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Who was James Clerk Maxwell?

James Clerk Maxwell was one of the greatest scientists who have ever lived.  To him we owe the most significant discovery of our age - the theory of electromagnetism.  He is rightly acclaimed as the father of modern physics. He also made fundamental contributions to mathematics, astronomy and engineering.

On the 13th June 1831 James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, at 14 India Street, a house built for his father in that part of Edinburgh's elegant Georgian New Town which was developed after the Napoleonic Wars.  Although the family moved to their estate at Glenlair, near Dumfries, shortly afterwards, James returned to Edinburgh to attend school at The Edinburgh Academy.  He continued his education at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge.  In 1856, at the early age of 25, he became Professor of Physics at Marischal College, Aberdeen. From there he moved first to King's College, London, and then, in 1871, to become the first Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge where he directed the newly created Cavendish Laboratory.  It was at the Cavendish, over the next fifty years, that so much of the physics of today continued to develop from Maxwell's inspiration.

Maxwell Framed Photo


Albert Einstein said: "The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field."
Einstein also said: "Since Maxwell's time, physical reality has been thought of as represented by continuous fields, and not capable of any mechanical interpretation.  This change in the conception of reality is the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton"

Ivan Tolstoy, in his biography of Maxwell, wrote: “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)”

In 1864 Maxwell, before the Royal Society of London in 'A Dynamic Theory of the Electro-Magnetic Field', said: “We have strong reason to conclude that light itself - including radiant heat and other radiation, if any - is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated through the electro-magnetic field according to electro-magnetic laws.”

On which Professor R V Jones commented: “This paper is the first pointer to the existence of radiation other than light and heat, and ranks as one of the greatest leaps ever achieved in human thought.”

"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 P Feynman

So much of our technology in the world today stems from his grasp of basic principles of the universe.  Wide ranging developments in the field of electricity and electronics, including radio, television, radar and communications, derive from Maxwell's discovery - which was not a synthesis of what was known before, but rather a fundamental change in concept that departed from Newton's view and was to influence greatly the modern scientific and industrial revolution.

Key dates in the life of  of James Clerk Maxwell


Born 13 June, 14 India Street


Moved to Glenlair


Enrolled, Edinburgh Academy


Maxwell’s first paper “On the description of oval curves and those having a plurality of foci” Proc Roy Soc Edinburgh, Vol. II


 Studied, University of Edinburgh


Entered Peterhouse College, Cambridge - after one term migrated to Trinity College


Mathematical Tripos – 2nd Wrangler and First (Equal) Smith’s Prizeman


Appointed Professor Physics at Marischal College, Aberdeen


Elected Fellow Royal Society Edinburgh (FRSE) aged 24


Essay on “The Stability of Saturn’s Rings” won the Adams Prize, University of Cambridge


Paper “Illustrations of the Dynamical Theory of Gasses” where the Maxwell-Bolzman distribution for velocities in a gas are derived


Appointed Professor at Kings College, London


Awarded Rumford Medal, Royal Society


Royal Institution, first demonstration on colour reproduction


Elected Fellow Royal Society (FRS) shortly before 30th birthday


“On physical lines of force”, Phil. Mag. Vols. 21 & 23. Calculates that electric and magnetic effects travel at speed of light and states “..we can scarcely avoid the inference that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena.”


Famous oral presentation: “Dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field” presented to Royal Society containing ‘Maxwell’s Equations’ states “.. that it seems we have strong reason to conclude that light itself (including radiant heat and other radiations if any) is an electromagnetic disturbance in the form of waves propagated ……according the electromagnetic laws”


Above paper, “Dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field”, formally published in Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc., Vol. CLV,  London


Bakerian Lecture of the Royal Society: “On the viscosity or internal friction of air and other gases”, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. (Vol. CLVI) London. Includes measurements made in his London attic


“On a method of making a direct comparison of electrostatic with electromagnetic force; with a note on the electromagnetic theory of light”, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc.  (Vol. CLVIII) London,  Includes consequence of definitions of electromagnetic and electrostatic units of electric charge which makes their ratio equal to the speed of light


“On governors”, Proc. Roy. Soc. (Vol. XVI) London. First mathematical treatment of feedback leading to control theory and cybernetics 


Awarded Keith Prize, Royal Society of Edinburgh


“On reciprocal figures, frames and diagrams of forces”, Trans. Roy. Soc. Edinburgh Vol. 26.  This follow-up to a paper by G B Airy on elasticity led to award (see above) of RSE Keith Medal 


“On hills and dales”, Phil. Mag. Vol. 40. An early contribution to the mathematics of topology


Awarded Doctor of Law (LLD), University of Edinburgh


Awarded Hopkins Prize, University of Cambridge


Published his textbook “Theory of Heat”


Directed and established Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, as First Professor of Experimental Physics


Second lecture on colour at Royal Institution: “On colour vision”


Publication of his “Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism“, Oxford University Press


Elected Foreign Honorary Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Boston


Elected Member of American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia


Elected Corresponding Member, Royal Society of Sciences of Göttingen


Awarded Doctor of Civil Law (DCL), University of Oxford


Elected Honorary Member, New York Academy of Sciences


Published book ‘Matter and Motion’


Elected Member, Royal Academy of Sciences of Amsterdam


Elected Foreign Corresponding Member, Mathematico-Natural-Science Class of the Imperial Academy of Sciences of Vienna


Delivers Rede Lecture at Cambridge: “The Telephone”


Volta Medal, Doctor of Sciences honoris causa, University of Pavia


Dies of stomach cancer on 5 November, buried Parton, Castle Douglas


Edinburgh statue unveiled

[Who Was Maxwell?]