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James Clerk Maxwell.
James Clerk Maxwell was born at 14 India Street in Edinburgh, a house built by his parents in the 1820s, but shortly afterwards his family moved to their home at Glenlair in Kirkcudbrightshire about 20 km from Dumfries. There he enjoyed a country upbringing and his natural curiosity displayed itself at an early age. In a letter written on 25 April 1834 when 'The Boy' was not yet three years old he is described as follows:
When James was eight years old his mother died. His parents plan that they would educate him at home until he was 13 years old, and that he would then be able to go the Edinburgh University, fell through. A 16 year old boy was hired to act as tutor but the arrangement was not a successful one and it was decided that James should attend the Edinburgh Academy.
James, together with his family, arrived at 31 Heriot Row, the house of Isabella Wedderburn his father's sister, on 18 November 1841. He attended Edinburgh Academy where he had the nickname 'Dafty'. P G Tait, although almost the same age, was one class below James. Tait, who would become a close school friend and friend for life, described Maxwell's school days:
In early 1846 at the age of 14, Maxwell wrote a paper on ovals. In this work he generalised the definition of an ellipse by defining the locus of a point where the sum of m times the distance from one fixed point plus n times the distance from a second fixed point is constant. If m = n = 1 then the curve is an ellipse. Maxwell also defined curves where there were more than two foci. This became his first paper On the description of oval curves, and those having a plurality of foci which was read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 6 April 1846. These ideas were not entirely new as Descartes had defined such curves before but the work was remarkable for a 14 year old.
Maxwell was not dux of the Edinburgh Academy, this honour going to Lewis Campbell who later became the professor of Greek at the University of St Andrews. Lewis Campbell was a close friend of Maxwell's and he wrote the biography and its second edition. These biographies make fascinating reading filled with personal memories.
At the age of 16, in November 1847, Maxwell entered the second Mathematics class taught by Kelland, the natural philosophy (physics) class taught by Forbes and the logic class taught by William Hamilton. Tait, also at the University of Edinburgh, later wrote in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1879-80):
The University of Edinburgh still has a record of books that Maxwell borrowed to take home while an undergraduate. These include
Cauchy, Calcul Différentiel
Maxwell went to Peterhouse Cambridge in October 1850 but moved to Trinity where he believed that it was easier to obtain a fellowship. Again we quote Tait's article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1879-80):
Thomson describes Maxwell's undergraduate days:
Maxwell obtained his fellowship and graduated with a degree in mathematics from Trinity College in 1854. The First Wrangler in that year was Edward Routh, who as well as being an excellent mathematician was a genius at mastering the cramming methods required to succeed in the Cambridge Tripos of that time. Maxwell remained at Cambridge where he took pupils, then was awarded a Fellowship by Trinity to continue work.
One of Maxwell's most important achievements was his extension and mathematical formulation of Michael Faraday's theories of electricity and magnetic lines of force. His paper On Faraday's lines of force was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in two parts, 1855 and 1856. Maxwell showed that a few relatively simple mathematical equations could express the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields and their interrelation.
However, in early 1856, Maxwell's father became ill and Maxwell wanted to be able to spend more time with him. He therefore tried to obtain an appointment in Scotland, applying for the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen when Forbes told him it was vacant. Maxwell travelled to Edinburgh for the Easter vacation of 1856 to be with his father and the two went together to Glenlair. On 3 April his father died and, shortly after, Maxwell returned to Cambridge as he had planned. Before the end of April he learnt that he had been appointed to the chair at Marischal College.
In November 1856 Maxwell took up the appointment in Aberdeen. When the subject announced by St John's College Cambridge for the Adams Prize of 1857 was The Motion of Saturn's Rings Maxwell was immediately interested. Maxwell and Tait had thought about the problem of Saturn's rings in 1847 while still pupils at the Edinburgh Academy. Maxwell decided to compete for the prize and his research at Aberdeen in his first two years was taken up with this topic. He showed that stability could be achieved only if the rings consisted of numerous small solid particles, an explanation now confirmed by the Voyager spacecraft. In a letter to Lewis Campbell, written on 28 August 1857, while he was at Glenlair, Maxwell wrote:
Maxwell's essay won him the Adams Prize and Airy wrote:
Maxwell became engaged to marry Katherine Mary Dewar in February 1858 and they married in June 1859. Despite the fact that he was now married to the daughter of the Principal of Marischal College, in 1860, when Marischal College and King's College combined, Maxwell, as the junior of the department, had to seek another post. His scientific work, however, had been proceeding with great success. Stokes had written to him on 7 November 1857:
When the Chair of Natural philosophy at Edinburgh became vacant in 1859, Forbes having moved to St Andrews, it seemed that fate had smiled on Maxwell to bring him back to his home town. He asked Faraday to act as a referee for him, in a letter written on 30 November 1859. Many of Maxwell's friends were also applicants for this post including Tait and Routh. Maxwell lost out to Tait despite his outstanding scientific achievements. When the Edinburgh paper, the Courant, reported the result it noted that:
The reason he was not appointed must have been those given by the paper when they wrote:
The claim that he was not the best person to teach poorly qualified pupils may have been a fair one but it is certainly not the case that he was a poor lecturer. Stokes wrote in 1854 that he had:
Again Fleming, who had attended Maxwell's lectures, expressed similar thoughts:
In 1860 Maxwell was appointed to the vacant chair of Natural Philosophy at King's College in London. The six years that Maxwell spent in this post were the years when he did his most important experimental work. The duties of the post were more demanding than those at Aberdeen. Campbell writes in:
In London, around 1862, Maxwell calculated that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is approximately that of the speed of light. He proposed that the phenomenon of light is therefore an electromagnetic phenomenon. Maxwell wrote the truly remarkable words:
Maxwell also continued work he had begun at Aberdeen, considering the kinetic theory of gases. By treating gases statistically in 1866 he formulated, independently of Ludwig Boltzmann, the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases. This theory showed that temperatures and heat involved only molecular movement.
This theory meant a change from a concept of certainty, heat viewed as flowing from hot to cold, to one of statistics, molecules at high temperature have only a high probability of moving toward those at low temperature. Maxwell's approach did not reject the earlier studies of thermodynamics but used a better theory of the basis to explain the observations and experiments.
Maxwell left King's College, London in the spring of 1865 and returned to his Scottish estate Glenlair. He made periodic trips to Cambridge and, rather reluctantly, accepted an offer from Cambridge to be the first Cavendish Professor of physics in 1871. He designed the Cavendish laboratory and helped set it up. The Laboratory was formally opened on 16 June 1874.
The four partial differential equations, now known as Maxwell's equations, first appeared in fully developed form in Electricity and Magnetism (1873). Most of this work was done by Maxwell at Glenlair during the period between holding his London post and his taking up the Cavendish chair. They are one of the great achievements of 19th-century mathematics.
One of the tasks which occupied much of Maxwell's time between 1874 and 1879 was his work editing Henry Cavendish's papers.
Fleming attended Maxwell's last lecture course at Cambridge. He writes:
Maxwell returned with his wife, who was also ill, to Glenlair for the summer. His health continued to deteriorate and he suffered much pain although remained remarkably cheerful. On 8 October 1879 he returned with his wife to Cambridge but, by this time he could scarcely walk. One of the greatest scientists the world has known passed away on 5 November. His doctor, Dr Paget, said:
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