James Clerk Maxwell, Master of Electromagnetism

James Clerk Maxwell. Wikimedia Commons

James Clerk Maxwell was a Scottish physicist best known for combining the fields of electricity and magnetism to create a theory of the electromagnetic field.

Early Life and Studies

James Clerk Maxwell was born—into a family of strong financial means—in Edinburgh on June 13, 1831. However, he spent most of his childhood at Glenlair, a family estate designed by Walter Newall for Maxwell’s father. The young Maxwell’s studies took him first to the Edinburgh Academy (where, at the astounding age of 14, he published his first academic paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh) and later to the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge.

As a professor, Maxwell began by filling in the vacant Chair of Natural Philosophy at Aberdeen’s Marischal College in 1856. He would continue in this post until 1860, when Aberdeen combined its two colleges into one university (leaving room for only one Natural Philosophy professorship, which went to David Thomson).

This forced removal proved rewarding: Maxwell quickly earned the title of Professor of Physics and Astronomy at King’s College, London, an appointment that would form the foundation of some of the most influential theory of his lifetime.

Electromagnetism

His paper On Physical Lines of Force—written over the course of two years (1861-1862) and ultimately published in several parts—introduced his pivotal theory of electromagnetism. Among the tenets of his theory were (1) that electromagnetic waves travel at the speed of light, and (2) that light exists in the same medium as electric and magnetic phenomena.

In 1865, Maxwell resigned from King’s College and proceeded to continue writing: A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field during the year of his resignation; On reciprocal figures, frames and diagrams of forces in 1870; Theory of Heat in 1871; and Matter and Motion in 1876. In 1871, Maxwell became the Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge, a position that put him in charge of the work conducted in the Cavendish Laboratory.

The 1873 publication of A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, meanwhile, produced the fullest explanation yet of Maxwell’s four partial different equations, which would go on to be a major influence on Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. On November 5, 1879, after a period of sustained illness, Maxwell died—at the age of 48—from abdominal cancer.

Considered one of the greatest scientific minds the world has ever seen—on the order of Einstein and Isaac Newton—Maxwell and his contributions extend beyond the realm of electromagnetic theory to include: an acclaimed study of the dynamics of Saturn’s rings; the somewhat accidental, although still important, capturing of the first color photograph; and his kinetic theory of gases, which led to a law relating to the distribution of molecular velocities. Still, the most crucial findings of his electromagnetic theory—that light is an electromagnetic wave, that electric and magnetic fields travel in the form of waves at the speed of light, that radio waves can travel through space—constitute his most important legacy. Nothing sums up the monumental achievement of Maxwell’s life work as well as these words from Einstein himself: “This change in the conception of reality is the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”