A physics history-mystery: magnetism from light?

As I’ve noted in previous posts, one of the fun things about researching historical scientific papers is the unexpected places the investigation can take you.   Often a simple search on a straightforward topic will start a chain reaction of increasingly interesting discoveries, comparable to a trip to the grocery store ending up in Machu Picchu.  Case in point:  I’ve been doing a series of posts about the research of Michael Faraday (see here and here), but I have yet to write about the paper that originally interested me in the subject!  Too many other intriguing observations keep getting in the way.

Case in point in case in point: I’ve been looking into Faraday’s contribution to the understanding that light is an electromagnetic wave.  That investigation led me to some early work by other researchers on the light/magnetism connection, and led me in turn to a puzzler: how significant and accurate is that earlier research?  I don’t have a good answer, so I will pose the questions to the physics/blog community in the post.

In another example of “chewing the textbook cardboard” (h/t Brian and Blake), James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) is usually credited as the scientist who “demonstrated that electricity, magnetism and even light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon,” through his 1864 publication of his eponymous set of equations.

This is, unsurprisingly, a bit of an oversimplification. Maxwell made a huge leap forward by demonstrating that the electromagnetic equations supported waves traveling at the speed of light, which he then associated with light itself.  However, a rather cursory look at the journals of the 1800s shows that people had been contemplating a connection between light and electromagnetism for at least 50 years before Maxwell!

The most definitive illustration of this relationship was shown by Faraday in 1845, when he showed that light passing through a material will have its polarization rotated by the application of a magnetic field, a phenomenon known as Faraday rotation.  I’ll be coming back to discuss Faraday rotation in its own post, if nothing else completely sidetracks me!

Faraday himself cites a number of other, earlier, experiments which seemed to suggest a relationship between light and magnetism, and it is these earlier experiments which puzzle me.

The first of these was performed somewhere around 1812 by Professor Domenico Lino Morichini (also written Morrichini) of Rome.  Though I have been unable to find Morichini’s original reference (if there is one), other scientists have given detailed descriptions of the method.  In short, Morichini claimed to have magnetized iron by illuminating it with violet light derived from sunlight!  From an article by Mr. J. Murray, “On Aphlogistic Phænomena and the Magnetism of Violet Light,” Philosophical Magazine 53 (1819), 268:

There is another very interesting discovery on which I have expressed a degree of surprise, since amply removed.  I advert to the communication of magnetic powers to a steel bar by violet light, announced by Dr. Morrichini of Rome.  On my return from Naples, I had the pleasure of seeing the Professor.  He has succeeded in magnetizing no less than seventy-four steel bars, and was so good as to present me with one so treated.  It is attractive of iron filings, and possesses a high polarity.  The following is recorded on the wrapper, descriptive of the circumstances which accompanied the experiment.  — “Adi 1 7bre 1812.  Num. 3, Essuendo il tempo nuvolo ed umido non è seguita l’esperienza, anzi l’ago perdette quella piccola virtù magnetica che avea acquistata il giorno precedente.  Avendolo posto alle solite prove il giorno dopo, si è calamitato al solito.”

It is by no means necessary (as Professor Playfair has stated) that the needle rest in the magnetic plane; for Professor Morrichini assured me that he had succeeded with the needle in various positions on the horizontal level, and even vertical and more or less inclined.  The bright solar beam admitted by a convenient aperture is received by the prism.  The prism is then turned upon its axis so as to insulate the violet light, and the ray is then projected on the needle by means of a lens possessing considerable convexity, and about three inches diameter.  For the rest I beg to give you a few abridged extracts from Professor Morrichini’s memoir, entitled, “Secondo Memoria sopra la forza magnetizante del lembo estremo del raggio violetto,” &c. &c. not published.  The red ray of the spectrum does not magnetize, nor the light of combustible bodies, inflamed.  The violet light of the lunar beam has given in twelve hours magnetic properties more decisive than the solar red in seven hours and a half.

