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A lodestone, or loadstone, is a naturally magnetized piece of the mineral magnetite. They are naturally-occurring magnets, which can attract pieces of iron. Ancient people first discovered the property of magnetism in lodestone. Pieces of lodestone, suspended so they could turn, were the first magnetic compasses, and their importance to early navigation is indicated by the name lodestone, which in Middle English means 'course stone' or 'leading stone'. Lodestone is one of only two minerals that is found naturally magnetized; the other, pyrrhotite, is only weakly magnetic. Magnetite is black or brownish-black with a metallic luster, has a Mohs hardness of 5.5-6.5 and a black streak.
The process by which lodestone is created has long been an open question in geology. Only a small amount of the magnetite on Earth is found magnetized as lodestone. Ordinary magnetite is attracted to a magnetic field like iron and steel is, but does not tend to become magnetized itself. Recent research has found that only a variety of magnetite with a particular crystalline structure, a mixture of magnetite and maghemite, has sufficient coercivity to remain magnetized and thus be a permanent magnet. One theory suggests that lodestones are magnetized by the strong magnetic fields surrounding lightning bolts. This is supported by the observation that they are mostly found at the surface of the Earth; not buried at great depth.
One of the first references to lodestone's magnetic properties is by 6th century BCE Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who is credited by the ancient Greeks with discovering lodestone's attraction to iron and other lodestones. The name "magnet" may come from lodestones found in Magnesia.
In China, the earliest literary reference to magnetism lies in a 4th century BC book called Book of the Devil Valley Master (鬼谷子): "The lodestone makes iron come or it attracts it." The earliest mention of the attraction of a needle appears in a work composed between 20 and 100 AD (論衡): "A lodestone attracts a needle." By the 12th century, the lodestone compass was being used for navigation in medieval China.
However, based on his find of an Olmec hematite artifact in Central America, the American astronomer John Carlson has suggested that "the Olmec may have discovered and used the geomagnetic lodestone compass earlier than 1000 BC". If true, this "predates the Chinese discovery of the geomagnetic lodestone compass by more than a millennium". Carlson speculates that the Olmecs may have used similar artifacts as a directional device for astrological or geomantic purposes, or to orientate their temples, the dwellings of the living or the interments of the dead.
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