At the beginning of the 19th century, little was understood about Earth’s magnetic field, but interest in its workings had begun to grow, especially in Europe. That the magnetic field exists had long been recognized, and magnetic compasses had aided in navigation for centuries, particularly at sea where fixed landmarks are hard to come by. Not surprisingly, the increased attention emerging around the turn of the century came from naval and shipping interests, which recognized that an accurate understanding of the field’s behavior would be a boon to their fleets.
By this time, the underlying physical explanation for the magnetic field had also become a major source of scientific curiosity. In the preceding two centuries, observers had measured differences in the field’s intensity, inclination and declination — the angle between magnetic and true north — between locations, as well as changes in those properties at the same location, both over varying lengths of time. Others had noted the synchronized occurrence of colorful atmospheric auroras with widespread disturbances in the magnetic field, termed magnetic storms.
It was clear the planet’s magnetic field was an inconstant and complex phenomenon, and many eminent scientists saw it as the next great natural mystery to unravel.