This is Foggy Ruins of Time, a feature that provides the cultural context behind certain comic book characters/behaviors. You know, the sort of then-topical references that have faded into the “foggy ruins of time.” To wit, twenty years from now, a college senior watching episodes of “Seinfeld” will likely miss a lot of the then-topical pop culture humor (like the very specific references in “The Understudy” to the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding scandal).
Today, we look at the origins of the name “Magneto.”
A while back, Mira Jacobs wrote a bit at CBR about an interesting comment by Ian McKellen on Twitter. Here’s Mira:
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The oldest and best known villain of Marvel’s X-Men is indisputably Magneto, the master of magnetism. Fans have been discussing him since long before any X-Men comics were adapted for the screen, but now the actor famed for playing him has brought up a question about how those discussions pronounce his name.
Sir Ian McKellen portrayed Magneto in five of Fox’s X-Men films, beginning with 2000’s X-Men. For many, he’s become the definitive live-action version of the character.
McKellen tweeted his question in response to a CBR article about Magneto. “While we are at it,” he asked, “why is Magnet-o (controller of ferro-magnetic substances), pronounced Magneeto?”
Well, Sir Ian, the answer goes back a loooooooong way.
It all starts with a man whose last name is now well known for a contraption that is based on his experiments with electricity, Michael Faraday. Faraday was born in England in 1791. He wasn’t necessarily poor growing up, but he definitely wasn’t well off, either, and he could not afford to get a proper education and instead had to learn while serving as an apprentice for a bookseller in the city. During this period, young Faraday was exposed to a great deal of books and one of them, in particular, drew his attention. It was called The Improvement of the Mind, and it was written by Isaac Watts, who was a fascinating guy in his own right (he was a famous hymn writer – he wrote Joy to the World – and wrote one of the most important books about Logic ever). The book is a sort of “how to” for critical thinking and Faraday followed the lessons well and soon was attending lectures by a renowned chemist, Humphry Davy (one of the lessons from the book was to seek out a great teacher). Faraday sent Davy a 300-page book that he had written based on Davy’s lectures and Davy was so impressed that he took Faraday on as an assistant.
Faraday did a lot of interesting things in the field of chemistry while working with Davy, but his most famous work came while working with electricity and magnetism. In 1821, a scientist discovered the concept of “electromagnetism” and Davy and another scientist, William Hyde Wollaston, tried to build an electric motor. They couldn’t work it out and they joked that Faraday should give it a shot. He then built the first electric-powered motor, but it is important to note that they were mostly talking theoretical stuff here, as Julian Rubin explains:
Basically, a free-hanging wire was dipped into a pool of mercury, in which a permanent magnet was placed. When a current flowed through the wire, the wire rotated around the magnet, showing that the current gave rise to a circular magnetic field around the wire that interacted with the magnetic field of the permanent magnet and the resulting force exerted on the wire spun it.
This primitive motor is not of any practical use and serves mainly for demonstration purposes in school physics classes. The toxic mercury is sometimes replaced by brine (salt water). The use of a conductive fluid (mercury, brine) arises from the need to enable the free movement of the wire and to close the electric circuit (the aluminum foil or any stable wire can serve the same purpose).
Faraday just proved that it was theoretically possible. The problem was that he then wrote up his findings without mentioning the work of Davy and Wollaston that helped him get to that point and that, of course, is a big no-no and Davy basically told him to eff off and it wasn’t until Davy died a decade later that Faraday really got back into electromagnetic research.
This led to him creating what is known as the Faraday Disk. Here’s Rubin on the disk, as well:
Faraday built the first electromagnetic generator, called the Faraday disk, a type of homopolar generator, using a copper disc (instead of the wire) rotating between the poles of a horseshoe magnet. When the disc was rotated by a handle the apparatus produced a small DC voltage between its hub and rim.
According to Faraday’s law the voltage generated is proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic flux and the practical meaning is that faster you rotate the disc higher will be the voltage generated.
Faraday also developed a way to create a sort of cage that could cut out electricity. Faraday Cages are still used in many places today when people want to cut off electric signals in top secret areas or in your microwave (look at the door of your microwave. It has a Faraday cage on it to keep the microwaves within the microwave only).
There were two sorts of devices that were built using Farady’s Law of Induction – dynamos and magnetos. The difference is basically that magnetos specifically work off of literal magnets that create electricity by rotating like the above-mentioned Faraday disk, while a dynamo creates an electromagnetic field and then that field is accessed for power. So magnetos have limited use, but that limited use is still, well, you know, useful.
They were most commonly used in the ignition devices of motorcars. Here’s a 1912 article discussing the different ways of starting a motorcar:
“Many motorists do not understand the difference between a magneto and a dynamo,” said Emil Grossman, the Red Head spark plug manufacturer, “In a magneto the electricity Is generated by the action of the magneto, while in the dynamo the electricity Is produced by the conversion Of a high degree of mechanical energy.”
Magnetos are still used to start small machines, like lawnmowers. They are also used in small planes, because they will continue to work even if the rest of your power cuts off, since it is literally just two magnets spinning on each other.
But yeah, for guys like Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, they would know the term magneto very well as being a part of a car. And it was pronounced mag-neee-to, so that is why, when they named the X-Men villain, that was the pronunciation, because it was just an established word.
If anyone else has a suggestion for a future edition of Foggy Ruins of Time, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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