What is an electromagnet?

Jonny Nelson introduces an animated explanation of electromagnetism

When a current flows in a wire, it creates a circular magnetic field around the wire. This magnetic field can deflect the needle of a magnetic compass. The strength of the magnetic field is greater:

  • closer to the wire
  • if the current is increased
Wire runs vertically, current flowing bottom to top. Magnetic field rotates anticlockwise. Second wire runs vertically, current flowing top to bottom. Magnetic field rotates in a clockwise direction.


A solenoid consists of a wire coiled up into a spiral shape. When an electric current flows, the shape of the magnetic field is very similar to the field of a bar magnet. The field inside a solenoid is strong and uniform. The small magnetic fields caused by the current in each coil add together to make a stronger overall magnetic field.

Current flows towards you in the top five wires, away from you in bottom five. Magnetic fields flow anti-clockwise around top five wires, clockwise around bottom. North pole right. South pole left.A solenoid, shown here in cross section, has a stronger electromagnetic field than a single straight wire


A solenoid with an iron core is called an electromagnet. The iron core increases the solenoid’s magnetic field strength. A simple electromagnet is made by coiling wire around an iron nail.

A coil of insulated wire is wrapped around an iron nail. One end of the coil of wire is connected to a battery. The other is connected to a switch in the circuit.

Electromagnets are used in devices such as electric bells, and door locks that can be controlled remotely.