Dr. Morrichini thus concludes, page 32, his interesting memoir: “The chemical and violet rays are never separated, and the intensity of the violet rays may proportionally announce those of the chemical.  Terrestrial bodies may absorb from the solar rays the magnetic fluid as they absorb light and caloric, which two fluids are concerned in their decomposition and recomposition.  Iron then may be with regard to the magnetic fluid what pyrophorus is with regard to caloric, and natural phosphori with respect to light.”  This beautiful discovery may be said to throw a new light upon light.

Here we can see what seems to be a hint of the electromagnetic nature of light, practically stated as such in the last paragraph.  However, the research seems too good to be true.  Certainly light-sensitive magnets exist, but I have never heard of a material as mundane as steel possessing properties of photoinduced magnetization.  One would be tempted to dismiss the experiment entirely, but the results were apparently reproduced by M. Somerville, “On the magnetizing power of the more refrangible solar rays,” Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. 116 (1826), 132.  After that, I have so far been only able to find one other reference to this work, which suggests that the experiments were later dismissed.  Were they dismissed because they were completely wrong, though, or because it turned out the relationship between light and magnetization was not a direct one?  For instance, did a heating of the metal allow the Earth’s magnetic field to somehow perform the magnetization?

Faraday seems to have been of the latter opinion; after noting that he has demonstrated a link between light and magnetism, “I think for the first time”, he then refers to Morrichini’s work:

I say, for the first time, because I do not think that the experiments of Morrichini on the production of magnetism by the rays at the violet end of the spectrum prove any such relation. When in Rome with Sir H. Davy in the month of May 1814, I spent several hours at the house of Morrichini, working with his apparatus and under his directions, but could not succeed in magnetising a needle. I have no confidence in the effect as a direct result of the action of the sun’s rays; but think, that when it has occurred it has been secondary, incidental, and perhaps even accidental; a result that might well happen with a needle that was preserved during the whole experiment in a north and south position.

M. Somerville is a good example of how the study of historical papers leads one to unexpected places.  See if you can pick out what caught my eye in the heading of Somerville’s paper:


Yes, that’s Mrs. Somerville!  Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a science writer and scientist, and apparently the second woman to gain recognition in the United Kingdom as a scientist, after Caroline Herschel, the sister of the famous astronomer William Herschel.  A picture of Mary (via Wikipedia) is below:


Mary was encouraged in her scientific researches by her husband William, and was evidently an extraordinary scientific mind — to gain recognition in science as a woman in the early 1800s is quite remarkable!  She wrote a number of popular science books for her era; at least one of these, “On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences“, can be read via Google Books.  It is noteworthy to quote a section of her book relevant to the question of light and magnetism:

In light, heat, and electricity, or magnetism, nature has exhibited principles which do not occasion any appreciable change in the weight of bodies, although their presence is manifested by the most remarkable mechanical and chemical action. These agencies are so connected, that there is reason to believe they will ultimately be referred to some one power of a higher order, in conformity with the general economy of the system of the world, where the most varied and complicated effects are produced by a small number of universal laws. These principles penetrate matter in all directions; their velocity is prodigious, and their intensity varies inversely as the squares of the distances. The development of electric currents, as well by magnetic as electric induction, the similarity in their mode of action in a great variety of circumstances, but, above all, the production of the spark from a magnet, the ignition of metallic wires, and chemical decomposition, show that magnetism can no longer be regarded as a separate independent principle. Although the evolution of light and heat during the passage of the electric fluid may be from the compression of the air, yet the development of electricity by heat, the influence of heat on magnetic bodies, and that of light on the vibration of the compass, show an occult connexion between all these agents, which probably will one day be revealed. In the mean time it opens a noble field of experimental research to philosophers of the present, perhaps of future ages.

