• Jun 13, 1831
    (b.) -
    Nov 5, 1879
    (d.)

Bio/Description

A Scottish physicist and mathematician, he was born in Edinburgh, to John Clerk and Frances Cay. His father was a man of comfortable means, of the Clerk family of Penicuik, Midlothian, holders of the baronetcy of Clerk of Penicuik who added the surname Maxwell to his name after he inherited a country estate in Middlebie, Kirkcudbrightshire from connections to the Maxwell family, themselves members of the peerage. Recognizing the potential of the young boy, his mother Frances took responsibility for his early education, which in the Victorian era was largely the job of the woman of the house. She was however taken ill with abdominal cancer, and after an unsuccessful operation, died in December 1839 when he was only eight. His education was then overseen by his father, John, and his father’s sister-in-law Jane; both of whom played pivotal roles in his life. His formal schooling began unsuccessfully under the guidance of a sixteen-year-old hired tutor. His father dismissed the tutor in November 1841, and sent him to the prestigious Edinburgh Academy. During this time his passion for drawing was encouraged by his older cousin Jemima, who was herself a talented artist. At the age of ten, having been raised in isolation on his father's countryside estate, he did not fit in well at school. The first year had been full, obliging him to join the second year with classmates a year his senior. Social isolation at the Academy ended when he met Lewis Campbell and Peter Guthrie Tait, two boys of a similar age who were to become notable scholars later in life. They would remain lifetime friends. He was fascinated by geometry at an early age, rediscovering the regular polyhedron before any formal instruction. Much of his talent however, went overlooked, and despite winning the school's scripture biography prize in his second year his academic work remained unnoticed until, at the age of 13, he won the school's mathematical medal and first prize for both English and poetry. He wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 14. In it he described a mechanical means of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of twine, and the properties of ellipses, Cartesian ovals, and related curves with more than two foci. His work, Oval Curves, was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh by James Forbes, who was a professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. He was deemed too young for the work presented. The work was not entirely original, since Descartes had also examined the properties of such multifocal curves in the seventeenth century, but he had simplified their construction. He left the Academy in 1847 at the age of 16 and began attending classes at the University of Edinburgh. Having had the opportunity to attend the University of Cambridge after his first term he instead decided to complete the full course of his undergraduate studies at Edinburgh. The academic staff of Edinburgh University included some highly regarded names, and his first year tutors included Sir William Hamilton, who lectured him on logic and metaphysics, Philip Kelland on mathematics, and James Forbes on natural philosophy. He did not find his classes at Edinburgh University very demanding, and was therefore able to immerse himself in private study during free time at the university, and particularly when back home at Glenlair. There he would experiment with improvised chemical, electric, and magnetic apparatuses, but his chief concerns regarded the properties of polarized light. He constructed shaped blocks of gelatine, subjected them to various stresses, and with a pair of polarizing prisms given to him by the famous scientist William Nicol he would view the coloured fringes which had developed within the jelly. Through this practice he discovered photoelasticity, which is a means of determining the stress distribution within physical structures. He contributed two papers for the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh at the age of 18. One of these, “On the equilibrium of elastic solids”, laid the foundation for an important discovery later in his life, which was the temporary double refraction produced in viscous liquids by shear stress. His other paper was titled Rolling curves, and just as with the paper Oval Curves that he had written at the Edinburgh Academy, he was again considered too young to stand at the rostrum and present it himself. The paper was delivered to the Royal Society by his tutor Kelland instead. In October 1850, already an accomplished mathematician, he left Scotland for Cambridge University. He initially attended Peterhouse, but before the end of his first term transferred to Trinity College, where he believed it would be easier to obtain a fellowship. At Trinity, he was elected to the elite secret society known as the Cambridge Apostles. In November 1851, he studied under William Hopkins, whose success in nurturing mathematical genius had earned him the nickname of "senior wrangler-maker". A considerable part of his translation of his equations regarding electromagnetism was accomplished during his time at Trinity. In 1854, he graduated from Trinity with a degree in mathematics. He scored second highest in the final examination, coming behind Edward Routh, and thereby earning himself the title of Second Wrangler. He was later declared equal with Routh, however, in the more exacting ordeal of the Smith's Prize examination. Immediately after earning his degree, he read a novel paper to the Cambridge Philosophical Society entitled, “On the transformation of surfaces by bending”. This is one of the few purely mathematical papers he had written, and it demonstrated his growing stature as a mathematician. He decided to remain at Trinity after graduating and applied for a fellowship, which was a process that he could expect to take a couple of years. Buoyed by his success as a research student, he would be free, aside from some tutoring and examining duties, to pursue scientific interests at his own leisure. The nature and perception of colour was one such interest, and had begun at Edinburgh University while he was a