Another Obscure Genius

Yesterday I was doing some reading and research on the history of electricity, and was rather surprised to learn the name of Hans Christian Oersted — who was the first to make the connection between electricity and magnetism in 1820.

I say I was “surprised” because until I encountered Oersted, my recollection was that it was the English scientist Michael Faraday who made this absolutely pivotal discovery in the 1830s.  In fact, this version of the story was rather emphatically reinforced recently on PBS.

Last month, PBS broadcast an episode of its long-running NOVA series about “Einstein’s Big Idea.”  The program was ostensibly a biography of Einstein, but was also an attempt to document the various discoveries over the previous centuries that brought Einstein in 1905 to the conclusion that “E=mc2.”  The program was based on the book “E=mc2:  A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation” by noted science historian David Bodanis, who was featured prominently in filmed interviews during the course or the NOVA program.

In describing the litany of discoveries that preceded Einstein’s equation, Bodanis goes into considerable depth about Michael Faraday, and Faraday’s life is portrayed in the movie.  There’s no question that Faraday’s discoveries were instrumental in transforming electricity from the curiosity it was in the 18th century into the industrial power that it became by the end of the 19th century.  But Bodanis just glosses over the discovery that inspired Faraday’s investigations.

In  the Faraday chapter his book, Bodanis writes,

…everyone knew that electricity and magnetism were as unrelated as
any two forces could be. Electricity was the crackling and hissing stuff that
came from batteries. Magnetism was different, an invisible force that made
navigators’ needles tug forward. Yet a lecturer in Copenhagen had now found
that if you switched on the current in an electric wire, any compass needle put
on top of the wire would turn slightly to the side.”

That’s it?  Just “a lecturer in Copenhagen” ?   One of the single most important discoveries in  all of history, and we don’t even get to know the discoverer’s name?

Well boys and girls, the unnamed “lecturer in Copenhagen” whose acute observations inspired Michael Farady to investigate the relationship between electricity and magnetism was the aforementioned Hans Christian Ørsted.

Since this website is dedicated to the recognition of “obscure” scientists, it seems fitting that we take a moment to recognize the contribution of the first man to observe the connection between magnetism and electrcity — especially since the story we are telling here is ostensibly about a man who, a century later, observed a connection between electricity and gravity.

They may have lived a century apart, but I dare say that T. Townsend Brown and Hans Christian Oersted would have enjoyed each other’s company.

1 thought on “Another Obscure Genius”

  1. Look even further back in time for that original thought. In 1802 an Italian economist working with a voltaic pile noted that connection between magnetism and electricity. Of course he was too far “ahead of his time” and soundly ignored. When he wasn’t ignored he was ridiculed. His name was Gian Domenico Romagnosi. I would venture a guess that the wellspring of knowledge reached out and touched him too , as it seems to do when a gifted individual is receptive to that knowledge. History shows though, sometimes they see too far ahead for the rest of society. Nice to know that with your work the name of Townsend Brown will not be among those forgotten. Keep up the good work. Mark

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