James Clerk Maxwell at Aberdeen


Clerk Maxwell is rightly remembered as one of the most inventive and influential physicists of all time. He was born in Edinburgh and spent most of his childhood years there and in South West Scotland.

At the age of 25, James Clerk Maxwell came from Cambridge to his first professorial post at 'Marischal College and University' in 1856. He had the responsibility of teaching Natural Philosophy to all 3rd year Arts students, a course that occupied most of their syllabus in that year. In his first year, Maxwell initiated a voluntary 4th year class and in the following year evening classes for workers.

Although the teaching was intensive, the timetable left a good half year for research, writing, attending meetings and personal life. Maxwell was still in his 20s while at Marischal College and he continued to be creative in a wide range of subjects. In particular, while professor at Marischal College:

  • In optics, Maxwell laid the foundations of modern colourimetry and ennunciated the general properties of perfect imaging systems..
  • In dynamics, Maxwell deduced the nature and stability of Saturn's rings; he also developed his dynamical top to demonstrate simplifying concepts that allow the motion of spinning bodies to be more easily treated.
  • In molecular science, Maxwell developed the first statistical laws in physics and showed how the properties of gases could be understood at a molecular level.

Maxwell left Marischal College in 1860 when his post was abolished by the Royal Commission that oversaw the merger of the two universities in Aberdeen. Later in the year Maxwell took up his next professorial chair at King's College, London.

A much more lengthy account of Maxwell's Aberdeen years has been given by John S. Reid. You can also read about who was in Maxwell's class of 1856/67, what they did in later life and a student's own account of the end of year supper for that class.

Clerk Maxwell with his wife and dog
Thumbnail of Maxwell, probably not long after he left Aberdeen, with his wife Katherine, daughter of Principal Dewar of Marischal College, and their dog Toby. Based on an image shown by the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation, courtesy of the Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge.

Marischal College in 1859

Marischal College in 1859.

Exploring James Clerk Maxwell

The A0 pdf panels below highlight aspects of Clerk Maxwell's life, with emphasis on his Aberdeen years.

The Young James Clerk Maxwell: Scotland 1831-1850
James Clerk Maxwell comes to Aberdeen: 1856-1860
Maxwell’s creation of colour science at Aberdeen
Maxwell becomes a molecular scientist at Aberdeen
Maxwell gave us electromagnetic radiation
Maxwell’s legacy: Scotland’s greatest scientist
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Maxwell's legacy concepts and natural phenomena

The pages in this link give some explanation of over 20 legacy concepts and natural phenomena associated with James Clerk Maxwell.

Maxwell around Aberdeen

This link takes you to images of Maxwell's time in Aberdeen, with explanatory details in the captions.

The James Clerk Maxwell Foundation

Enter 'Clerk Maxwell' in Google and it will flag several million 'hits'. The first place to go to is the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation in Edinburgh, located in the house that Maxwell was born in. Their web-site has articles, images, videos and other Maxwell resources. A personal visit to Maxwell's first home can be made by appointment.

Design & content John S. Reid j.s.reid@abdn.ac.uk 
Last updated March 2017