student of Forbes. He took the coloured spinning tops invented by Forbes, and was able to demonstrate that white light would result from a mixture of red, green and blue light. His paper, “Experiments on colour”, laid out the principles of colour combination, and was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in March 1855 and delivered the lecture himself. He was made a fellow of Trinity on 10 October 1855, sooner than was the norm, and was asked to prepare lectures on hydrostatics and optics, and to set examination papers. However, the following February he was urged by Forbes to apply for the newly vacant Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen. His father assisted him in the task of preparing the necessary references, but died on April 2nd, at Glenlair before either knew the result of his candidacy. He nevertheless accepted the professorship at Aberdeen, leaving Cambridge in November 1856. At 25, he was a decade and a half younger than any other professor at Marischal, but engaged himself with his new responsibilities as head of department, devising the syllabus and preparing lectures. He committed himself to lecturing 15 hours a week, including a weekly pro bono lecture to the local working men's college. He lived in Aberdeen during the six months of the academic year, and spent the summers at Glenlair, which he had inherited from his father. His mind was focused on a problem that had eluded scientists for two hundred years: the nature of Saturn's rings. It was unknown how they could remain stable without breaking up, drifting away or crashing into Saturn. The problem took on a particular resonance at this time as St John's College, Cambridge had chosen it as the topic for the 1857 Adams Prize. He devoted two years to studying the problem, proving that a regular solid ring could not be stable, and a fluid ring would be forced by wave action to break up into blobs. Since neither was observed, he concluded that the rings must comprise numerous small particles he called "brick-bats", each independently orbiting Saturn. He was awarded the £130 Adams Prize in 1859 for his essay On the stability of Saturn's rings; he was the only entrant to have made enough headway to submit an entry. His work was so detailed and convincing that when George Biddell Airy read it he commented, "It is one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen." It was considered the final word on the issue until direct observations by the Voyager flybys of the 1980s confirmed his prediction. He would also go on to disprove mathematically the nebular hypothesis (which stated that the 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 1857 he befriended the Reverend Daniel Dewar, who was the Principal of Marischal, and through him met Dewar's daughter, Katherine Mary Dewar. They were engaged in February 1858 and married in Aberdeen on 2 June 1858. On the marriage record, he is listed as Professor of Natural Philosophy in Mareschal College, Aberdeen. Seven years his senior, comparatively little is known of Katherine although it is known that she helped in his lab and worked on experiments in viscosity. His biographer and friend Campbell adopted an uncharacteristic reticence on the subject of Katherine, though describing their married life as "one of unexampled devotion". In 1860, Marischal College merged with the neighbouring King's College to form the University of Aberdeen. There was no room for two professors of Natural Philosophy, and he, despite his scientific reputation, found himself laid off. He was unsuccessful in applying for Forbes' recently vacated chair at Edinburgh, the post instead going to Tait. He was granted the Chair of Natural Philosophy at King's College London instead. After recovering from a near-fatal bout of smallpox in the summer of 1860, he headed south to London with his wife. His time at King's was probably the most productive of his career. He was awarded the Royal Society's Rumford Medal in 1860 for his work on colour, and was later elected to the Society in 1861. This period of his life would see him display the world's first light-fast colour photograph, further develop his ideas on the viscosity of gases, and propose a system of defining physical quantities—now known as dimensional analysis. He would often attend lectures at the Royal Institution, where he came into regular contact with Michael Faraday. The relationship between the two men could not be described as close, as Faraday was 40 years Maxwell's senior and showed signs of senility. They nevertheless maintained a strong respect for each other's talents. This time is especially known for the advances he made in the fields of electricity and magnetism. He had examined the nature of both electric and magnetic fields in his two-part paper On physical lines of force, published in 1861, in which he had provided a conceptual model for electromagnetic induction, consisting of tiny spinning cells of magnetic flux. Two more parts later added to the paper were published in early 1862. In the first of these he discussed the nature of electrostatics and displacement current. The final part dealt with the rotation of the plane of polarization of light in a magnetic field, a phenomenon discovered by Faraday and now known as the Faraday effect. His most prominent achievement was formulating classical electromagnetic theory. This unites all previously unrelated observations, experiments and equations of electricity, magnetism and optics into a consistent theory. His equations demonstrate that electricity, magnetism and light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely the electromagnetic field. Subsequently, all other classic laws or equations of these disciplines became simplified cases of his equations. His achievements concerning electromagnetism have been called the "second great unification in physics", after the first one realised by Isaac Newton. He demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in the form of waves, and at the constant speed of light. In 1865 he published, “A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field”. It was with this that he first proposed that light was in fact undulations in the