"Against the technological utility conventionally demanded by Denmark’s absolutist regime, Ørsted maintained that the study of natural philosophy should be justified [by] its cognitive and aesthetic benefits. … To him the laws of nature enshrined a particular beauty and harmony …. He believed scientific research per se to be closely akin to religious worship. … The fact that nature is intelligible and that she abides by laws was awe-inspiring to him. To Ørsted the rationality of the laws of nature and the harmony of all existence revealed God."
— Dan Charly Christensen, Hans Christian Ørsted: Reading Nature’s Mind
THE DISCOVERY OF ELECTROMAGNETISM: THE EXTREMELY RARE TRUE FIRST ANNOUNCEMENT IN PRINT OF ØRSTED’S DEMONSTRATION OF THE MAGNETIC EFFECTS OF AN ELECTRIC CURRENT, PRECEDING EVEN THE UNOBTAINABLE LATIN PAMPHLET THAT IS GENERALLY REGARDED AS THE FIRST PUBLICATION OF HIS DISCOVERY.
In July of 1820 the Danish scientist Hans Christian Ørsted announced his discovery that a magnetized needle could be deflected by an electric current. The discovery created a sensation among European savants, and shortly thereafter Ampère extended Ørsted’s work by showing that parallel current-carrying wires repelled or attracted one another, depending upon the direction of the currents in the two wires. A little over a decade later, Faraday showed that moving magnets could induce an electrical current in nearby conducting wires, and by 1865 Maxwell had developed a complete quantitative theory of the relationship between electricity and magnetism. Yet it was Ørsted’s discovery that provided the first hint of such a relationship — a relationship that both stimulated the development of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and is now understood as a necessary consequence of that theory. As Nobel Prize winner Edward M. Purcell observed, “Whether the ideas of special relativity could have evolved in the absence of a complete theory of the electromagnetic field is a question for the historian of scientist to speculate about; probably it can’t be answered. We can only say that the actual history shows rather plainly a path running from Ørsted’s compass needle to Einstein’s postulates.” (Edward M. Purcell and David J. Morin, Electricity and Magnetism, 3d edition, 2013).
Ørsted’s discovery was described in a Latin pamphlet dated July 21, 1820, with the title Experimenta circa effectum conflictus electrici in acun magneticam, which was privately distributed to a carefully selected set of leaders of the European scientific community. Within a month or two it had been translated into the principal languages of western Europe and as a result became known to a wider audience. The Latin pamphlet is now a famously unobtainable rarity, and is generally assumed to be the first publication of Ørsted’s discovery. However, the pamphlet was actually preceded by a preliminary account of Ørsted’s results, also very rare, written in Danish and published in a Danish intellectual and literary journal. That is the paper offered here.
The title of the paper refers to Ørsted’s lectures (“Forelæsninger”) on three phenomena, “Electricitet, Galvanismus og Magnetismus” — electricity, galvanism, and magnetism. At the time, “[e]lectricity meant electrostatics; galvanism referred to the effects produced by continuous currents from batteries, a subject opened up by Galvani’s chance discovery and the subsequent experiments of Volta; [and] magnetism dealt with the already ancient lore of lodestones, compass needles, and the terrestrial magnetic field. It seemed clear to some that there must be a relation between galvanic currents and electric charge, although there was little more direct evidence than the fact that both could cause shocks. On the other hand, magnetism and electricity appeared to have nothing whatever to do with one another.” (Purcell, op. cit.).
“[E]lectricity and magnetism were generally thought of [in the early 19th century] as completely disconnected phenomena. Their causes and effects were utterly different: electrification required a violent action and implied violent effects such as sparks and thunder, whereas magnetism seemed a very quiet force. The magnetizing effect of thunder, which had long been known, was regarded as a secondary effect of mechanical or thermal origin.” (Oliver Darrigol, Electrodynamics from Ampère to Einstein, 2000).
Ørsted, however thought that there might be a connection between the two phenomena. He was an adherent of a philosophical position known as Naturphilosophie, which grew out of certain Romantic and idealist strains in German philosophy, and which held that “there is an eternal and unchanging law of nature, proceeding from the Absolute, from which all laws governing natural phenomena and forces derive.” (Oxford English Dictionary.). As early as 1812, Ørsted had proposed “that experiments with galvanic electricity should be made to find out ‘whether electricity in its most latent state has any action on a magnet,’” a proposal that derived from his “belief in the unity of the chemical, thermal, electrical and magnetic forces of nature, a belief showing the influence of Naturphilosophie ….” (R.C. Stauffer, Persistent Errors Regarding Oersted’s Discovery of Electromagnetism, Isis 44(4): 307-10 ; 1953). Indeed, Ørsted himself, writing in 1830 in the Edinburgh Encyclopedia, attributed his early opinion “that the magnetical effects are produced by the same powers as the electrical,” to “the philosophical principle, that all phenomena are produced by the same original power.” (Some scholars dispute the nature and extent of the relationship between Naturphilosophie and Ørsted’s discovery. See generally Christensen, op. cit., at 5-7.)
