James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh Scotland on 13 July 1831, the only son of John and Frances. His father, John, was a lawyer in Edinburgh who also dabbled in science. In fact, he was a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His father's given name was John Clerk, but he inherited a 1500 acre estate in southern Scotland that had been passed down through the Maxwell family. One of the stipulations attached to this estate was that the owner must be a Maxwell. Therefore, John attached Maxwell to his name and became John Clerk Maxwell. His son then became James Clerk Maxwell. A picture of Maxwell's birthplace is shown in Figure 1.
After James was born the family moved from Edinburgh to a newly built house on the estate called “Glenlair”. A picture of Glenlair is shown in figure 2.
As a child James was very curious. His favorite question was “What's the go o' that? What does it do?” If the answer didn't satisfy him, he would come back with “But what's the particular go of it?” When he became literate he enjoyed reading and creating poetry and fanciful short stories. He also enjoyed the outdoors and became an excellent swimmer and diver as well as a skilled ice-skater.
Even at an early age James showed a remarkable memory. At eight he could recite long passages of Milton and the entire 119th Psalm (176 verses). He could also give the chapter and verse for almost any passage from the psalms. Since they lived in a rural area, James was home schooled by his mother until her death in 1839. James was eight at the time. Although they were always close, James and his father became much closer following his mothers death.
For a short while after his mother's death, James was taught at home by a tutor, but this didn't work out. His father then sent him to Edinburgh Academy. This was a preparatory school giving emphasis to mathematics, natural philosophy, Latin, Greek, ethics, and the classics. While attending this school in Edinburgh he lived with his aunt, Mrs. Wedderburn. A picture of Edinburgh Academy is shown in Figure 3.
Because of his rural background, James did not fit in well at first. He was often teased because of his dress and speech. For the first two years his academic performance was not exceptional. But then he began showing promise. At age 13 he won the mathematics medal and received the first prize for English and Poetry. At age 14 he published his first paper entitled On the description of Oval Curves, and those having a plurality of foci in the Proceedings of the Royal Edinburgh Society. Although he didn't realize it at the time, this paper was an extension of some studies carried out by René Descartes in the seventeenth century.
While at the academy James met two lifelong friends — Lewis Campbell (a future Professor of Classics at St Andrews University) and Peter Guthrie Tait (a future Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University). Tait and Maxwell had similar interests and discussed each other's work throughout their lifetime. Campbell was probably Maxwell's most intimate friend and later became his biographer.
At age 16, Maxwell's father enrolled him in the University of Edinburgh. A picture of the University is shown in figure 4. During his three years there he divided his time between Edinburgh and Glenlair. While at Glenlair he built a home laboratory out of materials that were available. He carried out many experiments on electromagnetics and chemistry in this lab. While at the University he studied, among other things, Physics and Philosophy. He made a big impression on Professor James D. Forbes, a physicist at the university, and they became close friends. Forbes allowed Maxwell to use the physics laboratory to carry out his own experiments, and Maxwell assisted Professor Forbes in other experiments. One of the areas they worked on together was color perception. Maxwell would return to this topic later in his career. He also had two more papers accepted by the Edinburgh Royal Society. The first was on Rolling Curves, and the second was on the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids.
Maxwell's father desired for him to follow in his footsteps and pursue a legal career. This may seem strange to us, given Maxwell's ability in science and mathematics, but we must remember that science was not a promising career in those days. Most of those involved in science had independent sources of income or were members of the clergy. In fact, those involved in science were not called scientists, but natural philosophers. Most universities at this time had only one professor of science or natural philosophy on their faculty. However, after three years at the University of Edinburgh, James' father consented for him to go to Cambridge University, the foremost British scientific institution.
He left Scotland for Cambridge in 1850. Maxwell's undergraduate days at Cambridge began at Peterhouse college, the oldest college at Cambridge. Peterhouse attracted some of the best mathematical talent. Before the end of his first term, Maxwell transferred to Trinity college (see figure 5). This move was probably influenced by Professor Forbes who was a close friend of the master, William Whewell. Peterhouse was a small college and had limited funds for graduate fellowships whereas Trinity college was much larger and provided a better opportunity for obtaining a fellowship after graduation. Trinity had a good reputation in science, but also excelled in many fields outside of science. This fit well with Maxwell's wide range of interests and abilities.
