The first reported application of naturally occurring permanent magnet material is in the Chinese chronicles. It has been reported 2 that the best prepared caravans that crossed the Gobi desert, from the minarets of the kingdoms of the Kushans to the imperial pagodas on the banks of the Yangtze, contained a white camel. In a clay pot full of water, protected by a carved wooden box mounted between the humps of the albino beast, floated a cork containing a piece of magnetized iron. The edges of the pot were painted in four colors: red for south, black for north, green for east and white for west. This primitive compass enabled the caravaner to navigate across the sands. In the Chinese chronicles there are also descriptions of magnetic gates, which restricted the access of armed ill wishers, and magnetic roadways made possible by the magic stone chu-shih. These stones, simply magnetic iron ore, were also known as ‘loving stones’ because their attraction for pieces of iron was similar to the love parents have for their children.
One Chinese legend relates that Emperor Huang-Ti, nearly 5000 years ago, had a chariot made on which was mounted a small man with an outstretched arm. This arm, Figure 1, always pointed South, so that Huang-Ti’s armies were able to attack their enemies from the rear in a fog and defeat them.
The stories of camel and chariot mounted compasses may be apocryphal, but Chinese encyclopedias state that magnetic needles were used as compasses on ships in 400 BC, and there exists a 1000 year old Chinese compass resembling a traditional painted spoon, see Figure 2.
Notwithstanding these early oriental excursions into permanent magnetism, the principal development of permanent magnet materials has been undertaken in Europe.