Recently, I read a book on Edison, his inventions, successes, and failures. Constant iteration. Failures day after day. It’s hard to fathom how one creates a light bulb when one never existed before. How do you create something from nothing? Oh, the power of an idea.
In the Wizard of Menlo Park, I still think about a chapter describing Paris at night. How, instead of lights, arch torches lit up the street. What a sight, blowtorches lining the streets guiding visitors along the Champs-Elysees. How blinding would that be? Yet, how magical. It’s almost biblical in a way, turning night into day. We take electric light for granite today. Time does that. It makes the magical mundane.
The book made me go back and think about the power of electricity. And what better way to do it than with a kid? Channeling our inner Edison, my son and I ended up starting with a simple electromagnet experiment. It’s fairly easy to do and good to get a kid’s mind going.
For the project, I used a few pieces of wood to make a base, nothing too crazy here (using scrap wood, I tried to dress it up nice). I just wanted a platform for the metal and battery to find a home.
Then, my kid and I went shopping for a fairly large bolt at the local Farm and Fleet. We went big, wanted it to look like a lightning rod.
Once the battery and bolt were in place, we wrapped red gauge around the metal bolt and spliced the wire at each end. I used some classic wire cutters. If you’re awesome and shave with a real razor blade, those work well too and can double as part of the experiment (Merkur razor blades are light and made of steel).
Lighting It Up:
It’s not exactly rocket science putting the ends of the wire on the battery. For phase one, we used a nine volt battery. The reason? Cost. And it works, easy-peasy. Personally, I find it fascinating that by throwing a little electricity at metal you can build an electromagnet. No special material needed. Note, if you leave the battery connected for too long your metal and wire can get a little hot.
Now, you could stop there. But what fun is that? We tried different gauge for the wire and wrapped it tighter around the bolt. This does have an impact, making incremental increases to the efficiency of the magnet. If you want to be bold, spend big money on the power source. I thought about popping off an outlet and tapping into the house. However, there was this nagging voice in the back of my head that said this was probably a bad idea. In life, I’ve found listening to the voices inside your head isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But keep in mind, you do control your unconscious voice. If you don’t know what you’re doing to begin with, it probably doesn’t either. But hey, it was screaming no. And, at least this time, I decided not to push back.
Instead of taking the outlet approach, we purchased a big honking battery. I mean we went all out. Yes, it was expensive, an impulse buy for sure. If there is a learning lesson here, it would be to run this experiment outside. If you’re using a nine volt, no big deal. You’d could probably run the electromagnet on top of dry kindling and there wouldn’t be a problem.
When I attached one end to the battery, ensured the bolt was wrapped tight, and then put the other end of the wire in place, it lit up like a Christmas Tree. Sparks went this way and that. I remembered that scene in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. You know the one? If that cat had nine lives, it used up all of them. The magnet had its moments when it wasn’t frying the battery. We could magically move handfuls of nails, levitate screws, and watch the lawn mower move across the driveway. There is a reason the Navy is experimenting with rail guns. I suppose with enough electricity you could knock a satellite out of the sky with a metal pellet.
And it just makes me think of so many more experiments to try. Assuming you don’t burn the house down, this trumps playing video games with your kid.
The US Navy builds electromagnets too, just on a different scale.
It turns out the AC power source wouldn’t have made for a good magnet. See, that voice in my head didn’t know what it was talking about.
There are some awesome electromagnet designs out there, from the simple to the complex on YouTube. Yes, you can build anything by watching and then taking a trip to the hardware store.
Note, William Sturgeon invented the electromagnet. I just used Edison for creative purposes.