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James Maxwell is arguably one of the most important scientists of the nineteenth century. Many scientists rank him alongside names such as Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton. This is because his revolutionary work in defining electromagnetic radiation in terms of his field equations formed the foundations for many others to develop their work upon. It lead to the discovery and understanding of radio waves and the development of radio and wireless technology that is an integral part of today's world. Indeed such is the importance of his work that Albert Einstein described it as the "most profound and most fruitful that physics had experienced since the time of Newton."
Today RF engineers know of the name Maxwell as a result of his equations. Some might be able to write down or manipulate his equations, but very few people would know much of the man himself.
Maxwell's early life
James Clerk Maxwell was an only child born into a comfortable middle background at 14 India Street in Edinburgh on 13th June 1831. His parents John and Frances were married in 1826 and after the birth of their son they moved to "Glenair" a newly built home on the family estate in rural Kirkcudbrightshire which had been inherited by the family.
Even from an early age Maxwell showed a very keen interest in all around him. He question those around him and he constantly asked, "What's the go o' that? What does it do?" Apparently he was not content with a vague answer and would press his question home until a satisfactory answer was given.
Sadly James' mother died in 1839 from abdominal cancer. She had obviously been in great pain because when Maxwell was told that "she was in heaven now" he was reported to have remarked, "I'm so glad she'll have no more pain."
His parents' plan was that they should educate the young James at home until he was 13 and then he would attend Edinburgh University. However his mother's death meant that other plans were needed. Initially a 16 year old boy was hired to teach him. This arrangement did not work and his aunt, Jane Cay helped out by looking after him so that in 1841 he was able to attend the Edinburgh Academy. However he paid frequent visits to his father to whom he became very close.
Whilst at the Academy he was initially thought to be shy and dull and he was slightly eccentric. He made no friends and he spent much of his free time reading, drawing unusual diagrams and making mechanical models. As a result he gained the nickname "Dafty" which he made no attempt to loose. However he surprised many people when at the age of fourteen, he published his first scientific paper in the proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The paper concerned ellipses and although Descartes had previously covered the subject of the work, it was still a remarkable achievement for a fourteen year old.
Maxwell at university
Then at the age of sixteen, his father enrolled him at Edinburgh University. He spent three years here, alternating his time between Glenair and Edinburgh. At the University, he studied a variety of topics from polarised light and the stereoscope to galvanism, rolling curves and the compression of solids. He had a further paper presented, although this was read for him in view of his age.
Maxwell had to make a decision about his career. He had been expected to follow his father into law, but as Maxwell said, he felt he was called upon to study "another kind of law". Thus, three years after entering Edinburgh University, Maxwell moved to Cambridge. He found this difficult because it meant leaving his father. There were also concerns about his delicate health.
Nevertheless he moved to Cambridge in 1850. His tutor commented that he had a mass of knowledge that was really immense for such a young man, but it was in a state of considerable disorder. He spent his time at Cambridge at Trinity College where he believed it would be easier to obtain his fellowship! Here he studied mathematics and after his three years of what he termed very pleasant and very strengthening work he sat for his Tripos in January 1854 and came second.
Maxwell stayed on at Cambridge and spent time working on an extension of Faraday's theories of electricity and lines of magnetic force. A paper resulting from this work entitled "On Faraday's lines of force" was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in two parts in 1855 and 1856. It showed that a few relatively simple mathematical equations could describe the electric and magnetic fields and the interaction between them.
Whilst Maxwell was making these major achievements and was enjoying his time his father became ill in 1856. Maxwell wanted to be with him and so he moved to Scotland to take up the position of Professor of Natural Philosphy at Marischal College In Aberdeen. However just after accepting the position Maxwell's father died. Nevertheless Maxwell still took up the post and started in November 1856.
A little later St John's College in Cambridge announced that the subject for the Adam's prize was to be the motion of Saturn's Rings. Maxwell and a friend had talked about them when they were at Edinburgh Academy and he became very interested the prize. Accordingly much of his first two years research in Aberdeen were devoted to this topic. In his analysis he showed that the rings could only exist if they were made up from small solid particles, a fact that was confirmed well over a hundred years later when the spacecraft Voyager investigated them. Not surprisingly Maxwell's research earned him the Adam's prize.
