The general concepts of electricity are actually pretty simple to grasp.

  1. You've got a magnet
  2. You've got copper coiled around the magnet, (or iron, or some other Ferromagnetic material)
  3. The copper sits still while you rotate the magnet - moving the electrons in the copper coil into a certain direction, which is electricity.

Thus ends the "electricity for dummies" class

Being sent back in time, I could know those concepts, but I wouldn't know how to get or create the magnet. I've tried doing research into "how to create a magnet", but nearly everything I find uses today's technology, which seems to use other magnets to make it magnetic.

Given that one has traveled back in time, and doesn't really know where they are located or where they need to go to find a magnet, would it be possible for them to create one for the purpose of re-inventing electricity? If so, how?

(The locals have access to iron, copper, and possibly other raw materials you may need, but they don't have any already-magnetized iron)

  • $\begingroup$ You could use some kind of metal, then tie a kite to it in a thunderstorm. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 1:31
  • $\begingroup$ What do you want to use the magnet for? The kind of magnets you need to make a MRI are very different than the ones you need for an AC generator, which are very different from refridgerator magnets. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 5:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Related: worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/26435/98 $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 16:35

3 Answers 3


The best way to make a magnet is to wrap a piece of iron with wire carrying a direct electric current, and the best source of substantial direct electric current in a low-tech environment is a Voltaic pile. Volta used copper and zinc but you may have to settle for copper and tin.

In other words bootstrap from a little electricity instead of from a little magnetism.

Your greatest difficulty will probably be obtaining a quantity of insulated wire. Most metalsmiths can make wire but nobody will understand why you want to dip it in pitch and wrap it in linen. You will need to supervise every inch of its manufacture.

In general, the best subject for you to study before leaving for the past is how our present technology came about. The horse collar, the curved moldboard plow, steam power, electricity, and chemical fertilizer were all developed in recent historical times, and the early successes and failures are well documented.

  • $\begingroup$ Bare wire and paper is historical. You can come up with a wrapping system to keep the coils dense with minimal hassle. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 1:35

The earliest use of magnets, according to this page, was by the ancient Greeks, some 4,000 years ago; they used magnetite, or lodestone, a naturally occurring magnet. Scandinavia has very large deposits, but it occurs naturally all over the world; shores with black sand usually contain at least some magnetite. Lava flows and other locations with previous volcanic activity are also a good place to look.

If you have prior knowledge of an upcoming trip to the past, it would probably be wise to locate a map of known, accessible magnetite nearby, to save time.

  • $\begingroup$ What I've read (and can't source), is that naturally occurring lodestone's magnetic field will get swamped, and be unusable to make the electricity needed for the electromagnets used to make strong permanent magnets. $\endgroup$
    – user3082
    Commented Jan 24, 2022 at 2:30

You want the book Fatal Attraction (subtitled Magnetic Mysteries of the Enlightenment) by Patricia Fara.

It goes into details of the technology of the period including how magnets were made, bootstrapping from natural loadstone, without electricity.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ -1 I see that you're a high-rep user, so I feel bad for criticizing an answer of yours, but answers on SE as far as I know should really be self contained, so please include the most important parts of the referenced work in your answer. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 16, 2016 at 4:02

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