Einstein 1938: The Two Pillars of the Field Theory

Reference: Evolution of Physics

This paper presents Chapter III, section 2 from the book THE EVOLUTION OF PHYSICS by A. EINSTEIN and L. INFELD. The contents are from the original publication of this book by Simon and Schuster, New York (1942).

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below is linked to the original materials.


The Two Pillars of the Field Theory

“The change of an electric field is accompanied by a magnetic field.” If we interchange the words “magnetic” and “electric”, our sentence reads: “The change of a magnetic field is accompanied by an electric field.” Only an experiment can decide whether or not this statement is true. But the idea of formulating this problem is suggested by the use of the field language.

Just over a hundred years ago, Faraday performed an experiment which led to the great discovery of induced currents.

The demonstration is very simple. We need only a solenoid or some other circuit, a bar magnet, and one of the many types of apparatus for detecting the existence of an electric current. To begin with, a bar magnet is kept at rest near a solenoid which forms a closed circuit. No current flows through the wire, for no source is present. There is only the magnetostatic field of the bar magnet which does not change with time. Now, we quickly change the position of the magnet either by removing it or by bringing it nearer the solenoid, whichever we prefer. At this moment, a current will appear for a very short time and then vanish. Whenever the position of the magnet is changed, the current reappears, and can be detected by a sufficiently sensitive apparatus. But a current—from the point of view of the field theory—means the existence of an electric field forcing the flow of the electric fluids through the wire. The current, and therefore the electric field, too, vanishes when the magnet is again at rest.

The lines of force seem to be fixed in space around a magnet. As a closed circuit moves relative to these lines of force, the lines of force move relative to the closed circuit, which then appear as a current through the circuit.

Imagine for a moment that the field language is unknown and the results of this experiment have to be described, qualitatively and quantitatively, in the language of old mechanical concepts. Our experiment then shows: by the motion of a magnetic dipole a new force was created, moving the electric fluid in the wire. The next question would be: upon what does this force depend? This would be very difficult to answer. We should have to investigate the dependence of the force upon the velocity of the magnet, upon its shape, and upon the shape of the circuit. Furthermore, this experiment, if interpreted in the old language, gives us no hint at all as to whether an induced current can be excited by the motion of another circuit carrying a current, instead of by motion of a bar magnet.

The old interpretation does not include what is going on in the space around a magnet, or in the space around a current.

It is quite a different matter if we use the field language and again trust our principle that the action is determined by the field. We see at once that a solenoid through which a current flows would serve as well as a bar magnet. The drawing shows two solenoids: one, small, through which a current flows, and the other, in which the induced current is detected, larger. We could move the small solenoid, as we previously moved the bar magnet, creating an induced current in the larger solenoid. Furthermore, instead of moving the small solenoid, we could create and destroy a magnetic field by creating and destroying the current, that is, by opening and closing the circuit. Once again, new facts suggested by the field theory are confirmed by experiment!

New facts suggested by the field theory are confirmed by experiment!

Let us take a simpler example. We have a closed wire without any source of current. Somewhere in the vicinity is a magnetic field. It means nothing to us whether the source of this magnetic field is another circuit through which an electric current flows, or a bar magnet. Our drawing shows the closed circuit and the magnetic lines of force. The qualitative and quantitative description of the induction phenomena is very simple in terms of the field language. As marked on the drawing, some lines of force go through the surface bounded by the wire. We have to consider the lines of force cutting that part of the plane which has the wire for a rim. No electric current is present so long as the field does not change, no matter how great its strength. But a current begins to flow through the rim-wire as soon as the number of lines passing through the surface surrounded by wire changes. The current is determined by the change, however it may be caused, of the number of lines passing the surface. This change in the number of lines of force is the only essential concept for both the qualitative and the quantitative descriptions of the induced current. “The number of lines changes” means that the density of the lines changes and this, we remember, means that the field strength changes.

The current is determined by the change; however it may be caused, of the number of lines passing the surface.

These then are the essential points in our chain of reasoning: change of magnetic field à induced currentà motion of charge à existence of an electric field.

Therefore: a changing magnetic field is accompanied by an electric field.

Thus we have found the two most important pillars of support for the theory of the electric and magnetic field. The first is the connection between the changing electric field and the magnetic field. It arose from Oersted’s experiment on the deflection of a magnetic needle and led to the conclusion: a changing electric field is accompanied by a magnetic field.

The second connects the changing magnetic field with the induced current and arose from Faraday’s experiment. Both formed a basis for quantitative description.

Again the electric field accompanying the changing magnetic field appears as something real. We had to imagine, previously, the magnetic field of a current existing without the testing pole. Similarly, we must claim here that the electric field exists without the wire testing the presence of an induced current.

In fact, our two-pillar structure could be reduced to only one, namely, to that based on Oersted’s experiment. The result of Faraday’s experiment could be deduced from this with the law of conservation of energy. We used the two-pillared structure only for the sake of clearness and economy.

A changing electric field is accompanied by a magnetic field; and a changing magnetic field is accompanied by an electric field. But the two are the same phenomenon.

One more consequence of the field description should be mentioned. There is a circuit through which a current flows, with, for instance, a voltaic battery as the source of the current. The connection between the wire and the source of the current is suddenly broken. There is, of course, no current now! But during this short interruption an intricate process takes place, a process which could again have been foreseen by the field theory. Before the interruption of the current, there was a magnetic field surrounding the wire. This ceased to exist the moment the current was interrupted. Therefore, through the interruption of a current, a magnetic field disappeared. The number of lines of force passing through the surface surrounded by the wire changed very rapidly. But such a rapid change, however it is produced, must create an induced current. What really matters is the change of the magnetic field making the induced current stronger if the change is greater. This consequence is another test for the theory. The disconnection of a current must be accompanied by the appearance of a strong, momentary induced current. Experiment again confirms the prediction. Anyone who has ever disconnected a current must have noticed that a spark appears. This spark reveals the strong potential differences caused by the rapid change of the magnetic field.

The same process can be looked at from a different point of view, that of energy. A magnetic field disappeared and a spark was created. A spark represents energy, therefore so also must the magnetic field. To use the field concept and its language consistently, we must regard the magnetic field as a store of energy. Only in this way shall we be able to describe the electric and magnetic phenomena in accordance with the law of conservation of energy.

Electric and magnetic lines of force are two different forms of the same substance. They appear to transform into each other.

Starting as a helpful model, the field became more and more real. It helped us to understand old facts and led us to new ones. The attribution of energy to the field is one step farther in the development in which the field concept was stressed more and more, and the concepts of substances, so essential to the mechanical point of view, were more and more suppressed.

The concept of substance is associated more with the mechanical view, whereas, the concept of energy is associated with the field view.



We associate matter with the mechanical view. Motion of this matter is then viewed as mechanical energy. Substance is a more general form of matter. Motion of substance may then be viewed as a more general form of energy.

Substance is recognized by its substantiality of which the core characteristic is force. As force becomes dynamic it appears as energy. We may describe force and energy as the static and dynamic forms of substance. This may help clear up the confusion that has come about from using Newton’s terminology in describing the field concepts.

The magnetic lines of force seem to denote the substance, which when moved appears in its dynamic form as the electric lines of “energy”.


Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  • Mahboob Hossain  On May 25, 2020 at 7:13 AM

    I think Lenz’ Law works for induced current…


%d bloggers like this: