James Clerk Maxwell, Mathematical Physicist
James Clerk Maxwell, Mathematical Physicist

When did he live?

James Clerk was born on 13 June 1831 in Edinburgh. He died on 5 November 1879.

He added the name Maxwell later after inheriting an estate connected to the Maxwell family.

A Young James Clerk Maxwell
A Young James Clerk Maxwell

Why is he famous?

Maxwell is one of history’s most important mathematical physicists.

He is most famous for his predictions and calculations on electromagnetic fields. By combining the theories of optics, magnetism and electricity, Maxwell not only predicted that the fields exist as waves, but also created a set of equations that could be used to measure them.

As well as this Maxwell, with the help of photographer Thomas Sutton, made the first durable (i.e. long-lasting) colour photograph. Maxwell believed that by working with red, green and blue filters light could be captured on a screen in a way that allowed the human eye to see the original colours.  The first photograph was not perfect – only the blue filter worked to a high level – but the theory was proven correct.

Maxwell also did important work on thermodynamics (particularly how gas particles speed up and slow down at different temperatures) and ‘control theory’.

What was his mark on history?

Maxwell is less famous than Newton or Einstein in everyday culture, but a major name in science. Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of special relativity would not have been possible without Maxwell’s ideas on electromagnetism. Numerous inventions rely on knowledge of optics, magnetism and electricity.

In 1881, after his death, Maxwell’s theories were tidied up into four equations called ‘Maxwell Equations’ (or ‘Maxwell Laws’). These laws are still used today.

A CGS (centimetre/gram/second) scientific unit – the maxwell – was renamed after him in 1930.

The Four Maxwell Equations
The Four Maxwell Equations

Notes

Maxwell’s family was well-connected: he came from a family of barons.

He was taught at home by family members until he was ten (his family believing his potential was better developed this way) then went to a well-known Edinburgh school, and finally the universities of Edinburgh, and Cambridge. He wrote his first scientific paper aged 14 (the paper was given to the Royal Society of Edinburgh by James Forbes because Maxwell was too young to attend) and, by 25, he was a professor at Aberdeen’s Marischal College.

Maxwell also had a book of poetry published.

As well as a scientific unit, a mountain range on Venus and one of the gaps between the rings around Saturn are named after Maxwell.