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James Clerk Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell (June 13, 1831 - November 5, 1879) was a Scottish
physicist, was the last representative of a younger branch of the well-known
Scottish family of Clerk of Penicuik, and was born in Edinburgh. Maxwell is
generally regarded as the nineteenth century scientist who had the greatest
influence on twentieth century physics, making contributions to the
fundamental models of nature. In 1931, on the centennial anniversary of
Maxwell's birth, Einstein described Maxwell's work as the "most profound and
the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton."
Algebraic mathematics with elements of geometry are a feature of much of
Maxwell's work. Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic forces are
two complementary aspects of electromagnetism. He showed that electric and
magnetic fields travel through space, in the form of waves, at a constant
velocity of 3.0 × 108 m/s. He also proposed that light was a form of
The scientific compound derived CGS unit measuring magnetic flux (commonly
abbreviated as f ), the maxwell (Mx), was named in his honor. There is a
mountain range on Venus, Maxwell Montes, named after James Clerk Maxwell
also. The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope is the largest astronomical
telescope in the world, with a diameter of 15 meters, (designed specifically
to operate in the submillimeter wavelength region of the spectrum) and named
in his honor.
Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, at 14 India Street. He was the only
child of Edinburgh lawyer John Clerk. The house was in Edinburgh's Georgian
area built after the Napoleonic Wars. The family name Maxwell was adopted by
the terms of a legal requirement made upon his father to inherit an estate.
The family afterwards moved to an estate at Glenlair (near Dumfries).
Maxwell's early education was given by his Christian mother and included
studying the Bible. Maxwell then went to Edinburgh Academy in his youth.
Maxwell's school nickname was 'Dafty'. At Edinburgh Academy, Maxwell met
Peter Tait. In 1845, at the age of 15, Maxwell wrote a paper describing
mechanical means of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of string,
which Professor J. D. Forbes communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
In 1847, Maxwell attended Edinburgh University studing Natural Philosophy,
Moral Philosophy, and Mental Philosophy. At Edinburgh, he studied under Sir
William Hamilton. In his eighteenth year, while still a student in
Edinburgh, he contributed two valuable papers to the Transactions of the
same society—one of which, “On the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids,” is
remarkable, not only on account of its intrinsic power and the youth of its
author, but also because in it he laid the foundation of one of the most
singular discoveries of his later life, the temporary double refraction
produced in viscous liquids by shearing stress. In 1850, Maxwell left for
Cambridge and initially attended Peterhouse but eventually left for Trinity
College. In November 1851, Maxwell studied under the tutor William Hopkins
(nicknamed the "wrangler maker"). A considerable part of the translation of
his electromagnetism equations was accomplished during Maxwell's career as
an undergraduate in Trinity.
In 1854, Maxwell graduated with a degree as second wrangler in mathematics
from Trinity College, Cambridge (scoring second-highest in the mathematics
exam) and was declared equal with the senior wrangler of his year in the
higher ordeal of the Smith’s prize examination. For more than half of his
brief life he held a prominent position in the very foremost rank of natural
philosophers. Immediately after taking his degree, he read to the Cambridge
Philosophical Society a novel memoir, “On the Transformation of Surfaces by
Bending.” This is one of the few purely mathematical papers he published,
and it exhibited at once to experts the full genius of its author. About the
same time appeared his elaborate memoir, “On Faraday’s Lines of Force,” in
which he gave the first indication of some of those extraordinary electrical
investigations which culminated in the greatest work of his life.
From 1855 to 1872, he published at intervals a series of valuable
investigations connected with the “Perception of Colour” and
“Colour-Blindness,” for the earlier of which he received the Rumford medal
from the Royal Society in 1860. The instruments which he devised for these
investigations were simple and convenient, but could not have been thought
of for the purpose except by a man whose knowledge was co-extensive with his
ingenuity. In 1856, Maxwell was appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy
in Marischal College, Aberdeen, which he held until the fusion of the two
colleges there in 1860.
He obtained in 1859 the Adams prize in Cambridge for an original and
powerful essay, “On the Stability of Saturn’s Rings”, in which he concluded
the rings could not be completely solid or fluid. Maxwell demonstrated
stability could be reached only if the rings consisted of numerous small
solid particles. He also mathematically disproved the nebular hypothesis
(which stated that solar system formed through the progressive condensation
of a purely gaseous nebula), forcing the theory to account for additional
portions of small solid particles.
In 1860, he was a professor at King's College in London. In 1861, Maxwell
was elected to the Royal Society. Maxwell researched elastic solids and pure
geometry during this time, also.
One of Maxwell's greatest investigations bore on the “Kinetic Theory of
Gases.” Originating with Bernoulli, this theory was advanced by the
successive labours of Herapath, Joule, and particularly Clausius, to such an
extent as to put its general accuracy beyond a doubt; but it received
enormous development from Maxwell, who in this field appeared as an
experimenter (on the laws of gaseous friction) as well as a mathematician.
In 1865, Maxwell moved to the estate he inherited from his father in
Glenlair, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland. In 1868 he rsigned his Chair of
Physics and Astronomy at King’s College, London.
In 1866, he statistically formulated, independent of Ludwig Boltzmann, the
Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases. In the kinetic theory,
temperatures and heat involve only molecular movement. This approach
generalized the previous laws of thermodynamics, explaining the observations
and experiments in a better way. Maxwell's work on thermodynamics led him to
develop the thought experiment, Maxwell's demon.
