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People > Scottish Innovators > James Clerk Maxwell

Notable Scots: Innovation & Discovery

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879):

Mathematician & Theoretical Physicist

"[Maxwell's work is] the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton."
~ Albert Einstein 1
Young J.C. Maxwell
Young J.C. Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell was born at 14 India Street, Edinburgh, to Frances and John Clerk Maxwell, an advocate whose family lived within comfortable means. As a toddler, young James showed great curiosity in everything. His father wrote in a letter to his sister-in-law, "[James] has great work with doors, locks, keys, etc., and 'show me how it doos' is never out of his mouth. He also investigates the hidden course of streams and bell-wires, the way the water gets from the pond through the wall." 2

James was schooled at the University of Edinburgh. He didn't fit in well with the rest of the students (they teased him with the nickname "Daftie"), and his academic achievements went unnoticed until he won the school's mathematics medal at age thirteen. His first serious piece of academic work, "Oval Curves," was a paper that described a mechanical way of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of twine, and also explored the properties of ellipses and curves with more than two foci. This paper was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh by the noted physicist James Forbes.

James with his Wife
James with his Wife

Clerk Maxwell completed his studies at Cambridge, where he achieved much success as a research student, and at twenty-five he was appointed to the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen. He headed the department for four years, when, in 1860, Marischal merged with King's College. Maxwell then, extraordinarily, found himself out of a job, the school lacking room for two professors of natural philosophy.

He moved on to King's College in London, where he spent his most successful years. While there, he revolutionized electromagnetic theory and contributed a great amount to the fields of kinetic theory and thermodynamics. It was at King's College that Maxwell synthesized all his previous experiments, observations, and equations of electricity, magnetism, and optics into one consistent theory of electromagnetism. Maxwell's mathematical equations further demonstrated that electricity, light, and magnetism were all manifestations of the electromagnetic field --- a discovery that was later hailed as "the second great unification in physics" (Newton's laws being the first) 3. Further demonstrations concluded that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in waves at the constant speed of light. He also formulated a statistical means to describe aspects of the kinetic theory of gasses (called the Maxwell distribution).

First Colour Photograph
First Colour Photograph

Maxwell's important work ushered in the era of modern physics and laid the foundations for quantum mechanics and special relativity. His work with optics and colour vision also led to the world's first colour photograph - a tartan ribbon - which he took in 1861.

  1. Cf. McFall, Patricia. "Brainy young James wasn't so daft after all." Sunday Post. 23 April 2006.
  2. John Clerk Maxwell to Jane Cay, 1834. Cf. Lewis Campbell and William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell, Macmillian & Co.: Edinburgh. 1882.
  3. P. J. Nahin, Spectrum, IEEE. 29.3 (March 1992): 45.
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