As we have noted, Faraday was rather dismissive of the experiment of Morrichini.  However, the same year that Somerville was ‘confirming’ it herself, another researcher was demonstrating a light/magnet relationship with an experiment that Faraday did find compelling.  Samuel Hunter Christie, the inventor of a technique for measuring an unknown electrical resistance (now inaccurately known as the Wheatstone bridge), also had a great interest in measurements of the Earth’s magnetic field.  In an 1823 paper, he measured the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field relative to a pair of bar magnets using a magnetic compass needle.  He noted, however, that the magnetic strength of the compass needle could depend upon its temperature, so he set out to examine the behavior of his magnetic needle in different conditions.  In Christie’s words ( “On magnetic influence in the solar rays,” Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. 116 (1826), 219),

In order to ascertain the effect which changes of temperature have on the times of vibration of a needle, it is necessary to know the temperature of the needle itself during the observations, and I saw no better means of ascertaining this, even approximately, than to vibrate it in the shade and then exposed to the rays of the sun, and to consider the temperature of the needle to be that indicated by a thermometer near to it.  On my first doing this, I found, that although I could easily mark the 50th vibration when the needle was shaded, I could not distinguish beyond the 40th when it was exposed.  I at the same time found that the time of vibration was slightly diminished at the higher temperature, instead of being increased, as I had reason to expect.  As however the needle was not vibrated in the same spot in the two cases, the diminuition in the time of vibration and of the arc when it was exposed, might be independent of the change of temperature and of any influence in the solar rays.  To avoid any uncertainty arising from difference of disturbing causes in two situations, I placed the compass out of doors, with a screen composed intirely of wood, supported at the height of four feet above it, and by removing which the rays of the sun struck directly on the needle.  A thermometer having the bulb near to the compass-box indicated nearly the temperature of the needle.  When the shutter was up, so that the needle vibrated in the shade, I could very distinctly note the 100th vibration; but when it was removed and the needle vibrated exposed to the sun’s rays, I could not so distinctly mark the 75th.

To paraphrase: We are all familiar with how a compass needle swings back and forth when one moves it, eventually settling on magnetic north.   Christie noted that this swinging disappears more rapidly (i.e. the motion of the needle is more damped) when in direct sunlight than when in the shade.

I included the additional description of the experiment to illustrate that Christie was no rookie scientist, and not one to make easy mistakes in his setup.  Later in the paper (and in its sequel) he notes that a similar damping occurs for nonmagnetic needles of comparable size, but it is of a much lesser extent.  He also considers the effects of stray air currents, and is careful to make certain to compare sunlit and shaded conditions only when the overall temperatures are equal.

Faraday added a footnote to his work on Faraday rotation, to give credit to Christie’s work:

I should not have written “for the first time” as above, if I had remembered Mr. Christie’s experiments and papers on the Influence of the Solar Rays on Magnets…

What are we to make of this experiment?  Are the results an artifact of some subtle systematic error?  Is some other indirect thermal effect at play, or some sort of radiation reaction?  Or is it an actual, crude demonstration of light/magnet interactions?  The latter seems very unlikely, but there are so many variables in the experiments that it is not easy to isolate what actually is going on.

If anything, the questions raised by these earlier researches highlight the difficulties those early scientists had in dealing with phenomena which were almost entirely unknown.  They also highlight the brilliance of Faraday’s experimental discovery of Faraday rotation, which we will discuss in a upcoming post.

To be clear, I’m not arguing that either Morrichini or Christie truly demonstrated a light/magnetism connection.  Their work does show that many researchers had suspected such a connection before Faraday and Maxwell.

I am also very interested in understanding what they actually did observe, if possible!  Any thoughts?

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27 Responses to A physics history-mystery: magnetism from light?

