James Clerk Maxwell (1831 - 1879)

Maxwell was born in Scotland in 1831, and was only 8 when his mother died. Maxwell and his family moved to his aunt’s home, where Maxwell was able to attend the Edinburgh Academy - it was not long after his arrival that Maxwell began to show his true abilities. He was a brilliant student, gaining prizes in mathematics and English - much to the surprise of his fellow students who thought him shy and rather dull.

By the age of 14 Maxwell had submitted his first paper - on the subject of elliptical ovals - to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and although the work was not new, it was still very impressive for a boy of his age. Maxwell did not stop there. At 16 he submitted two more papers on The Theory of Rolling Curves and The Equilibrium of Elastic Bodies continuing his extraordinary development.

By 1850 Maxwell had entered Peterhouse College, Cambridge but he did not stay long. He thought he could get a fellowship more easily if he transferred to Trinity - another Cambridge college. Trinity gave Maxwell an opportunity to mix with some of the most influential minds of the time. His plans worked out and he was awarded his fellowship and graduated in mathematics four years later.

1856 was to see Maxwell return to Scotland and take up the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen shortly after the death of his father. When a competition was announced that same year, for the Adams Prize, on the topic The Motion of Saturn’s Rings, a subject that had interested Maxwell since his time at the Edinburgh Academy, his research concluded that the stability of the rings could only occur if they consisted of numerous small particles - later confirmed by the Voyager space-probe! Maxwell was ahead of his time yet again.

Maxwell married Katherine Mary Dewar, daughter of his boss, the Principal of Marischal College, Aberdeen - no bad career move for the Professor of Natural Philosophy! Unfortunately, when Marischal College merged with King’s College, Maxwell had to look for another job. A position arose in Edinburgh, which Maxwell went for, but was beaten to the job by a former Academy friend. Undeterred, a move to London soon occurred and Maxwell joined King’s College London.

In 1931, on the 100th anniversary of Maxwell’s birth, Einstein was prompted to define Maxwell’s contributions as ’ … the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.

Maxwell’s work led to the development of radio. Though he had never seen or experienced radio waves, he successfully forecast most of the laws that govern their propagation, calculating their speed and noting their resemblance to light waves. Maxwell showed how radio waves could be reflected, absorbed and focused like the beam from a torch. More importantly, scientists later showed how they could be adapted to carry information - the new electronic era had begun. Radio, telephones, TV, radar, the internet - all are possible because of Maxwell’s work.

In 1862 his equations led Maxwell to come to the decisive conclusion that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is the same as that of light. He proposed that the phenomenon of light is therefore an electromagnetic phenomenon. Maxwell wrote these words:

‘We can scarcely avoid the conclusion that light consists in the transverse undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena.’

He returned to his Scottish home in mid 1879, but his health deteriorated quickly and he died before the end of that year.

Maxwell’s mathematics

Maxwell’s continuing studies on electromagnetics culminated in a set of equations of profound theoretical significance and practical use. The equations are written in terms of vectors and partial differentials - the language of modern physics: