced to the rest of Europe. This made possible the exploration of the oceans by the Europeans, and still all ships large and small use magnetic compasses to navigate.