  1. IronMonkey says:

    I too find it very instructive and fascinating to dig in the scientific past for “jewels”. I respect very much the “old” science and the people who did it in a methodic way. In my opinion, some “modern” scientific questions may be answered, or at least in part, by past contributions. We just have to dig it…

    Before I go off course… About the observation of the Sun’s light effect on the magnetic needle: the Sun’s UV rays might photo-induce electric currents on the metallic needle. These currents may then circulate in the finite-size metallic needle thus inducing a weak magnetic dipole moment which “helps” damp the vibrations of the needle so as to align it with the Earth’ magnetic field… this is just an idea.

  2. Uncle Al says:

    Set up the experiment and reproduce it. Intense ~405 nm emission is easily available as classical emission sources, LEDs, lasers, (Blu-Ray surplus), and free electron lasers. A neutral manganese arc has huge emission at 403 – 404 nm centers.

    Modern physics eschews discovery through experimentation for observation based upon theory. It has rendered itself incapable of seeing anything unexpected (felonious negligent discovery – anything outside business plan, budget spreadsheet, or PERT chart is insubordination).

  3. CCPhysicist says:

    Chad’s list-o-links sent me over here …

    I’d be careful to separate what is said casually in an intro course about Maxwell’s role and what is obvious from reading his paper. Maxwell invents something entirely new, literally out of thin aether, that completes the unification of electricity and magnetism that grows from the discoveries of Faraday and Oersted. He uses a post-prediction of Faraday rotation to provide additional support (beyond the, possibly coincidental, speed of light) for his conclusion.

    But I don’t see anything in observations that light might interact with magnetic materials to indicate that people were concluding that light itself was a purely electromagnetic phenomenon. I mean, people were still arguing whether it was a corpuscle or a wave while this was going on. Even Faraday, known for his brilliant, non-mathematical leaps of intuition did not go that far.

    The real proof for me, however, is the huge time lag (more than 20 years) between Maxwell’s claim and Hertz’s experiment. It’s not like the whole world was so confident in this discovery that they all went to work trying to produce Maxwell’s waves!

  4. CCPhysicist wrote: “But I don’t see anything in observations that light might interact with magnetic materials to indicate that people were concluding that light itself was a purely electromagnetic phenomenon.”

    My intention was not to belittle Maxwell’s contributions to electromagnetic theory, and I don’t think I stated that others had concluded that light was a ‘purely electromagnetic phenomenon’!

    They were suspecting, however, that light must possess magnetic properties. Faraday especially had this view, as he notes in his introduction to his Faraday rotation paper:

    I have long held an opinion, almost amounting to conviction, in common I believe with many other lovers of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest have one common origin; or, in other words, are so directly related and mutually dependent, that they are convertible, as it were, into one another, and possess equivalents of power in their action… This strong persuasion extended to the powers of light, and led, on a former occasion, to many exertions, having for their object the discovery of the direct relation of light and electricity, and their mutual action in bodies subject jointly to their power; but the results were negative and were afterwards confirmed, in that respect, by Wartmann.

    I’ll be writing up Faraday rotation in the near future, but it is unambiguous that Faraday was convinced of a direct relationship between light and electricity/magnetism. (And I haven’t yet found Wartmann’s paper!)

    The other authors I refer to seem to have also been convinced that their work demonstrated more than a material relationship, but actual magnetic powers of light. From Christie:

    The repeated failures of MORICHINI’S experiment of magnetising a needle by the violet ray, even under the most favourable circumstances, and in the ablest hands, have led many to doubt whether the effects, which were in some cases observed, were to be attributed to the influence of the ray ; but as the experiments which I have detailed indicate magnetic influence in the compound solar rays, and are besides easily repeated, they will, I think, tend considerably to remove these doubts.

    Morrichini was more confused, and distinguished between the light and magnetism of the ‘solar rays’:

    Terrestrial bodies may absorb from the solar rays the magnetic fluid as they absorb light and caloric.

