How to Make an Electromagnet

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Electromagnets are used in all kinds of complex technology. In this lesson, learn about how electromagnets were discovered and how you can make one for yourself!

What Creates Magnetism?

On April 21, 1820, a Danish scientist and professor named Hans Christian Oersted was giving a lecture about electricity to his students. He had a battery, some wires, and a magnetic compass on his desk. He connected the battery to the wires to complete an electric circuit, and when he did, he noticed that something strange happened. Every time he connected the battery to the wires, the compass needle turned, just like it would in the presence of a magnet. Fascinated by this observation, Oersted did some more experiments and he found that whenever electric current flowed through a wire, there was a circular magnetic field surrounding the wire. Oersted had just made the very first electromagnet!

When the wire is connected to the battery, current flows and the magnetic compass needle deflects, indicating the presence of a magnetic field.
magnetic field of a current carrying wire

An electromagnet is created by generating an electric current in a wire. The moving charges within the wire create a magnetic field that surrounds the wire in a circular pattern. Since Oersted's discovery of this amazing phenomenon, we have developed electromagnets that are used in devices like motors, generators, computer disc drives, radios, and even MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines.

Doctors rely on electromagnets to image the inside of your body using an MRI machine
MRI Machine

Even though electromagnets are used in all kinds of complex technology, they are pretty easy to make. In fact, you can make one yourself using some common household supplies that you may already have!

How to Make an Electromagnet

To make an electromagnet, you just need two things: a battery and some wire. Connect both ends of the wire to the battery and you will create a magnetic field just like Oersted did. You can verify that you have made an electromagnet by using a magnetic compass needle, or by placing some iron filings around the wire. The iron filings will line up with the magnetic field whenever the current is flowing!

If you want to make your electromagnet even stronger, there are three things that you can do. First, you can increase the current flowing through the wire. As the current gets bigger, so does the magnetic field. The best way to increase the current is to connect the wire to a more powerful battery or to several batteries. You have to be careful with this, though. As the current increases, the wire will get hotter and hotter. It can melt the insulating coating on the wire, burn you, or even start a fire!

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