Electromagnetism is one of the four fundamental interactions in nature. The other three are the strong interaction, the weak interaction and gravitation. Electromagnetism is the force that causes the interaction between electrically charged particles; the areas in which this happens are called electromagnetic fields.

Electromagnetism is responsible for practically all the phenomena encountered in daily life, with the exception of gravity. Ordinary matter takes its form as a result of intermolecular forces between individual molecules in matter. Electromagnetism is also the force which attracts electrons to an atomic nucleus to form atoms, which are the building blocks of molecules. This governs the processes involved in chemistry, which arise from interactions between the electrons of neighboring atoms.

Electromagnetism manifests as both electric fields and magnetic fields. Both fields are simply different aspects of electromagnetism, and hence are intrinsically related. Thus, a changing electric field generates a magnetic field; conversely a changing magnetic field generates an electric field. This effect is called electromagnetic induction, and is the basis of operation for electrical generators, induction motors, and transformers. Mathematically speaking, magnetic fields and electric fields are convertible with relative motion as a four vector.

Electric fields are the cause of several common phenomena, such as electric potential (such as the voltage of a battery) and electric current (such as the flow of electricity through a flashlight). Magnetic fields are the cause of the force associated with magnets.

In quantum electrodynamics, electromagnetic interactions between charged particles can be calculated using the method of Feynman diagrams, in which we picture messenger particles called virtual photons being exchanged between charged particles. This method can be derived from the field picture through perturbation theory.

The theoretical implications of electromagnetism led to the development of special relativity by Albert Einstein in 1905.


History of the theory

Originally electricity and magnetism were thought of as two separate forces. This view changed, however, with the publication of James Clerk Maxwell's 1873 Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism in which the interactions of positive and negative charges were shown to be regulated by one force. There are four main effects resulting from these interactions, all of which have been clearly demonstrated by experiments:

  1. Electric charges attract or repel one another with a force inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them: unlike charges attract, like ones repel.
  2. Magnetic poles (or states of polarization at individual points) attract or repel one another in a similar way and always come in pairs: every north pole is yoked to a south pole.
  3. An electric current in a wire creates a circular magnetic field around the wire, its direction (clockwise or counter-clockwise) depending on that of the current.
  4. A current is induced in a loop of wire when it is moved towards or away from a magnetic field, or a magnet is moved towards or away from it, the direction of current depending on that of the movement.

While preparing for an evening lecture on 21 April 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted made a surprising observation. As he was setting up his materials, he noticed a compass needle deflected from magnetic north when the electric current from the battery he was using was switched on and off. This deflection convinced him that magnetic fields radiate from all sides of a wire carrying an electric current, just as light and heat do, and that it confirmed a direct relationship between electricity and magnetism.

At the time of discovery, Ørsted did not suggest any satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon, nor did he try to represent the phenomenon in a mathematical framework. However, three months later he began more intensive investigations. Soon thereafter he published his findings, proving that an electric current produces a magnetic field as it flows through a wire. The CGS unit of magnetic induction (oersted) is named in honor of his contributions to the field of electromagnetism.

His findings resulted in intensive research throughout the scientific community in electrodynamics. They influenced French physicist André-Marie Ampère's developments of a single mathematical form to represent the magnetic forces between current-carrying conductors. Ørsted's discovery also represented a major step toward a unified concept of energy.

This unification, which was observed by Michael Faraday, extended by James Clerk Maxwell, and partially reformulated by Oliver Heaviside and Heinrich Hertz, is one of the key accomplishments of 19th century mathematical physics. It had far-reaching consequences, one of which was the understanding of the nature of light. Light and other electromagnetic waves take the form of quantized, self-propagating oscillatory electromagnetic field disturbances called photons. Different frequencies of oscillation give rise to the different forms of electromagnetic radiation, from radio waves at the lowest frequencies, to visible light at intermediate frequencies, to gamma rays at the highest frequencies.

Ørsted was not the only person to examine the relation between electricity and magnetism. In 1802 Gian Domenico Romagnosi, an Italian legal scholar, deflected a magnetic needle by electrostatic charges. Actually, no galvanic current existed in the setup and hence no electromagnetism was present. An account of the discovery was published in 1802 in an Italian newspaper, but it was largely overlooked by the contemporary scientific community.[1]


The electromagnetic force is one of the four fundamental forces. The other fundamental forces are: the strong nuclear force (which holds quarks together, along with its residual strong force effect that holds atomic nuclei together, to form the nucleus), the weak nuclear force (which causes certain forms of radioactive decay), and the gravitational force. All other forces (e.g. friction) are ultimately derived from these fundamental forces.

