Science & People

James Clerk Maxwell | Biography, quotes, education, facts, and inventions

There are three key names in the history of modern mathematical physics: Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and James Clerk Maxwell. Born in Edinburgh, Maxwell’s nature philosophy was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, German philosophy and romanticism, the University of Cambridge mathematical physics, and Victorian culture. Moreover, Maxwell’s nature philosophy was a combination of many different fields of study: such as mathematics, experimental physics, metaphysics, logic, philosophy of language, theoretical and cognitive psychology, aesthetics, decorative design, natural theology, personal theology, electrical and mechanical engineering, political economy, vision and physiology of movement.

Who is James Clerk Maxwell?

Maxwell’s contributions to physics are color theory and optics, mechanics of elastic solids and fluids, astronomy, molecular physics of gases, and most importantly, electromagnetism. These contributions are characterized by the combination of mathematical mastery, the conscious use of language and methods, the spirit of unity, and the measured use of imagination in understanding natural phenomena and abstract mathematical theories. According to his friend and biographer Lewis Campbell, Maxwell was a great coalescence of scientific industry, philosophical insight, poetic feel and imagination, and enthusiastic humor.

The 1858 letter written by Maxwell to Kelvin contains another pinwheel diagram shows the mechanical model that exemplifies the Maxwell’s definition of the composition and stability of Saturn’s rings to “enlighten the sensitive heathens.”
The 1858 letter written by Maxwell to Kelvin contains another pinwheel diagram shows the mechanical model that exemplifies the Maxwell’s definition of the composition and stability of Saturn’s rings to “enlighten the sensitive heathens.”

Maxwell was the son of a respected Clerk family from the Penicuik in the Midlothian countryside in Scotland; the surname “Maxwell” was added next to the Clerk by law after his father inherited an estate from his ancestors named Maxwell. His great-grandfather had studied medicine under the supervision of Dutch physicist Hermann Boerhaave whom he also made compositions with. He had worked in partnership with Newton commentator Scottish mathematician Colin Maclaurin and became a meticulous art expert and a collector. He designed one of the most magnificent Palladian houses with the Scottish architect William Adam, and wrote on mining with an innovative look on the architecture and underground architecture. His great-granduncle was a technical painter and carver specializing in landscape and architecture; He was an expert in mineralogy, geology, and mining who contributed to James Hutton’s geological work, including diagrams and illustrations of Hutton’s Theory of the Earth.

His uncle was at the head of the delegation that designed the imperial weight and measure standards. His father was a landowner, a lawyer interested in technological and scientific developments, who designed a new printing machine. He took his son to the meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Scottish Society of Art.

His mother died in 1839 when Maxwell was very young, and he started to live with his cousin Jemima Wedderburn, who married the mathematician Hugh Blackburn, a colleague of William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) from Glasgow. His cousin Jemima Ruskin was a successful painter in watercolor paintings and Victorian drawings and was appreciated by painter acquaintances such as Millais and Landseer.

Thereby, Maxwell had been part of a rich social, cultural, and intellectual environment at an early age. Religion was important too. Maxwell experienced both his father’s Scottish Presbyterian belief and his aunt Jane Cay’s Episcopal faith. They emphasized the value of having knowledge about the world by advocating the use of innovations in researching and understanding the nature to recognize and glorify the Creator through his work. This was particularly based on the designing and construction of imaginary and material models, tools, and experimental manipulation of chemicals and objects.

Maxwell’s educational career

Between the ages of 10 and 16, Maxwell attended the prestigious Edinburgh Academy; here his drawing and poetry skills drew attention immediately, he became a competent geometry specialist and started to do amateur science. Traces of his love for scientific models can be followed back to his childhood games and toys. He entered Edinburgh University in 1847, enrolled to study literature, and then studied natural philosophy for three years under the naturalist philosopher James Forbes, one of the founders of the British Scientific Progress Association. He learned chemistry, Cambridge-style mathematics, rhetoric, Aristotle and Kant logic, and metaphysics.

He then moved to Cambridge, where he was influenced by William Whewell, the versatile scientist, Trinity College instructor, an idealist historian, science philosopher, architectural historian, poet, moralist, and educator. Maxwell learned about the metaphysical culture of German romanticism, classics, theology, intellectual and emotional attachment from Trinity. He became a member of the secret discussion group known as Cambridge Apostles and taught at at Working Men’s College, inspired by Christian socialists, led by theologian F. D. Maurice.

After his father’s death, Maxwell graduated in 1854 and took the reins at the lands in Scotland he inherited. In 1856, he worked at Marischal College in Aberdeen. He continued to teach the workers and married the director’s daughter, Katherine Dewar. When the task was canceled in 1860, Maxwell moved to King’s College in London. Here he joined the British Science Association’s initiative to establish new electrical standards for Britain, led by Thomson (Kelvin). Thomson was devoting his scientific life to mathematical, experimental, and technological applications that had wide use cases, but planned within a narrow framework. In his view, the challenge in understanding, anticipating, and managing the new Victorian economy was to make measurements as much as possible.

Introduction to color theory

A drawing from Maxwell’s 1873 “A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism” book.
A drawing from Maxwell’s 1873 “A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism” book.

