Hans Christian Oersted launched a new epoch in science when he discovered that electricity and magnetism are linked. He showed by experiment that an electric current flowing through a wire could move a nearby magnet. The discovery of electromagnetism set the stage for the eventual development of our modern technology-based world. Oersted also discovered the chemical compound piperine and achieved the first isolation of the element aluminum.
Hans Christian Oersted (Ørsted in Danish) was born in the small town of Rudkøbing on the island of Langeland, Denmark, on August 14, 1777. His father was Soeren Christian Oersted, a pharmacist, and his mother was Karen Hermandsen.
Hans and his younger brother Anders were educated through a combination of home schooling and private tutors – one a German wigmaker who, among other things, taught the brothers to speak fluent German. Anders would one day become Prime Minister of Denmark.
Hans became interested in chemistry at the age of 12 after he started helping in his father’s pharmacy. At the age of 16 he passed the entrance exam for the University of Copenhagen. There he studied pharmacology, graduating in 1796 at age 19.
Three more years of work allowed him to graduate with a Ph.D. Today most awards of Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) are not actually made for researching philosophy, but Hans Christian Oersted’s was. The philosophy in this case was Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of nature, which as we’ll see, helped shape Oersted’s view of the world.
The Science of Hans Christian Oersted
By the year 1800 Oersted had become a pharmacy manager. In this year a scientific revolution began. Alessandro Volta announced details of his battery, opening new scientific horizons for chemists and physicists. Volta’s battery enabled scientists to produce a steady flow of electricity for the first time and, happily, the materials needed to build one were easily obtained.
Oersted dived into the new science and, in 1801, published a scientific paper describing a new battery he had invented. He also described a method for calculating the amount of electric current flowing by measuring the rate of gas production when electricity was used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Oersted was given funding by the Danish government to further his education in other European countries; he spent the years 1801 to 1803 in Germany and France.
In Germany he became influenced by the ideas of the philosopher Friedrich Schelling who believed all of nature was unified. Rather grandly, Schelling believed scientists should strive to find the theory underlying all of nature rather than using experiments to study isolated parts of nature.
Oersted absorbed much of Schelling’s philosophy of science, but disagreed with Schelling’s disdain for experimental work. Oersted had learned too much respect for practical work as a pharmacist to ignore the power of an experiment. However, he shared Schelling’s enthusiasm for the unity of nature.
In the German city of Jena, Oersted met and befriended the German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter. They shared a common interest in electricity. Ritter was also enthusiastic about Schelling’s philosophy of an underlying harmony of nature; in particular he was convinced that electricity and magnetism were closely linked.
After returning from his travels, Oersted was funded by the Danish government to continue his research work. In 1806, aged 29, he became a professor of physics at the University of Copenhagen. He was an excellent lecturer and students flocked to his classes. Sometimes he lectured for as many as five hours a day – a very heavy load. In addition to lecturing he established physics and chemistry laboratories for research and teaching.
Discovery of Electromagnetism
Oersted’s famous experiment, showing that electricity and magnetism are linked, took place during a lecture on April 21, 1820, when Oersted was 42 years old.
In this experiment he passed electric current through a wire, which caused a nearby magnetic compass needle to move.
Over the next few months Oersted carried out more experiments, discovering that electric current produces a circular magnetic effect around it.
Oersted announced his discovery on July 21, 1820, in a paper consisting of four pages of Latin, which was soon translated into most of the main European languages. In English Oersted’s paper had the title Experiments on the Effect of a Current of Electricity on the Magnetic Needle.
By September 1820 François Arago was demonstrating the electromagnetic effect to France’s scientific elite at the French Academy, which almost immediately led André-Marie Ampère to take the next great steps in the story of electromagnetism.
Just as Volta’s invention of the battery had opened new horizons in physics and chemistry, Oersted’s discovery of a link between electricity and magnetism unleashed a revolution in physics leading us into our current digital world.
The British Royal Society awarded Oersted the 1820 Copley Medal, the greatest prize in science, for his discovery of electromagnetism. Previous prize winners included Benjamin Franklin and Alessandro Volta. The French Academy sent Oersted 3000 gold francs.
Was Oersted First?
It is sometimes claimed electromagnetism was actually discovered by Italian jurist (and physics enthusiast) Gian Domenico Romagnosi.
In 1802 two Italian newspapers carried accounts from Romagnosi of a magnetic needle deflecting near a battery he had built.
Today, looking at his method, it is clear Romagnosi’s experiment did not involve a complete electric circuit, so electric current could not have flowed. Without current, there can have been no electromagnetic effect.
The needle in Romagnosi’s experiment was probably deflected by a build-up of static electric charges on the needle; the needle moved as a result of the mutual repulsion of alike electric charges.
So, Oersted was first.
Oersted’s Chemistry and the Isolation of Aluminum
Although a professor of physics, Oersted, with his pharmacological background, was drawn to chemistry.
At first he was opposed to Antoine Lavoisier’s concept of using the chemical elements as a means of rationalizing and understanding chemistry. Oersted looked for something more in harmony with the ‘everything should be governed by a single law of nature’ ideas of Friedrich Schelling.
He also sought to anchor chemistry in the ideas of philosopher Immanuel Kant, whose work he had studied enthusiastically for his doctoral thesis. Kant believed matter could be divided infinitely (i.e. there were no atoms) and that all matter was constructed from two fundamental, opposing forces, which were in equilibrium with one another.
For a time this led the young Professor Oersted to promote the fanciful theories of the Hungarian chemist Jakob Joseph Winterl, who believed all of chemistry could be understood by the opposing forces of two (fictitious) substances – Andronia (the principle of acidity) and Thelycke (the principle of alkalinity). Winterl believed these substances were more fundamental than the elements.
After abandoning his adherence to Winterl’s ideas, Oersted made a number of important contributions to chemistry.
In 1819 he discovered piperine, the chemical compound responsible for the strong, sharp flavor of black pepper.
His most significant contribution was the first ever isolation of the element aluminum. In 1825 he reported:
a lump of metal which in color and luster somewhat resembles tin.
He produced aluminum by reducing aluminum chloride with a potassium-mercury amalgam.
Today, when we hear the words Thought Experiment, we often think of Albert Einstein’s famous thought experiments which guided him towards his theories of relativity.
A thought experiment consists of asking “what if…?” and then logically thinking through the consequences.
Oersted was actually the first person to use the German term made famous by Einsten: Gedankenexperiment.
The Other Famous Hans Christian
Hans Christian Oersted became great friends with the Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson before the writer became famous. Oersted became a champion for Anderson’s fairy tales, helping to get them published in 1835.
Some Personal Details and the End
In 1814 Oersted married Inger Birgitte Ballum, the daughter of a pastor, and in the following years the couple had three sons and four daughters.
Hans Christian Oersted died aged 73 on March 9, 1851, in Copenhagen after a short illness.
He was buried in the Assistens Cemetery in the Copenhagen suburb of Noerrebro. This is also the final resting place of the physicist Niels Bohr, writer Hans Christian Andersen, and philosopher Soeren Kierkegaard.
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