The electromagnetic force is the one responsible for practically all the phenomena one encounters in daily life, with the exception of gravity. Roughly speaking, all the forces involved in interactions between atoms can be traced to the electromagnetic force acting on the electrically charged protons and electrons inside the atoms. This includes the forces we experience in "pushing" or "pulling" ordinary material objects, which come from the intermolecular forces between the individual molecules in our bodies and those in the objects. It also includes all forms of chemical phenomena, which arise from interactions between electron orbitals.

Classical electrodynamics

The scientist William Gilbert proposed, in his De Magnete (1600), that electricity and magnetism, while both capable of causing attraction and repulsion of objects, were distinct effects. Mariners had noticed that lightning strikes had the ability to disturb a compass needle, but the link between lightning and electricity was not confirmed until Benjamin Franklin's proposed experiments in 1752. One of the first to discover and publish a link between man-made electric current and magnetism was Romagnosi, who in 1802 noticed that connecting a wire across a voltaic pile deflected a nearby compass needle. However, the effect did not become widely known until 1820, when Ørsted performed a similar experiment.[2] Ørsted's work influenced Ampère to produce a theory of electromagnetism that set the subject on a mathematical foundation.

A theory of electromagnetism, known as classical electromagnetism, was developed by various physicists over the course of the 19th century, culminating in the work of James Clerk Maxwell, who unified the preceding developments into a single theory and discovered the electromagnetic nature of light. In classical electromagnetism, the electromagnetic field obeys a set of equations known as Maxwell's equations, and the electromagnetic force is given by the Lorentz force law.

One of the peculiarities of classical electromagnetism is that it is difficult to reconcile with classical mechanics, but it is compatible with special relativity. According to Maxwell's equations, the speed of light in a vacuum is a universal constant, dependent only on the electrical permittivity and magnetic permeability of free space. This violates Galilean invariance, a long-standing cornerstone of classical mechanics. One way to reconcile the two theories is to assume the existence of a luminiferous aether through which the light propagates. However, subsequent experimental efforts failed to detect the presence of the aether. After important contributions of Hendrik Lorentz and Henri Poincaré, in 1905, Albert Einstein solved the problem with the introduction of special relativity, which replaces classical kinematics with a new theory of kinematics that is compatible with classical electromagnetism. (For more information, see History of special relativity.)

In addition, relativity theory shows that in moving frames of reference a magnetic field transforms to a field with a nonzero electric component and vice versa; thus firmly showing that they are two sides of the same coin, and thus the term "electromagnetism". (For more information, see Classical electromagnetism and special relativity.)

The photoelectric effect

In another paper published in that same year, Albert Einstein undermined the very foundations of classical electromagnetism. His theory of the photoelectric effect (for which he won the Nobel prize for physics) posited that light could exist in discrete particle-like quantities, which later came to be known as photons. Einstein's theory of the photoelectric effect extended the insights that appeared in the solution of the ultraviolet catastrophe presented by Max Planck in 1900. In his work, Planck showed that hot objects emit electromagnetic radiation in discrete packets, which leads to a finite total energy emitted as black body radiation. Both of these results were in direct contradiction with the classical view of light as a continuous wave. Planck's and Einstein's theories were progenitors of quantum mechanics, which, when formulated in 1925, necessitated the invention of a quantum theory of electromagnetism. This theory, completed in the 1940s, is known as quantum electrodynamics (or "QED"), and, in situations where perturbation theory is applicable, is one of the most accurate theories known to physics.


Electromagnetic units are part of a system of electrical units based primarily upon the magnetic properties of electric currents, the fundamental SI unit being the ampere. The units are:

In the electromagnetic cgs system, electric current is a fundamental quantity defined via Ampère's law and takes the permeability as a dimensionless quantity (relative permeability) whose value in a vacuum is unity. As a consequence, the square of the speed of light appears explicitly in some of the equations interrelating quantities in this system.