During his time at Aberdeen, Maxwell met Katherine Dewar, and the two were married in 1859. Although the couple never had any children theirs was a very close relationship and was it said to be a marriage of "unexampled devotion."
Marriage for Maxwell
Katherine was the daughter of the principal of the college, but despite this, when Marischal and King's College were combined to form the University of Aberdeen, Maxwell did not succeed in retaining his post. As a result he successfully applied for the vacant professorship of Natural Philosophy at King's College London and he took up the post in 1860.
Maxwell held the post at Kings for six years and it was during his time here that he undertook his most important work making further investigations into the properties of the electromagnetic fields he had postulated. He discovered that they travelled at approximately the same speed as light and proposed that light was in fact an electromagnetic wave. He also published two classic papers on the subject.
However he did not confine his researches to electromagnetic theory. He undertook work investigating the kinetic theory of gasses and as a result of this a probability function bears his name. This work lead to him presenting a lecture to the Royal Society in 1866. He had previous been elected tot he Society in 1861.
Whilst in London he also had the opportunity of meeting and getting to know Faraday well. An example of their friendship was shown when Maxwell was attending one of Faraday's lectures. When the density of the crowd leaving the lecture theatre prevented Maxwell from getting out, the Faraday referring to his work on gases was heard to say "Ho Maxwell, cannot you get out? If any man can find his way out through a crowd it should be you!"
At King's College
In 1865 Maxwell resigned his professorship at Kings and retired to his family estate in Glenair. Most of his time was spent here, and he enlarged the house in accordance with a plan his father had made. However he still kept some links with King's College as he served as an external examiner, returning each spring. He also undertook a tour of Italy with his wife in the spring and summer of 1867. However he kept himself busy in his scientific activities by writing a major work entitled Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. It is within this volume that his four equations are stated. The work that is recognised as one of the great scientific texts and has a preface in which Maxwell states that his main aim was to convert Faraday's physical ideas into a mathematical form that would serve and as explanation of how they occurred. One of the conclusions of the work was that there was a form of electromagnetic wave and that he could "scarcely avoid the inference that light consists of the same undulations of the same medium which is the cause of electric and magnetic phenomena."
Despite the fact that Maxwell was in "retirement", Cambridge University approached him with the offer of becoming the first Cavendish Professor of Physics. Somewhat reluctantly he accepted the post in March 1871. However he soon set about his new responsibilities with relish. As part of his responsibilities, Maxwell was able to set up a new physics laboratory that was to be called the Cavendish laboratory. Maxwell was keen to make this a world-renowned centre and such was his enthusiasm that he even helped in the design of the laboratory.
Whilst at Cambridge, Maxwell only taught a few students, but these were of the highest calibre. One of them was Ambrose (later Sir Ambrose) Fleming, the inventor of the diode valve and professor of UCL. Later he commented that Maxwell had too much learning and too much originality to be at his best in elementary teaching. Adding that for those who could follow him his teaching was a delight.
Maxwell's last days
Some years later during the Easter term of 1879 Maxwell became ill. His health had always been somewhat delicate and two years previously he had suffered digestive problems but had chosen to ignore them. Now his health took a decided turn for the worse. Despite this he continued to give his lectures up until the end of the term. After the end of term he returned to Glenair for the summer with his wife who was also ill. His health steadily deteriorated, and despite the pain he suffered he remained very cheerful. After the summer he returned to Cambridge almost unable to walk, and he finally passed away on 5th November.
It appears that Maxwell had suffered from abdominal cancer, exactly the same illness that had taken his mother at exactly the same age. His Doctor commented "No man ever met death more consciously or calmly."
During his life, Maxwell had achieved a considerable amount. His major contributions are undoubtedly his electromagnetic field theory and the resulting equations. However he made considerable contributions to many other fields of science including thermodynamics and the kinetic theory of gases. He also studied looked at early forms of colour photography, devising some experiments to show it could work. He contributed to what is known today as information theory, and there is much more.
In his personal life he was known to have a keen sense of fun and humour, often playing practical jokes on people and teasing them. Once he mischievously expounded the difference between Centigrade and Fahrenheit to a group of eminent scientists.
In life James Clark Maxwell had contributed a significant amount to the furtherance of our understanding of many aspects of science. However Maxwell received no public honours and was buried quietly in a small churchyard at Parton in Scotland.