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Hansteen's magnetometer and the origin of the magnetic crusade


In the early nineteenth century, Norwegian mathematician and astronomer Christopher Hansteen (1784–1873) contributed significantly to international collaboration in the study of terrestrial magnetism. In particular, Hansteen was influential in the origin and orientation of the magnetic lobby in Britain, a campaign which resulted in a global network of fixed geomagnetic observatories. In retrospect, however, his contribution was diminished, because his four-pole theory in Untersuchungen der Magnetismus der Erde (1819) was ultimately refuted by Carl Friedrich Gauss in Allgemeine Theorie des Erdmagnetismus (1839). Yet Hansteen's main contribution was practical rather than theoretical. His major impact was related to the circulation of his instruments and techniques. From the mid-1820s, ‘Hansteen's magnetometer’ was distributed all over the British Isles and throughout the international scientific community devoted to studying terrestrial magnetism. Thus in the decades before the magnetic crusade, Hansteen had established an international system of observation, standardization and representation based on measurements with his small and portable magnetometers.

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David Aubin , Charlotte Bigg and H. Otto Sibum (eds.), The Heavens on Earth: Observatories and Astronomy in Nineteenth-Century Science and Culture, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010

Michael Trevor Bravo , ‘Geography of exploration and improvement: William Scoresby and Arctic whaling, 1782–1822’, Journal of Historical Geography (2006) 32, pp. 512538

Christopher Hansteen , ‘Beobachtungen über die Intensität des Magnetismus im nördlichen Europa, I’, Annalen der Physik und Chemie (1825) 79, pp. 225270

Edward Sabine , ‘Observations on the dip and variation of the magnetic needle, and on the intensity of the magnetic force: made during the late voyage in search of a North West Passage’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1819) 109, pp. 132–144

Alexander Dallas Bache and Edward H. Courtenay , ‘On the relative horizontal intensities of terrestrial magnetism at several places in the United States, with the investigation of corrections for temperature, and comparisons of the method of oscillations in full and in rarified air’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1837) 5, pp. 427457

Alexander Dallas Bache , ‘Observations of the magnetic intensity at twenty-one stations in Europe’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society (1841) 7, pp. 75100

Gregory Good , ‘Geomagnetics and scientific institutions in 19th-century America’, Eos: Transactions of the American Geophysical Union (1985) 66, pp. 524526

Alison Morrison-Low , ‘The soldier-astronomer in Scotland: Thomas Makdougall Brisbane's scientific work in the northern hemisphere’, Historical Records of Australian Science (2004) 15, pp. 151176

Christopher Hansteen , ‘Ueber die magnetische Intensität der Erde’, Astronomische Nachrichten (1831) 9, pp. 304312

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The British Journal for the History of Science
  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-for-the-history-of-science
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