Centuries ago, it was discovered that certain types of mineral rock possessed unusual properties of attraction to the metal iron. One particular mineral, called lodestone, or magnetite, is found mentioned in very old historical records (about 2500 years ago in Europe, and much earlier in the Far East) as a subject of curiosity. Later, it was employed in the aid of navigation, as it was found that a piece of this unusual rock would tend to orient itself in a north-south direction if left free to rotate (suspended on a string or on a float in water). A scientific study undertaken in 1269 by Peter Peregrinus revealed that steel could be similarly "charged" with this unusual property after being rubbed against one of the "poles" of a piece of lodestone.

 Unlike electric charges (such as those observed when amber is rubbed against cloth), magnetic objects possessed two poles of opposite effect, denoted "north" and "south" after their self-orientation to the earth. As Peregrinus found, it was impossible to isolate one of these poles by itself by cutting a piece of lodestone in half: each resulting piece possessed its own pair of poles:

 Like electric charges, there were only two types of poles to be found: north and south (by analogy, positive and negative). Just as with electric charges, same poles repel one another, while opposite poles attract. This force, like that caused by static electricity, extended itself invisibly over space, and could even pass through objects such as paper and wood with little effect upon strength.