The great work of Maxwell's life was devoted to electricity. Maxwell's most
important contribution was the extension and mathematical formulation of
earlier work on electricity and magnetism by Michael Faraday, André-Marie
AmpŹre, and others into a linked set of twenty differential equations in
quaternions. Between 1864 and 1873, Maxwell conducted research and
demonstrated that the equations could express the behavior of
electromagnetic fields and their interrelated nature.
Maxwell began by reading, with the most profound admiration and attention,
the whole of Faraday’s extraordinary self-revelations, and proceeded to
translate the ideas of that master into the succinct and expressive notation
of the mathematician. The equations allow for the existence of a
self-propagating electromagnetic wave which has the same velocity as that of
light, suggesting that light is in fact that electromagnetic wave. The
theory demonstrated that the oscillating electric charge produces a magnetic
field. Maxwell's great object, as it was also the great object of Faraday,
was to overturn the idea of action at a distance.
This was the first hint that there are at least two perfectly distinct
methods of arriving at the known formulae of static electricity. The step to
magnetic phenomena was comparatively simple; but it was otherwise as regards
electromagnetic phenomena, where current electricity is essentially
involved. The first paper of Maxwell’s in which an attempt at an admissible
physical theory of electromagnetism was made was communicated to the Royal
Society in 1867. But the theory, in a fully developed form, first appeared
in 1873 in his great treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.
Availing himself of the admirable generalized co-ordinate system of
Lagrange, Maxwell showed how to reduce all electric and magnetic phenomena
to stresses and motions of a material medium, and, as one preliminary, but
excessively severe, test of the truth of his theory, he pointed out that (if
the electromagnetic medium be that which is required for the explanation of
the phenomena of light) the velocity of light in vacuo should be numerically
the same as the ratio of the electromagnetic and electrostatic units. In
fact, the means of the best determinations of each of these quantities
separately agree with one another more closely than do the various values of
either. Maxwell used the concept of the aether to explain electromagnetic
radiation. The validity of the self-propagating electromagnetic wave
suggestion was later demonstrated in experiments by Heinrich Rudolf Hertz,
and was fundamental to the invention of radio. Ludwig Boltzmann helped
present the Maxwell equation to the general population in his lectures on
A similar mathematical system was used later by Einstein for the theory of
relativity. Relativity and Maxwell's theory have many similarities, and it
can be said that Maxwell's formulation of electromagnetism was a precursor
of the theory of relativity. Heaviside reduced the complexity of the theory
down to four differential equations, known now collectively as Maxwell's
Laws or Maxwell's equations. Maxwell's Laws describe the nature of static
and moving electric and magnetic charges, and the relationship between the
two, namely electromagnetic induction.
Later years and afterwards
Maxwell also made contributions to the area of optics and colour vision,
being credited with the discovery that colour photographs could be formed
using red, green, and blue filters. He had the photographer Thomas Sutton
photograph a tartan ribbon three times, each time with a different colour
filter over the lens. The three images were developed and then projected
onto a screen with three different projectors, each equipped with the same
colour filter used to take its image. When brought into register, the three
images formed a full colour image. Maxwell's work on colour blindness
allowed him to win the Rumford Medal by the Royal Society of London. He
wrote an admirable textbook of the "Theory of Heat" (1871), and an excellent
elementary treatise on "Matter and Motion" (1876).
In 1871, he was the the first Cavendish Professor of experimental physics at
Cambridge. Maxwell supervised the development of the Cavendish laboratory.
He superintended every step of the progress of the building and of the
purchase of the very valuable collection of apparatus with which it was
equipped at the expense of its munificent founder, the seventh duke of
Devonshire (chancellor of the university, and one of its most distinguished
alumni). One of Maxwell’s last great contributions to science was the
editing (with copious original notes) of the Electrical Researches of Henry
Cavendish, from which it appeared that Cavendish researched such questions
as the mean density of the earth and the composition of water, among other things.
On November 5, 1879, Maxwell died of abdominal cancer.
The extended biography "The Life of James Clerk Maxwell", by his former
schoolfellow and lifelong friend Professor Lewis Campbell, was published in
1882 and his collected works, including the series of articles on the
properties of matter, such as “Atom,” “Attraction,” “Capillary Action,”
“Diffusion,” “Ether,” etc., were issued in two volumes by the Cambridge
University Press in 1890.
"[Electromagnetism] velocity is nearly that of light ... have strong
reason to conclude that light in such a way itself (including radiant
heat, and other radiation if any) is an electromagnetic disturbance
propagated through the electromagnetic field according to waves into
the form of electromagnetic laws." — James Maxwell
Arriving at Cambridge University and told there would be a compulsory 6
a.m. church service, he stroked his beard thoughtfully, and slowly
pronounced, in a thick Scots Brogue, "Aye, I suppose I could stay up
"The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's
equations of the electromagnetic field" — Albert Einstein
"He achieved greatness unequalled." — Max Planck
"From a long view of the history of mankind - seen from, say, ten
thousand years from now - there can be little doubt that the most
significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's
discovery of the laws of electrodynamics" — Richard Feynman
"Maxwell's importance in the history of scientific thought is
comparable to Einstein's (whom he inspired) and to Newton's (whose
influence he curtailed)" — Ivan Tolstoy (Biographer)