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Maxwell’s Work with the Zoetrope

The young James was close to his cousin Jemima Wedderburn who, as Jemima Blackburn, was to become an accomplished artist and illustrator.  Sometimes the two combined their talents to produce ‘wheels of life’ or zoetrope images which use a series of separate images on a spinning wheel (phenakistoscope) or cylinder (zoetrope) to give the illusion of movement.  The example shown here suggests that, in this case, Jemima had the greater artistic input with James responsible for inspiration and production.  This sequence may be downloaded as an animated gif file.  This is an interesting precursor to Maxwell’s later interests in colour and perception.



In 1868 Maxwell was in discussion with Lord Kelvin regarding the application of Helmholtz’s ideas on smoke rings traveling in the same direction to Kelvin’s theory of the vortex atom.  According to this theory, chemical elements are small, knotted vortices of ether.  Maxwell wrote to Kelvin: "Helmholtz's 3 rings do as 2 rings in his own paper that is those in front expand and go slower those behind contract and when small go faster and thread through the others. I drew 3 to make the motion more slow and visible not that I have solved the case of 3 rings more than to get a rough notion about this case and to make the sum of the three areas [constant] I have made them fat when small and thin when big."


This photograph (courtesy of the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge) shows Maxwell’s zoetrope.  It is fitted with the strip that he drew to illustrate the process described. 

The image on the strip is viewed through the slots, and as the drum is rotated it results in the appearance of a moving image, as shown in the video above.  It may also be downloaded as an animated gif file.


Glasgow musician and composer PJ Moore (of ‘The Blue Nile’) is an enthusiastic promoter of James Clerk Maxwell’s memory.  An example of his work is this piece which combines the animations shown above and images of Glenlair (Maxwell’s country home), with words written by Maxwell at age 23 set to Paul’s music.


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