Life and works of James Clerk Maxwell, considered the 19th century’s greatest scientist, famous for electromagnetism and Maxwell’s Equations. James Clerk Maxwell Biography. Scottish Physicist, Arguably Greatest 19th Century Scientist.
Maxwell’s work in the field of electromagnetism, Saturn’s rings, the molecular behaviour of gases, and trichromatic theory of colour, have had a major impact in the world. He continued work on electromagnetism that Michael Faraday left behind. He wrote the 1873 classic book and Magnetism.
Early Years of James C. Maxwell
James Clerk Maxwell was born on June 13, 1831, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was an only son of John Clerk, a lawyer. After James’s birth, the family relocated to Glenlair in Kirkcudbrightshire that his father inherited from his ancestors. Soon, the family adopted the additional surname of Maxwell. He received his early education from his Christian mother, and remained a devout Christian and a modest man throughout his life. In 1841, he was enrolled at Edinburgh Academy.
Maxwell the Young Scientist
James’s was a shy boy and got the nickname “Dafty.” Aged 14, he surprised everybody by writing a complex paper describing a way of drawing mathematical curves with a piece of string. This was followed by winning a prize for his work in science and mathematics.
At 16, he entered Edinburgh University. He published two scientific papers in the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s journal. Three years later, he was accepted at Cambridge University to study mathematics. Graduating at 23 with first-class honours, he was offered a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge. He wrote two papers, “On the Transformation of Surfaces by Bending” and “On Faraday’s Lines of Force.”
James Clerk Maxwell and Saturn’s Rings
In November 1856, Maxwell was appointed professor of natural philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen. Then he heard that the subject of the Adams Prize of 1857 was the motion of Saturn’s rings, something he was interested about since his school days. He competed for the prize, which he won, by demonstrating that the stability of the rings is only possible if they were made up of numerous small solid particles rather than being completely solid or liquid as suggested by some. His conclusion was corroborated when the Voyager I space probe took close-up photographs of the rings in 1981.
Maxwell was again appointed professor of natural philosophy in 1860, this time at King’s College, London. During his five years there, he worked on electromagnetism.
Since 1820 scientists were aware that electricity and magnetism were linked to each other as proven by Hans Christian Oersted followed by Michael Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction effect. But by this time, Faraday’s health was on decline. Maxwell accepted the challenge of continuing Faraday’s experiments and proved his theory that the two forces of electricity and magnetism were an expression of the same phenomenon – electromagnetism.
He expressed it mathematically in four linked equations, known as Maxwell’s Equations. His equations also showed that electric and magnetic waves travel at a speed very close to light, leading him to conclude that light itself was a form of electromagnetic wave. In 1864 Maxwell wrote A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field where he first proposed that light was undulations in the same medium, the same cause of electric and magnetic phenomena.
Behaviour of Gases
Maxwell was also involved with work on the behaviour of gases, the probable distribution of molecules at any given time, in terms of speed and position. The theory is now known as Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases. The Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, while working on it independently, had the same conclusion.
In 1871, Maxwell became the first Cavendish professor of physics at Cambridge University. He continued in this post until November 5, 1879 when he died from abdominal cancer, aged 48.