Hans Christian Oersted's Experiment & Discovery

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  • 0:02 Background
  • 1:23 Oersted's Experiment
  • 2:35 The Result
  • 3:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lisa Roundy

Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

Hans Christian Oersted made a discovery in 1820 that is now fundamental to the field of physics. In this lesson, you will learn about his experiment and it's scientific importance.


What do we use a compass for? To find directions. We are speaking of directions in the literal sense, but the use of a compass as described in this lesson provides a more figurative example. In 1820, the Dutch scientist Hans Christian Oersted pointed the field of physics in a new direction with the twitch of a compass needle.

In the early 1800s, electricity was still a fledgling science. It was known that an electric field could be produced, but it wasn't well understood. Scientists, including Oersted, were still investigating the link between electricity and the heat and glow that were produced when an electric current was sent through a wire. They knew that lightning was a form of electricity which, after striking a ship, could cause the ship's compass to malfunction. This suggested that there might be a link between electricity and magnetism. So, scientists began to investigate this possible phenomenon. Since an electric current flows in a straight line, these early experiments assumed that the magnetic field produced by the electricity would follow the same direction. They tested this idea by placing a compass needle perpendicular to a wire transmitting an electric current. Nothing happened with the needle, so the scientific community assumed that no relationship existed between electricity and magnetism.

Oersted's Experiment

Enter Oersted and his famous experiment. Oersted often gave lectures on his scientific investigations. It was during one of these lectures that he first performed his famous experiment. He was demonstrating the connection between electricity, heat, and light by connecting a battery to a platinum wire. Then, Oersted decided to introduce a compass to the experiment to see what would happen. There are many stories about how this compass experiment was introduced. One holds that Orested accidentally left the compass on the table and did not even intend to use it in the experiment. Another story claims that it was actually a student's idea to test the compass. Orested himself claimed that he had not planned to perform the experiment for the first time during this lecture, but had indeed planned to perform the experiment at some point. However, he wanted a chance to test the experiment before showing it to an audience. Regardless, Orested proceeded with the experiment and made one of the most influential discoveries of his time. Rather than holding the wire perpendicular to the compass needle as scientists had in the past, Oersted held it parallel, directly above the compass needle. When the current was switched on, the needle turned. Orested reversed the current and the compass needle turned in the opposite direction.

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