    “The real proof for me, however, is the huge time lag (more than 20 years) between Maxwell’s claim and Hertz’s experiment. ”

    I’d be curious to know, though, if others had attempted experiments and failed before Hertz. Also, keep in mind that long delays were common back then. As an example, I note that Morrichini’s experiments were apparently done pre-1814, but in 1826 the controversy over the work was still going enough to get Somerville into print, and in 1845 the questions raised by them were apparently still not resolved!

  5. agm says:

    I’d bet that the change in needle behavior is more temperature dependent, whether through making it easier to induced magnetization in the needle or by thermal expansion altering it’s rotational inertia. Then apply conservation of angular momentum and torque of the earth’s field on the magnetic dipole. If the sunlight is really causing the needle to magnetize, the needle will be increasingly torqued, so the period would be changing.

    Alas, i don’t have the tools to simulate properly or run an experiment, but if you’ve got access to a finite element zealot, they could probably provide some insight.

  6. Wade Walker says:

    There could be a simple fluid-dynamical explanation for a needle’s motion being damped quicker when in direct sunlight.

    Sunlight falling on a needle heats it up, which heats the air around it, which rises and induces an upward convection current past the needle.

    The needle swinging through this weak upward convection current might have its motion slowed more quickly than in still air.

    The Navier-Stokes equations were only derived in 1822, so this explanation might not have been considered at the time.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts, everyone! It seems like one can come up with a large number of interpretations of these experiments, which illustrates nicely why they didn’t leave a lasting impression: they were too ambiguous!

    • Peter Rose says:

      Mary Somerville’s experiments are covered in the film Mr Turner. The film may of course not bean accurate depiction of what she did but seem to show that a needle was exposed to violet or even ultraviolet light and was thus magnetised. She seems also to have hit it with a hammer.
      Not having been aware of this phenomena before I thought it must be a heating or mechanical effect.

  8. jack says:

    Here is a link to a site discussing this effect of light on magnetic sources.


    hope this helps

  9. Natasha says:

    I am REALLY happy to have discovered your website! I find that I cannot understand physics without this kind of historical background. (Nor any other kind of science, for that matter.)

  10. Mountain says:

    Well done blog, kudos….
    In highschool I studied physics, within those classes we on a number of occasions ran a laser beam through an old aquarium filled with a clloidal water mixture so as to visually see the path of the light beam. We then used a permanent magnet to physically move the path of the beam within the aquarium. This magnetic affect upon light is used in many aspects of modern science to guide light. It makes sense that if light can be affected by magnetism then magnetism will also be equally as effected by light.

    As far as the steel bar magnetism effect, keep in mind that while steel feels hard it is actually not fully solid. The atoms of the metal are not fully in alignment, the more in alignment they are the more magnetic it becomes. I have been using this for more than 30 years now on my screwdrivers. I simply lay them north south and whack them with a hammer a few times, which magnetises them nicely. The whack causes the atoms to move slightly more into alignment with each other using the aid of the earths magnetic field. The steel bar that was exposed to uv light obviously had it’s atomic structure more aligned after the process than it was before…ie hence the magnetism. The atoms in the metal will naturally arrange on their own idependant of earths magnetic field, you just need a way to excite the atoms. It would appear that the uv light in some shocks or vibrates the metal just enough to allow some reorginastion of the atoms in the metal, therebye becoming more magnetic. This does not prove anything in the way of light’s magnetic properties though.

    As for the compass needle, that is a bit tougher to explain, we have all seen the black and white suspended metal in the vacuum bulb being turned by light radiation, so there is definately enough physical force in light to have some direct motive force on small light metal, but it seems to me that would not be enough effect to be visibly noticeable on a compass needle. I have never read about this experiment, it is intriguing.

    Again, good blog, I look forward to reading more.

  11. Pingback: Women published in the Royal Society, 1890-1930 | Skulls in the Stars

  12. Dr Philip Pantelis says:

    Suggest you see the film Mr Turner 2014. Why not try the experiment given by Mrs Mary Somerville yourself ? You have the lab facilities.

