James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, on the 13th of June, 1831.
In a lifetime spanning a mere forty-eight years, James Clerk Maxwell became the man who changed everything. At the time of his death, few understood the importance of his work. Nevertheless, years later, Albert Einstein not only understood but used Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetics as the main pillar of his theory of relativity. Maxwell’s discoveries were also later recognised by physicists as being on a par with those of Newton and Einstein – in terms of their being a fundamental step change on the path of progress. Significantly and quite rightly, Maxwell is acclaimed as the ‘father’ of modern physics. James Clerk Maxwell also made fundamental contributions to mathematics, astronomy and engineering.
James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh on 13th of June, 1831, but enjoyed a country upbringing at Glenlair, in Kirkcudbrightshire, near Dumfries. His natural curiosity displayed itself at an early age as even before he reached the age of three, he was known for his constant inquiring and investigating into the how’s and why’s of things. You might say that the favourite question of all children is “Why?”, but the precocious wee Jamesie Maxwell made it his business to find out.
In 1841, Maxwell attended Edinburgh Academy, from the tender age of nine, after the family moved back to Edinburgh following the death of his mother. He wrote his first paper, ‘On the description of oval curves and those having a plurality of foci’, in early 1846, and presented this to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the 6th of April, 1846. A year later, in the November, Maxwell entered the University of Edinburgh and attended the Mathematics, Natural Philosophy (as Physics was then known) and Logic classes.
Peterhouse, in Cambridge, was Maxwell’s next destination, in October, 1850, but he subsequently moved to Trinity, mainly because he believed that it was easier there, to obtain a fellowship. He achieved major honours at Trinity and was by then making a significant impact and gaining a reputation for proclivity. Maxwell graduated with a Degree in Mathematics, in 1854. He remained at Cambridge, where he took pupils and was awarded a Fellowship at Trinity, to continue work. One of his most important achievements at this time was his extension and mathematical formulation of Michael Faraday’s theories of electricity and magnetic lines of force. His paper, ‘On Faraday’s lines of force’, was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in two parts, in 1855 and 1856.
Later in 1856, Maxwell applied for the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen. His appointment in the November brightened up a year earlier shrouded in sadness at the death of his other parent. In June of 1859, he married the daughter of the Principal of Marischal College, but despite that, he still had to find another job when the College combined with King’s in the following year. There was no partiality or patronage there and that circumstance brought him to London, where he was appointed Chair of Natural Philosophy at King’s College. The six years that Maxwell spent in this post were the years when he did his most important experimental work.
The list of Maxwell’s achievements is a long one. He invented the trichromatic process from his work on primary colour perception; invented colour photography; and conducted research into colour blindness; explained the rings of Saturn; proved that the air we breath is made of rapidly moving molecules; formulated the kinetic theory of gases; pioneered work on the molecular structure of free-flowing substances; made fundamental contributions to thermodynamics; showed how to calculate stresses in framed arch and suspension bridges; figured out how light works; and why it travels at 300,000 kilometres per second; developed his eponymous equations to express the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields; and, most importantly, he predicted the existence of electro-magnetic waves and concluded that visible light forms only a small part of the entire spectrum. From television and radio to X-ray machines and microwave ovens, the 21st Century, smartphone and tablet carrying populace depends on Maxwell’s discoveries.
Maxwell returned to Glenlair in 1865, however, he made periodic trips to Cambridge and, in 1871, accepted an offer to be the first Cavendish Professor of Physics. He designed the Cavendish laboratory, which was formally opened on the 16th of June, 1874. Some years later, in 1879, Maxwell’s health began to fail. By the 8th of October, he could scarcely walk; the end was in sight. One of the greatest scientists the world has ever known passed away on the 5th of November, 1879, in Cambridge. Maxwell is buried with his wife and parents at Parton Church, in Galloway, with just a simple plaque at the graveyard entrance in his memory. For a true memorial to this remarkable man, just take a look around you. Without his discoveries, most of the electronic gadgets and apparatus we take for granted could not have been invented.
A great man’s view of a great man: Albert Einstein said of Maxwell, “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.”There’s also a quote by Richard P. Feynman, which states, “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.” Max Planck said of Maxwell that, “He achieved greatness unequalled.” The last word goes to Ivan Tolstoy, who wrote a biography of Maxwell, in which he stated, “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).”