Towards the end of his undergraduate days at Cambridge James finished second in the difficult mathematical tripos exams and tied for first in the prestigious Smith Prize examination. He graduated in 1854 and, as expected, received a graduate fellowship to continue his work. Shortly after graduation he published two important papers. The first was entitled On the Transformation of Surfaces by Bending, and the second was entitled On Faradays Lines of Force. The latter paper was the beginning of his work on electricity and magnetism that eventually led to his celebrated equations.
In 1856 Maxwell returned to Scotland to accept the chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen. One of the primary reasons Maxwell left Cambridge to take this position was to be closer to his father who was seriously ill. Unfortunately, Maxwell's father died shortly before his arrival at Aberdeen.
By all accounts Maxwell was not a good classroom lecturer. His active mind often caused him to depart from the lesson to explore tangential issues. In the process he usually lost most of the students. However, after class, a few of the more dedicated students would gather around him and benefit from his wisdom and insights. Maxwell enjoyed sharing in this way with his students. In 1858 Maxwell married Katherine Mary Dewar, daughter of the principal of Marischal College. A picture of Maxwell and his wife is shown in Figure 6.
In 1859 James won the prestigious Adams prize that is offered every three years to a former Cambridge graduate. His winning essay was on the stability of Saturn's rings. In the essay he showed that the rings could not be continuous solids or fluids, but must consist of a large number of independently orbiting particles. This was verified by Voyager flybys in the 1980s. Maxwell's essay was so detailed and convincing that the English mathematician and astronomer George Airy wrote
It is one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen.
In 1860 Marischal college merged with neighboring Kings College and Maxwell's position was eliminated. Later that year he accepted the position of professor of Natural Philosophy at Kings College, London. Maxwell contracted smallpox shortly before assuming his new position and nearly died. He credited his recovery to Katherine's loving care. Maxwell's time in London was very productive. In 1860 Maxwell received the Royal Society's Rumford Medal for his work on the perception of color and color blindness. He also demonstrated the first color photograph by taking a photograph through three filters (red, green, and blue) and then projecting the images through three projectors having the same three filters. Later that year he was elected to membership in the Society.
While in London, Maxwell attended the lectures at the Royal Institution and had the opportunity for regular contact with Michael Faraday. The ideas and experimental work of Faraday were a major influence in Maxwell's development of a general electromagnetic theory. Although Faraday was about 40 years older than Maxwell, the two seemed to communicate very well and they greatly admired each others work. In 1861 Maxwell presented a two-part paper entitled On Physical Lines of Force. Here he provided a conceptual model for electromagnetics consisting of a network of small spinning cells separated by spherical idle wheels. In 1862 he published two additional parts of this paper. The first dealt with electrostatics, the displacement current produced in a dielectric due to polarization, and the generation of electromagnetic waves. The second dealt with the rotation of the plane of polarization of light in a magnetic field, a phenomenon discovered by Faraday. While this model was able to predict many of the known results in electricity and magnetism, Maxwell realized that this model was purely conceptual and didn't represent actual mechanisms. He didn't pursue this model any further, but began looking for a way to incorporate Faraday's ideas concerning electric and magnetic fields.
Although Maxwell enjoyed his five years in London, the academic demands left little time for the research he loved. Therefore, in 1865, Maxwell resigned the chair at King's College London and returned to Glenlair with his wife Katherine.
While home at Glenlair Maxwell developed the majority of his general theory of electromagnetics, although his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism was not published until 1873. In 1871 he published a textbook on The Theory of Heat. In 1871 he also agreed to be the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge. In this position he supervised the construction of the world famous Cavendish Laboratory as well as the selection and purchase of the Laboratory equipment. A picture of the Cavendish Laboratory is shown in Figure 7. As was mentioned previously, this laboratory over the years has been the home of numerous Nobel prize winners.
Maxwell died of abdominal cancer in 1879 at the age of 48.