  13. Roger says:

    This past Christmas I received a UV sanitizer (advertised to sanitize my iPhone), but as I keep it in my bathroom I’ve used it to sanitize other things as well. Interestingly I placed two previously unmagnetized needles into it, and my wife pointed out that at some point they had become magnetized. Inadvertently I seem to have reproduced the results you noted above. Thoughts?

    • James says:

      How long did you leave the needles in the sanitizer?

      • Roger says:

        I can’t say for certain. The sanitizer runs for five minutes each time it’s opened and closed. I probably run it every other day. At some point I just started leaving all kinds of implements in it and after maybe a month my wife noticed the needle magnetized to the nail clippers. It seems everything we’ve put into it is becoming magnetized.

      • Roger says:

        If you’re interested I can post a photo and provide the model of the sanitizer …

      • James says:

        “If you’re interested I can post a photo and provide the model of the sanitizer”

        Sure, if it isn’t an inconvenience. That’s interesting because I’ve never noticed that with the iron things that I put in my UV sanitizer.

  14. Roger says:


    Model: Phonesoap Model 500-1.
    I circled the magnetized needle and clippers.

  15. I think people are forgetting some basics here about ferromagnetic atoms. It is well known that ferromagnetic materials are known to heat up when magnetized and to cool down when the magnetic field is removed. We all know that UV light is the most powerful part of the visible spectrum therefore it will heat up atoms way more than any other frequency. The visable range of solar light according to NASA dat from the 1950’s is 250nm -780nm. One of the reasons of the variabel results mentioned in this blog could easily be explained by what part of the UV spectrum was present or absent during the experiment. Without a light control you are bound to get different levels of magnetization because temperature links to magnetism and UV light frequencies link to temperature because of their frequency variation. Violet light is the one part of the spectrum that has both seasonal and diurnal variation. For example, at sunrise the sun has a color temperature of 1800K. At noon it is 5750K and at sunset it is 16,000K. The amount of UV light present at solar noon varies tremendously by season and the variation increase as latitude increases and as latitude increases. The only place UV light from the sun is relatively constant is at equatorial regions. So given these light variables any reasonable person of science would expect uneven experimental results sans light incident EMF controls. I believe Morrichini’s experiments did work because he was located at a lower latitude than Faraday who was at the 50th latitude most of his life. Look at the dates of the experiments you quoted and found. The answers are right there. Now why does this ferromagnetic effect occur is very explainable based upon the current state of physics. The presence of a magnetic field (from any source) makes ferromagnetic materials become more ordered. This is accompanied by disorder within the atomic lattice, which causes an increase in the material’s temperature. This is covered by ferromagnetic refrigeration science. It is well known. In fact, the rare Earth metals have massive magnetocaloric effects. Inversely, the absence of a magnetic field (for any reason) means that the atomic lattice becomes more ordered and results in a temperature decrease. Magnetic refrigeration essentially works by recapturing produced cooling energy via a heat transfer fluid, such as water. In biology we know that DNA base pairs also get magnetized by incident EMF’s. Somebody up above noted that pounding a piece of iron can magnetize it. Recall that when UV light travels from the sun to something with mass the electromagnetic wave is transformed to an electro-mechanical wave and that wave is also capable of magnetizing ferromagnetic atoms. Again, all of this is well supported. The key to the confusion in this blog is the variation of the incident EMF and the purity of the atoms in the bar. https://phys.org/news/2017-06-ferromagnets-stronger-adding-non-magnetic-elements.html

  16. abertram233 says:

    FWIW – David Brewster also seems to have accepted a relationship between light and magnetism. A quote from his Life of Sir Isaac Newton: “The rays of solar light possess several remarkable physical properties: They heat—they illuminate—they promote chymical combination—they effect chymical decompositions—they impart magnetism to steel—they alter the colours of bodies—they communicate to plants and flowers their peculiar colours, and are in many cases necessary to the development of their characteristic qualities.”

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