Homer and Plato knew about the magnet.
The ancients, that is to say, had discovered a peculiar stone native to the neighborhood of the town of Magnesia, in Thessaly, which had the power of attracting small pieces of iron.
They called it magnes, from the name of the town, or more frequently, lithos Magnetis, stone of Magnesia, whence our term magnet.
There is no certainty, however, that the Greeks put the peculiar properties of this stone to any use; in fact, the first European record of the use of the directive properties of the magnet is not found before the end of the twelfth century A.D.
This record, made by Alexander Neckam, foster brother of Richard I of England, makes it certain, however, that the mariner’s compass, which depends upon the magnet, had long been familiar to English navigators.
Perhaps in some mysterious way the knowledge had been brought from China, for the Chinese are thought to have made such use of the stone many centuries earlier.
Through the use of the compass this “stone of Magnesia” or magnes, as it was also called, came to be known as a lodestone because, like the lodestar, it pointed the way (from the Middle English word lode, way): Many curious beliefs were attached to the magnet or lodestone.
William Gilbert, who, in 1600, was the first to produce a scientific study of magnetism, related some of the “figments and falsehoods” which had once been taught.
People were told, he says, that “if a lodestone be anointed with garlic, or if a diamond be near, it does not attract iron”; “if pickled in the salt of a sucking fish, there is power to pick up gold which has fallen into the deepest wells”; there were “mountains of such stones and they draw to them and break ships that are nailed with iron”; the stone could be used as a “love potion” and also had “the power to reconcile husbands to their wives, and to recall brides to their husbands.”