SI electromagnetism unitsv · d · e
Symbol[3] Name of Quantity Derived Units Unit Base Units
I Electric current ampere (SI base unit) A A (= W/V = C/s)
Q Electric charge coulomb C A·s
U, ΔV, Δφ; E Potential difference; Electromotive force volt V kg·m2·s−3·A−1 (= J/C)
R; Z; X Electric resistance; Impedance; Reactance ohm Ω kg·m2·s−3·A−2 (= V/A)
ρ Resistivity ohm metre Ω·m kg·m3·s−3·A−2
P Electric power watt W kg·m2·s−3 (= V·A)
C Capacitance farad F kg−1·m−2·s4·A2 (= C/V)
E Electric field strength volt per metre V/m kg·m·s−3·A−1 (= N/C)
D Electric displacement field Coulomb per square metre C/m2 A·s·m−2
ε Permittivity farad per metre F/m kg−1·m−3·s4·A2
χe Electric susceptibility (dimensionless) - -
G; Y; B Conductance; Admittance; Susceptance siemens S kg−1·m−2·s3·A2 (= Ω−1)
κ, γ, σ Conductivity siemens per metre S/m kg−1·m−3·s3·A2
B Magnetic flux density, Magnetic induction tesla T kg·s−2·A−1 (= Wb/m2 = N·A−1·m−1)
Φ Magnetic flux weber Wb kg·m2·s−2·A−1 (= V·s)
H Magnetic field strength ampere per metre A/m A·m−1
L, M Inductance henry H kg·m2·s−2·A−2 (= Wb/A = V·s/A)
μ Permeability henry per metre H/m kg·m·s−2·A−2
χ Magnetic susceptibility (dimensionless) - -

Electromagnetic phenomena

With the exception of gravitation, electromagnetic phenomena as described by quantum electrodynamics (which includes as a limiting case classical electrodynamics) account for almost all physical phenomena observable to the unaided human senses, including light and other electromagnetic radiation, all of chemistry, most of mechanics (excepting gravitation), and of course magnetism and electricity. Magnetic monopoles (and "Gilbert" dipoles) are not strictly electromagnetic phenomena, since in standard electromagnetism, magnetic fields are generated not by true "magnetic charge" but by currents. There are, however, condensed matter analogs of magnetic monopoles in exotic materials (spin ice) created in the laboratory.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Martins, Roberto de Andrade. "Romagnosi and Volta’s Pile: Early Difficulties in the Interpretation of Voltaic Electricity". In Fabio Bevilacqua and Lucio Fregonese (eds). Nuova Voltiana: Studies on Volta and his Times. vol. 3. Università degli Studi di Pavia. pp. 81–102. http://ppp.unipv.it/collana/pages/libri/saggi/nuova%20voltiana3_pdf/cap4/4.pdf. Retrieved 2010-12-02. 
  2. ^ Stern, Dr. David P.; Dr. Mauricio Peredo (2001-11-25). "Magnetic Fields -- History". NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. http://www-istp.gsfc.nasa.gov/Education/whmfield.html. Retrieved 2009-11-27. 
  3. ^ International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (1993). Quantities, Units and Symbols in Physical Chemistry, 2nd edition, Oxford: Blackwell Science. ISBN 0-632-03583-8. pp. 14–15. Electronic version.
  4. ^ "'Magnetic electricity' discovered". BBC News. 2009-10-14. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8307804.stm. Retrieved 2010-05-01. 




  • Durney, Carl H. and Johnson, Curtis C. (1969). Introduction to modern electromagnetics. McGraw-Hill. ISBN 0-07-018388-0. 
  • Rao, Nannapaneni N. (1994). Elements of engineering electromagnetics (4th ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-948746-8. 
  • Tipler, Paul (1998). Physics for Scientists and Engineers: Vol. 2: Light, Electricity and Magnetism (4th ed.). W. H. Freeman. ISBN 1-57259-492-6. 
  • Griffiths, David J. (1998). Introduction to Electrodynamics (3rd ed.). Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-805326-X. 
  • Jackson, John D. (1998). Classical Electrodynamics (3rd ed.). Wiley. ISBN 0-471-30932-X. 
  • Rothwell, Edward J.; Cloud, Michael J. (2001). Electromagnetics. CRC Press. ISBN 0-8493-1397-X. 
  • Wangsness, Roald K.; Cloud, Michael J. (1986). Electromagnetic Fields (2nd Edition). Wiley. ISBN 0-471-81186-6. 
  • Dibner, Bern (1961). Oersted and the discovery of electromagnetism. Blaisdell Publishing Company. ISSN 99-0317066-1. ; 18. 

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