Maxwell wanted to apply the same idea to natural cycles rather than production—their measurement also required language of homogeneity, generality, and precision based on existing assumptions. This tradition was essential for the new telegraph cable network that sustains Thomson’s Glasgow laboratory, as well as the production of precision measuring tools, and indeed the British Empire itself. In 1871, Maxwell was appointed to Cambridge professor of experimental physics and director of the Cavendish Laboratory. The laboratory which would partially continue the standardization of electrical units, was specially designed by Maxwell, who later added the electro-technical workshop in it. Like his mother, Maxwell was still working in this laboratory in 1879 when he died of stomach cancer.

He entered the field of color theory by researching color blindness that was common in Edinburgh during his student days. He had incorporated a ‘geographic method’ while exploring that ancient artistic problem of creating colors by mixing the primary colors—often red, blue, and yellow. This method led him to the general and precise objective representation of a subjective phenomenon: that is, a coordinate system (map) that marks each color in the color triangle and an equation based on the amounts of three new primary colors, red, green, and purple for each color. Maxwell’s theory was based on experimental results.

During his undergraduate study at Cambridge (he advocated for the mathematical ratios between the colors), he designed rotating color discs to examine the quantitative description of the color mixture with the standards provided by David Hay, and then color boxes similar to playhouses to analyze the spectral separation of different colors. Based on the vision field concept in the German physiology literature, he proposed the idea of “color field”. Thus, he proved Thomas Young’s proposal for the three-receptor theory in his 1802 color vision. To exemplify Young’s theory at the Royal Institute conference in 1861, Maxwell managed to reflect the first color photograph.

Electromagnetic waves

A plaid bow that photographer Thomas Sutton reflects its colorful image by overlapping the reflections passing through the red, green, and blue filters.
A plaid bow that photographer Thomas Sutton reflects its colorful image by overlapping the reflections passing through the red, green, and blue filters.

James Clerk Maxwell combined mechanics and optics in his most famous contribution to science. He explained the mathematical theory of electromagnetism over the electric and magnetic fields of force and energy. Maxwell embraced Faraday‘s experimental results, the relationship between electricity and magnetism, and the definitions of the rotational nature of magnetism, and the idea that electric and magnetic forces act repeatedly along with the force curves in the tension of polar opposites. To mathematically express the physics of adjacent movement, Maxwell (and Thomson) applied differential equations as a representation of the causal adjacent effect, unlike Newton’s model of impact from a distance.

Thus, Maxwell formulated the unified theory of electromagnetism, based on the force and energy fields and valid at every point in space. This theory was based on the idea of “mechanical ether” spreading into space, such as an invisible muscle that stores energy—which is measured by its capacity to do work—and ensures communication. He approached the understanding of electromagnetism and ether through imaginary mechanical stress and energy models in the form of fluid flow tubes.

In 1861, he presented the molecular model of the electromagnetic ether with rotating microscopic eddies in rolling contact. The theory predicted the presence of electromagnetic waves and the value of the propagation speed, which is very close to the experimental speed of light. Starting from this equation, Maxwell found that light should be an electromagnetic wave so that optics can be rendered down to electromagnetism. For this reason, Maxwell is often referred to as the greatest scientist of his age — and the greatest physicist ever after Newton and Einstein.

Over time, Maxwell chose to make secure, general explanations from general principles instead of the mechanical molecular representation of the transmission of incomplete electromagnetic effect. His ideas were compiled in his greatest work A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism in 1873. The molecular physics applications ranged from astronomy to microscopic molecules.

Maxwell paves the way for Einstein

James Clerk Maxwell statue in the UK.
James Clerk Maxwell statue in the UK.

Maxwell was able to explain the stability of Saturn’s rings at the speed of an unlimited number of small independent particles that travel around the planet at different distances. This rotary model has increased the interest in statistical molecular investigations of macroscopic features such as temperature, pressure, and viscosity in the dynamic theory of gases. His work on thermodynamic behavior ultimately inspired the rotary molecular model of adjacent electromagnetic mechanical conduction in the ether.

Although these new molecular models eventually partially failed—with the advent of quantum mechanics in the 20th century—they strengthened the use of the statistical method based on the probability theory that defines the group characteristics of the identical molecular population and the behavior of large systems; The “historical method”, by contrast, was only describing the properties and evolution of individual molecules at the microscopic level.

Maxwell is known for using the term “statistical” mechanics for the first time, when he tried to describe his approach to physics. With the name Thomson used—“Maxwell’s demon” was the fictional existence of the molecular dimension, it was the scientific state of Alice, created by this thought experiment that showed the possibility to reverse the flow of heat from hot to cold at the molecular level. He found that the irreversible macroscopic process described by Thomson in the second law of thermodynamics could only be statistical precision.

That is why Maxwell’s contributions to physics through the constant forces and discrete matter theories represent the great peaks of the mechanical world view and the tradition of natural philosophy. They opened the way to Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum physics at the beginning of the 20th century.

James Clerk Maxwell quotes

  • “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.”
  • “It is of great advantage to the student of any subject to read the original memoirs on that subject, for science is always most completely assimilated when it is in the nascent state…”
  • “Almighty God, Who hast created man in Thine own image, and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee, and have dominion over Thy creatures, teach us to study the works of Thy hands, that we may subdue the earth to our use, and strengthen the reason for Thy service;”
  • “Very few of us can now place ourselves in the mental condition in which even such philosophers as the great Descartes were involved in the days before Newton had announced the true laws of the motion of bodies.”