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School science experiment--Indian rope trick (magnetism)

Experiment setup

This is a How-to about a School science experiment--Indian rope trick (magnetism). This is a good demonstration that is used in schools to teach the idea of magnetic materials. It can be fiddly to set up, but it's worth the effort.

Table of contents
1 Materials
2 Method
3 How does it work?



  1. Clamp the magnet in the clamp stand.
  2. Tie some cotton onto a steel paperclip and allow the paperclip to stick to the magnet.
  3. Gently pull the cotton down so that there is an air space between the paperclip and the magnet, and then stick it to the bench with some sticky tape. This demonstration works best if the air gap is sufficiently large that the paperclip is only just held up by the magnet. It takes a fair amount of adjustment to get it perfect.
  4. Insert a non-ferromagnetic material into the air gap, e.g. a piece of paper or a sheet of copper. The paperclip stays up.
  5. Insert a ferromagnetic material such as an iron nail or sheet of nickel and the paperclip falls.

How does it work?

This is a first attempt at an explanation. I've tried to pitch it at a level accessible to someone with very little knowledge of magnetism. Please improve it!

The force that holds the paperclip up is strongest near that magnet. If you have ever sprinkled iron filings on paper over a magnet then you will have seen the filings line up with one another to form lines that seem to come out of one end of the magnet and loop around to the other end. These lines are called magnetic field lines. They represent the magnetic flux. The closer the lines are together, the bigger the flux and the stronger the force.

Magnetic field lines pass straight through most materials, as if the materials were not there. Put a piece of paper in the air gap and the magnetic field lines pass straight through and hold up the paperclip. Some materials, however, affect a magnetic field. It is as if the lines are attracted to these materials. If you put something made of these materials (known as ferromagnetic materials) into the gap, the field lines distort.

If the paperclip is set up so that it is on the brink of falling, then any disturbance in the field that is holding it up will cause it to drop.

See Also

School physics experiments and demonstrations
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