James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879)

Picture of James Clerk Maxwell

In the history of physics there are three individuals who stand out above all others. They are Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein. Each of these men dramatically changed the way we look at the physical world — Isaac Newton with his laws of motion, James Clerk Maxwell with his electro-magnetic equations, and Albert Einstein with his theories of relativity. The names of Newton and Einstein are well known to the general public, but for some reason James Clerk Maxwell is not well known outside scientific circles. This is unfortunate since many of the devices we depend on today can be traced back to his pioneering work. These include radios, televisions, microwave ovens, and cell phones among many others.

Maxwell's equations united all the prior results of Faraday, Volta, Ampére, Oersted, Henry and others in electricity and magnetism. Maxwell not only developed these fundamental equations, but used them to predict the existence of electromagnetic waves (radio and TV waves for example) and to show that light is an electromagnetic wave. Maxwell's prediction of electromagnetic waves is one of those rare cases where theoretical prediction actually precedes observation. These waves were first produced and detected by Hertz more than twenty years after they were predicted theoretically by Maxwell.

The work of Maxwell has certainly not gone unnoticed by physicists. Here are some quotes by other famous scientists on the importance of James Clerk Maxwell in the history of science:

This change in the conception of reality is the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton [Referring to the contributions of James Clerk Maxwell to physics]. Albert Einstein

One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell. Albert Einstein

From a long view of the history of mankind — seen from, say, ten thousand years from now — there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics. The American Civil War will pale into provincial insignificance in comparison with this important scientific event of the same decade. Richard Feynman

Maxwell's importance in the history of scientific thought is comparable to Einstein's (whom he inspired) and to Newton's (whose influence he curtailed). Ivan Tolstoy

Maxwell's Equations have had a greater impact on human history than any ten presidents. Carl Sagan

The contributions of Maxwell were not confined to electricity and magnetism. He was the first to develop a mathematical theory of color. In this connection he produced the first color photograph. He pioneered the use of statistics in physical theories (kinetic theory of gases) and wrote a prize winning essay on the stability of Saturn's rings. He also made fundamental contributions to thermodynamics and control theory. In the later part of his career Maxwell developed and was the first director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. This laboratory has presently produced 29 Nobel prize winners including J.J. Thomson (discoverer of the electron) and Francis Crick (DNA).

Maxwell was greatly loved by his friends and associates. He was admired for his gentle manner, his concern for others, and his integrity. He also had a delightful sense of humor and enjoyed pulling pranks on his friends. Maxwell possessed a deeply rooted Christian faith that played a big part in both his science and his relations with others. He knew large portions of the Bible for memory and led daily prayer with his servants and staff. He was raised in the Presbyterian church, but also attended the Anglican church with his aunt. In his university years he often attended Baptist services. In later years he became an elder in the Presbyterian church.

The accomplishments of Maxwell are all the more amazing when you consider that he died at age 48. In the sections that follow we will present a brief biography of his life and look at his scientific accomplishments and his faith in more detail. In preparing this paper I looked at a great number of references, many of which are available online. Those that I found most helpful are listed in the Reference section at the end.

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