same medium that is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena. His work in producing a unified model of electromagnetism is one of the greatest advances in physics. He also helped develop the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution, which is a statistical means of describing aspects of the kinetic theory of gases. These two discoveries helped usher in the era of modern physics, laying the foundation for such fields as special relativity and quantum mechanics. He is also known for presenting the first durable colour photograph in 1861 and for his foundational work on the rigidity of rod-and-joint frameworks like those in many bridges. He is considered by many physicists to be the 19th-century scientist who had the greatest influence on 20th-century physics. His contributions to the science are considered by many to be of the same magnitude as those of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. In the millennium poll—a survey of the 100 most prominent physicists—he was voted the third greatest physicist of all time, behind only Newton and Einstein. On the centennial of his birthday, Einstein himself described his work as the "most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton." Einstein kept a photograph of him on his study wall, alongside pictures of Michael Faraday and Newton. In 1865, he resigned the chair at King's College London and returned to Glenlair with Katherine where he wrote a textbook entitled, “Theory of Heat” (1871), and an elementary treatise, “Matter and Motion” (1876). He was also the first to make explicit use of dimensional analysis, in 1871 at which time, he became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge and was put in charge of the development of the Cavendish Laboratory. He supervised every step in the progress of the building and of the purchase of the very valuable collection of apparatus paid for by its generous founder, the 7th Duke of Devonshire (chancellor of the university, and one of its most distinguished alumni). One of his 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, amongst other things, such questions as the mean density of the earth and the composition of water. As a great lover of Scottish poetry, he memorized poems and wrote his own. A collection of his poems was published by his friend Lewis Campbell in 1882. Ivan Tolstoy, author of one of his biographies, has noted the frequency with which scientists writing short biographies about him omit the subject of his Christianity. He was an evangelical Presbyterian, and in his later years became an Elder of the Church of Scotland. His religious beliefs and related activities have been the focus of several peer-reviewed and well-referenced papers. Attending both Church of Scotland (his father's denomination) and Episcopalian (his mother's denomination) services as a child, he later underwent an evangelical conversion in April 1853, which committed him to an anti-positivist position. Among his many contributions to science is his contribution in the field of optics and the study of colour vision, creating the foundation for practical colour photography. During an 1861 Royal Institution lecture on colour theory, he presented the world's first demonstration of colour photography by this principle of three-colour analysis and synthesis, the basis of nearly all subsequent photochemical and electronic methods of colour photography. Thomas Sutton, inventor of the single-lens reflex camera, did the actual picture-taking. He photographed a tartan ribbon three times, through red, green and blue filters. Because Sutton's photographic plates were in fact insensitive to red and barely sensitive to green, the results of this pioneering experiment were far from perfect. It was remarked in the published account of the lecture that "if the red and green images had been as fully photographed as the blue," it "would have been a truly-coloured image of the riband. By finding photographic materials more sensitive to the less refrangible rays, the representation of the colours of objects might be greatly improved." Researchers in 1961 concluded that the seemingly impossible partial success of the red-filtered exposure was due to ultraviolet light. Some red dyes strongly reflect it, the red filter used does not entirely block it, and Sutton's plates were sensitive to it. The demonstration was not of a print or transparency containing tangible colouring matter, but of colour which was photographically recorded from nature and reproduced by the same additive colour synthesis principle now used by all common types of colour video displays. His purpose was not to present a method of colour photography, but to illustrate the basis of human colour perception and to show that the correct additive primaries are not red, yellow and blue, as was then taught, but red, green and blue. He died in Cambridge of abdominal cancer at the age of 48; the same age as his mother, from the same type of cancer. He is buried at Parton Kirk, near Castle Douglas in Galloway, Scotland. 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. He was ranked 91st on the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. His name is honoured in a number of ways, one of which is the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the largest submillimetre-wavelength astronomical telescope in the world, with a diameter of 15 metres. In “Turing’s Cathedral” by George Dyson, it is noted: “In 1871, James Clerk Maxwell, the namesake for both Maxwell’s equations formalizing the concept of an electromagnetic field and the Maxwellian distribution of kinetic energy among the particles of a gas, conceived an imaginary being—termed “Maxwell’s demon” by William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) in 1874—‘whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course.’ ”.
  • Date of Birth:

    Jun 13, 1831
  • Date of Death:

    Nov 5, 1879
  • Gender:

    Male
  • Noted For:

    Formulated classical electromagnetic theory which united all previously unrelated observations, experiments and equations of electricity, magnetism and optics into a consistent theory
  • Category of Achievement:

  • More Info: