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James Clerk Maxwell ( 1831-1879 ) 
14 India Street

Maxwell's home

Edinburgh, Scotland

"One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell."
"The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's equations of the electromagnetic field."
         Albert Einstein

Historical Sketch

James Clerk Maxwell was one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the 19th century.  With talents rarely united today, he made landmark contributions to both theoretical and experimental science.

Maxwell published phenomenal work in two areas.  First, building upon the experimental data of Michael Faraday,  and applying highly sophisticated mathematical methods, he predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves (1864).  Moreover, he calculated the waves would travel at the speed of light.  Later, Heinrich Hertz  discovered these waves (1887) thereby paving the way for radio, television, radar, and even the boom in electrical and computer science.   For Maxwell, the great mental breakthrough came in thinking of electricity as an electromagnetic phenomenon and not some sort of mechanical process.
"The true logic of this world is in the calculus of probabilites."
                                                                                      James Clerk Maxwell

Maxwell's other spectacular contribution was in the dynamical theory of gases.  His first great paper in the field was published in 1859.  Today this subject is part of thermodynamics.  Josiah Willard Gibbs, on the other side of the Atlantic at Yale University, would join Maxwell in opening the door for exploration of the physical and chemical properties of gases and other states of matter.

As is evident by his place of birth, Maxwell was the son of prosperous parents.  He was educated across town at the University of Edinburgh, entering at the age of 16, and then Trinity College, Cambridge.  Eventually he became Cambridge University's first teacher of experimental physics.  He left retirement to serve as the founding director of the Cavendish Laboratory of Cambridge University.

He is buried with his family in the church yard of Parton Kirk, Galloway, Scotland.
Maxwell portrait
Maxwell's home exterior
Plaque at Maxwell's home The house where Maxwell was born is in a nice neighborhood near a park close to the center of Edinburgh.  The house now serves as a meeting place for  mathematicians and scientists and is home of the Foundation. Maxwell's home interior
Feynman on Maxwell's Contributions

"Perhaps the most dramatic moment in the development of physics during the 19th century occurred to J. C. Maxwell one day in the 1860's, when he combined the laws of electricity and magnetism with the laws of the behavior of light. As a result, the properites of light were partly unravelled -- that old and subtle stuff that is so important and mysterious that it was felt necessary to arrange a special creation for it when writing Genesis.  Maxwell could say, when he was finished with his discovery,  'Let there be electricity and magnetism, and there is light!' "
                                                                                                  Richard Feynman in  The Feynman Lectures on Physics, vol. 1, 28-1.
Purpose of the JCM Foundation at 14 India Street . . . .

"To promote, encourage, and advance the study of, research into, and the dissemination of knowledge of and relating to physics, chemistry and physical chemistry in all their aspects and in particular, but without prejudice to the foregoing generality, colloids and interfaces."

Scotland has honored Maxwell in a number of significant ways . . .
Maxwell plaque at physics building
and at Yale


Gibbs plaque at Yale

Maxwell himself on how to visualize a single center of electrified force . . . .

"I am anxious that these diagrams should be studied as illustrations of the language of Faraday in speaking of 'lines of force,' the 'forces of an electrified body,' etc. . . .

Now the quantity of electricity in a body is measured, according to Faraday's ideas, by the number of lines of force, or rather of induction, which proceed from it.  These lines of force must all terminate somewhere, either on bodies in the neighborhood, or on the walls and roof of the room, or on the earth, or on the heavenly bodies, and wherever they terminate there is a quantity of electricity exactly equal and opposite to that on the part of the body from which they proceeded.  By examining the diagrams this will be seen to be the case.

These diagrams are constructed in the following manner:-    First, take the case of a single centre of force, a small electrified body with a charge E.  The potential at a distance  r  is  V = (E/r);  hence, if we make  r =  (E/V), we shall find  r, the radius of the sphere for which the potential is  V .

If we now give to V the values 1, 2, 3, etc., and draw the corresponding spheres, we shall obtain a series of equipotential surfaces, the potentials corresponding to which are measured by the natural numbers.  The sections of these spheres by a plane passing through their common centre will be circles, which we may mark with the number denoting the potential of each.  These are indicated by the dotted circles on the right hand."

from James Clerk Maxwell, "An elementary treatise on electricity,"
Clarendon Press, 1881.


All readers of this material will join the National Curve Bank - A MATH Archive in thanking the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, for permitting us to enjoy Maxwell's explanation and illustration.

Illustration from Maxwell's book

Maxwell's Four Equations

Maxwell's four equations
assuming there is no dielectrical
or magnetic material (free space).
Note #4 is the same equation as
on the San Marino stamp.


Maxwell stamp
Hertz on the left with Maxwell
on the right.

Maxwell stamp
For a biography:
< http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/history/Biographies/Maxwell.html >
See the historical sketch near the bottom of NCB #64
< http://curvebank.calstatela.edu/vectors/vectors.htm >.
For a nice collection of stamps giving a comprehensive history of
electricity and magnetism see
<
http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/asl/exhibits/stamps/em.html >
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