Who was James Clerk Maxwell?

Maxwell Framed Photo


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.

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.

The Genius o’ Glenlair
by Prof. Keith Moffatt

 (A wee bit doggerel tae celebrate the Year o’ Maxwell 2006)

 When James Clerk Maxwell was a lad,
His questing mind fair deaved his Dad;
For “What’s the go of it?” he’ld speir,
An’ hammer on till a’ was clear.

 They ca’d him ‘dafty’ at the scule,
An’ that, ye’ld think, was awfie cruel!
He didna’ mind, he was apart
Constructing ovals o’ Descartes!

 He played wi’ colours blue an’ green
An’ red, enhanced by dubious sheen;
An’ took the earliest colour photo,
As good as ony Blake or Giotto. 

He analysed the rings o’ Saturn,
Resolving their striated pattern,
Predicting weel their composition
By calculus and long division.

Redundant in the granite city
An’ spurned by En’bro’, mairs the pity,
He ended up awa’ doon South,
Nae doot they thocht him gae uncouth!

He liked tae doodle lines o’ force,
Wi’ charge an’ current as the source;
As much at hame wi’ rho an’ phi,
 E, H an’ B an’ J forbye! 

Through these he saw the radiant licht,
An’ workit at it day an’ nicht;
His mind roamed far whaur ithers durn’t,
An’ hit upon displacement current.

Syne back tae Galloway he repaired,
He had tae go – he was the laird!
By day conferring wi’ the ghillie,
By nicht researching willy-nilly!

 At last frae Cambridge cam’ the call,
Doon tae thon hallowed Senate Hall,
Where, tho’ he held the dons in thrall,
They didna follow him at all ! 

Blithe son o’ Gallovidian hills
O’ birk-clad slopes an’ tumbling rills,
Wha rose through intellect sublime,
Tae comprehend baith space an’ time;  

Great Scot! wha’s words in prose an’ rhyme,
Inspire us yet o’er vales o’ time,
In this thine eponymial year 
Thy soaring spirit we revere!

hkm  16 Dec. 2006


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