Maxwell's formulation of his equations of electromagnetism is one of the greatest feats of human intellect.

Maxwell's formulation of his equations of electromagnetism is one of the greatest feats of human intellect.

James Clerk Maxwell

1831 – 1879

James Clerk Maxwell

physicist whose work is the foundation of electrical engineering

Engineering Achievements

Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism are regarded as a main foundation of modern electrical/electronic engineering. They have underpinned a wide range of engineering technologies across the electromagnetic spectrum inlcuding X-Ray, radio, television, microwaves and mobile phones. He did important work on thermodynamics. He was the first to develop a theory of servomechanics (cybernetics). In structural mechanics he developed: photoelasticity for stress measurement; reciprocal diagrams for analysis of statically determinate trusses; the flexibility method for analysing indeterminate trusses.
He devised the plastic failure criterion for materials now referred to as the 'von Mises criterion' well ahead of von Mises. He did important work in optics and colour vision. He did important work in relation to viscoelasticity and relaxation processes in glass. He achieved all of this despite only living to the age of 48.

His Life

  1. 1831 Born 13th June in Edinburgh, Scotland
  2. 1841 Age: 10 Entered Edinburgh Academy
  3. 1846 Age: 15 Maxwell's paper on oval curves presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh
  4. 1847 Age: 16 Entered the University of Edinburgh
  5. 1850 Age: 19 Published 'On the equilibrium of elastic solids'
  6. 1850 Age: 19 Entered Cambridge University (Peterhouse, then Trinity)
  7. 1854 Age: 23 Graduated second wrangler in tripos examination
  8. 1855 Age: 24 Elected a Fellow of Trinity
  9. 1856 Age: 24 Appointed professor of natural philosophy, Marischal College, Aberdeen
  10. 1856 Age: 56 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 21st April
  11. 1860 Age: 29 Appointed professor of natural philosophy, King's College, London
  12. 1861 Age: 30 Published 'On Physical Lines of Force'
  13. 1861 Age: 30 First colour photograph of a tartan ribbon for lecture at Royal Institution
  14. 1861 Age: 30 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society
  15. 1865 Age: 34 Retired to the family home at Glenlair and continued with scientific work
  16. 1865 Age: 34 Published 'A dynamical theory of the electromagnetic field'
  17. 1867 Age: 36 Published 'On the dynamical theory of gases'
  18. 1870 Age: 39 Speech to the British Association in Liverpool challenging the basis of our system of measurement
  19. 1871 Age: 40 First Cavendish professor of experimental physics, Cambridge
  20. 1873 Age: 42 Published 'A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism'
  21. 1879 Age: 48 Died 5th November in Cambridge, and buried in Parton churchyard, Kirkcudbrightshire

His Legacy

In his work on gas dynamics Maxwell introduced the treatment of movement of molecules on a statistical basis. This is one of the cornerstones of quantum theory. It is said that all of modern physics leads back to Maxwell. He was not a towering presence in his time. Even today, his contribution is still not as well recognised as it deserves to be, except amongst physicists. He was, undoubtedly, the greatest Scottish scientific genius, the greatest physicist worldwide in the nineteenth century and in the top three in the past 2,000 years, standing shoulder to shoulder with Newton and Einstein in his contributions. Einstein had a framed photograph of Clerk Maxwell in his study, alongside Newton and Faraday. Einstein himself described Maxwell's work as the "most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton" and acknowledged that his Theory of Relativity would not have been possible without Maxwell's work on electromagnetism. In his relatively short career as a physicist the span of topics that Maxwell addressed is remarkable. In each case his investigations turned into scientific gold.

Nobel prizewinning physicist Richard P Feynman said "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"

More Information

The Life of James Clerk Maxwell L Campbell and W Garnett, MacMillan, 1882
Ten British Physicists of the Nineteenth Century Alexander MacFarlane. New York. 1919
James Clerk Maxwell, Physicist and Natural Philosopher C W F Everitt, Scribner, New York, 1975
James Clerk Maxwell a Biography I Tolstoy, Canongate Edinburgh, 1981
The Demon in the Aether: the Story of James Clerk Maxwell M Goldman, Edinburgh, 1983
The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell P M Harman (ed) 3 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1990-2002
The Man Who Changed Everything: the Life of James Clerk Maxwell Basil Mahon, Wiley, 2003
Celebration of Achievements & Legacy of James Clerk Maxwell Royal Society of Edinburgh, 2008
Exactly: How Precision Engineers Created the Modern World Simon Winchester, 2018
A statue by Alexander Stoddart was unveiled in George Street, Edinburgh in 2008.
His birthplace in India Street in Edinburgh houses the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation.
The Cavendish Museum in Cambridge displays some of Maxwell's experimental apparatus
An episode of Radio 4's "In our Time", originally broadcast on 2 October 2003, discusses the life and ideas of James Clerk Maxwell.
An episode of Radio 4's "Science Stories", originally broadcast on 8 June 2016, explains the thought experiment Maxwell's Demon.
There are three portraits of James Clerk Maxwell held in the National Portrait Gallery.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

Engineering and Scientific Terms and other Homage to Maxwell

The maxwell (Mx), is a compound derived unit measuring magnetic flux
Maxwell's equations: The Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution; Maxwell's demon; Maxwell's theorem; Maxwell bridge
Maxwell Montes is a mountain range on Venus
The Maxwell Gap and the Maxwell ringlet in the Rings of Saturn
The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii is the largest submillimetre wavelength astronomical telescope in the world, with a diameter of 15 metres
The James Clerk Maxwell Building of the University of Edinburgh houses the schools of mathematics, physics and meteorology
A hologram in the James Clerk Maxwell room in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, George Street, Edinburgh
The James Clerk Maxwell building is in the Waterloo campus of King's College, London which also has a Clerk Maxwell Chair in Theoretical Physics and a Maxwell Society
The James Clerk Maxwell Science Centre of the Edinburgh Academy was opened in 2006
James Clerk Maxwell Road in Cambridge, which runs beside the Cavendish Laboratory
The Maxwell Building at the University of Salford
James Clerk Maxwell street in Aberdeen's Kincorth area
NASA's Hybrid Electric Research Plane, X-57, has been named "Maxwell" by the scientists working on the programme.

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