Returning to Denmark in 1804 after visits to scientists and philosophers in Germany and France, Ørsted “had hoped for a professorship in physics but was disappointed by the failure of the warden of the University of Copenhagen to nominate him. He turned, instead, to public lectures, which became so popular that he finally gained an extraordinary professorship in 1806. He then began his own scientific work in earnest.” (Dictionary of Scientific Biography.)
“The sequence of events leading to his important discovery still remains ambiguous but it seems that one of the advanced students at the university related that the first direct event that led to the publication of Oersted’s discovery occurred during a private lecture made before a group of other advanced students in the spring of 1820. At this lecture Oersted happened to place the conducting wire over and parallel to a magnetic needle. Another student related that the experiment concerned the heating of some platinum wire by means of an electric current and that a compass needle happened by chance to be near and underneath the conducting wire.” (Bern Dibner, “Oersted and the Discovery of Electromagnetism”; 1961). Although the recollections cited by Dibner imply that the demonstration was a serendipitous accident, Ørsted’s own account of his discovery in the Edinburgh Encyclopedia suggests that it was a deliberate attempt to test a hypothesis he had developed. In any event, a small deflection of the needle could be observed. Following this initial demonstration, he entered a busy period in his personal and professional life, including the grading of student papers and carrying out an assignment for the Danish government on the country’s system of weights and measures. By the beginning of July, however, he was able to return to his experiments.
“On Sunday, 9 July , Ørsted hired a cab to pick up his old father in Amaliegade. The professor appeared to be in an extraordinarily good mood, and the old pharmacist could not guess why his son would suddenly take him on an outing along the coast to the Royal Deer Park to have a drink. He was bursting with excitement, for he wanted to tell his father about a series of experiments with his galvanic trough apparatus and a magnetic needle. Actually, it was already three months since he had seen the compass needle deflect. At long last he had marked the heap of philosophicum assignments and found time to repeat the experiment he had made before an audience in April. … Now he had shown that the negative pole of the conductor attracted the north pole of the magnet and the positive one the south pole. If he reversed the electrical poles, the magnet would deflect to the opposite side. In other words, the electrical conductor behaved like a magnet. Hence he called his discovery electromagnetism.” (Christensen, op. cit.)
In the paper offered here, “Ørsted reported matter-of-factly that he had placed a conductor of platinum wire or of other metals or iron parallel to a magnetic needle (the positive end in the direction of the magnetic needle’s north pole), and the needle’s north pole deflected toward the east and consequently its south pole towards the west. … In addition, Ørsted stressed the irrelevance of whether the conductor was placed to the right or to the left of the meridian of the needle, or if it was placed over or under it, it was only that the conductor had to be more or less parallel to it.” (Id.) He also reported that the magnetic influence of the current could penetrate glass, wood, and brass.
The paper was published in the 28th weekly issue for 1820 of the Danish literary and intellectual journal Dansk Litteratur-Tidende. Although the issues are undated, the first issue of the year would have to have been published between January 3 and January 7. (1820 was a leap year, and publication on January 1 or 2 would have allowed the publication of 53 weekly issues during the year, yet only 52 were actually published.) The 28th issue would have been published 27 weeks after the first issue, i.e. sometime between Monday, July 10 and Friday, July 14. (Christensen confirms that “Dansk Litteraturtidende was on the street during the week following Ørsted’s outing with his father to the Royal Deer Park [on the] 9th July.”) A Danish-language publication was unlikely to attract any attention in the rest of Europe, and even within Denmark and the “short notice in Dansk Litteraturtidende met with no excitement. On 21 July it is briefly referred to in the newspaper Dagen. [T]he discovery caused no sensation; very few Danes grasped its scientific importance. Ørsted assembled some of those few to witness his further experiments on 15, 19, and 21 July, and possibly before then as well. He was now aware that the magnetic needle did not react if he placed the conductor at right angles to it.” (Id.)
Following these supplemental experiments, Ørsted prepared the Latin pamphlet Experimenta circa effectum …, which was dated July 21. It was mailed to 48 European scholars on July 26 and 27. Among the recipients were Humphry Davy in England; Ampère, Arago, Biot, Fresnel, and Laplace in France; and Berzelius in Sweden.
Copenhagen: Andreas Seidelin, 1820. The bound volume of the Dansk Litteratur-Tidende for the year 1820 (“Aaret 1820”), containing all 52 weekly issues, with Ørsted’s paper on pages 447-48. Complete with general title and contents. Contemporary marbled boards and spine with paper spine label (with name and year written in pencil on label); blue speckled edges. Occasional spots of light browning, but overall text crisp and clean with no institutional stamps.
EXCEEDINGLY RARE: WE CAN FIND NO OTHER EXAMPLES OF COPIES THAT HAVE BEEN ON THE MARKET.
Price: $28,000 .