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James Clerk Maxwell – The Man Who Changed the World

Recognize the above great personality. If not, it isn’t ok on your part. Well, if you can’t identify him, then let me provide you with a clue. Many consider him to be one in all the three greatest ever scientists. There’s yet another clue too:

Einstein himself once described this great scientist’s work as the: “Most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.

It’s none aside from James Clerk Maxwell. So today, let’s get some knowledge on this great personality. I feel he’s one of the best scientists we’ve ever had.

James Clerk Maxwell is one of the giants in physics. Probably because of his crowning glory his equations are hard to grasp, his work remains less famous than others.

Early Life and Education

Maxwell was born into a wealthy family in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK on June 13, 1831. Maxwell came from a comfortable middle-class background. The original family name was Clerk, the extra surname being added by his father, who was a lawyer after he had inherited the Middlebie estate from Maxwell ancestors.

Maxwell attended highschool in Edinburgh named Edinburgh Academy. It was where he published his first academic paper, Oval Curves at the age of just 14. The paper described a generalized series of oval curves that could be traced with pins and thread by analogy with an ellipse. This fascination with geometry and with mechanical models continued throughout his career and was of great help in his subsequent research.

In 1847, he moved to the University of Edinburgh where he studied classes on logic, mathematics, and natural philosophy. However, like at school, he was more curious about pursuing his own studies outside the curriculum.

He entered Edinburgh University for 3 years where he took courses in physics( which was then called natural philosophy), mathematics, and philosophy. Like in school, he found the courses easy and thus had plenty of free time to continue his own research.

In 1850, he moved to Trinity College, Cambridge, and studied mathematics under the great tutor  William Hopkins. Maxwell graduated with a top degree in mathematics and was able to pursue his own research interests.

In 1856, aged 25, he was awarded Edinburgh’s highest prize in mathematics, the Straiton gold medal, and in the same year, he was appointed to the Chair of natural philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, where he stayed for four years.

He married Katherine Mary Dewar in 1858.

Inventions and Discoveries


Maxwell’s famous for his theory of electromagnetism. It was Maxwell’s research on electromagnetism that established him among the greatest scientists of history. In the preface to his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism (1873), the best position of his theory, Maxwell stated that his major task was to convert Faraday’s physical ideas into mathematical form. Maxwell used mathematics to analyze the fundamental causes of electrical and magnetic behavior, producing what are, to professional physicists, a number of the most beautiful equations they use – Maxwell’s Equations.

James Maxwell EquationsResearching the pivotal work on electricity and magnetism done by physicists André-Marie Ampère and Michael Faraday, Maxwell shocked the physics world by unifying electricity, magnetism, and light and postulating that they were all were the same type of physical phenomena: electromagnetic waves, or radiation (used interchangeably).

Maxwell published the revolutionary theory of electromagnetism along with his famous Maxwell equations in the paper Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field in 1864. 

In 1887, eight years after Maxwell’s death, Heinrich Hertz finally demonstrated by experiment that there truly are electromagnetic waves, which behave in exactly the way Maxwell predicted.

The Kinetic Theory of Gases and Statistical Physics

In his kinetic theory of gases, Maxwell established that the temperature of a gas is entirely dependent on the speed of its individual atoms or molecules.

He realized that gas particles would not all move at the same speed, because collisions between them would speed some up and slow some down. Maxwell showed that particles in gas would have a distribution of various speeds and what the distribution would be.

From this work, he showed the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the law that heat always flows from higher temperature objects to lower temperature objects.


While still in his 20s, he demonstrated his mastery of classical physics by writing a prizewinning essay on  Saturn’s rings, in which he concluded that the rings must consist of masses of matter not mutually coherent—a conclusion that was corroborated more than 100 years later by the first Voyager Space probe to reach Saturn.

Color in the Human Eye and Photography

His investigations of color theory led him to conclude that a color photograph could be produced by photographing through filters of the three primary colors and then recombining the images. He demonstrated his supposition in a lecture to the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1861 by projecting through filters a color photograph of a tartan ribbon that had been taken by this method.

James Maxwell First COlor Photo
Part of the first color image ever produced by photography. A smaller black and white version is shown for comparison.

He was skillful in the design of the experimental apparatus, as was shown early in his career during his investigations of color vision.

In 1871 Maxwell was elected to the new Cavendish professorship at Cambridge. He set about designing the Cavendish Laboratory and supervised its construction.

Maxwell stayed in London until 1865, carrying out much of his most notable work.

He then returned to his family home in Scotland for six years devoted to experiments, calculations, and writing. In 1866 he wrote:

I have now my time fully occupied with experiments and speculations of a physical kind, which I could not undertake as long as I had public duties.

During this time he wrote much of the groundbreaking Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, which was published in 1873.

Maxwell’s greatest contribution to science included:

  • The observation electromagnetic fields travel at the speed of light showing the connection between light and electromagnetism.
  • Prediction of waves and oscillating electric and magnetic fields
  • Writing equations for electromagnetism. Later known as Maxwell’s equations.
  • The concept of the electromagnetic field, which was later worked on by Albert Einstein, leading to his theory of special relativity.
  • His work on optics and color, which laid the foundations for practical color photography.
  • He also helped explain the phenomena of color blindness
  • He developed Kinetic theory for gases – Called ‘Maxwell distribution.’
  • Work on thermodynamics
  • Control theory relating to centrifugal governor used in steam engines.

Sadly, James Clerk Maxwell did not enjoy a long life. He died of abdominal cancer in 1879 at the age of just 48. Strangely, his mother had died at the same age from the same disease.

With Maxwell’s passing, the world lost one of its greatest minds.


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