# James Clerk Maxwell

**
SCOTTISH PHYSICIST
1831–1879
**

James Clerk Maxwell is generally regarded as one of the outstanding
physicists of the nineteenth century. He made important advances in the
theory
of electricity and magnetism, as well as in thermodynamics and the
**
kinetic theory
**
of gases. Many modern ideas about these topics are still based on his
work from the mid-1800s.

Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and his father greatly encouraged
him in his intellectual pursuits. At the age of fourteen, while a student
at the Edinburgh Academy, he wrote a paper on ovals and geometric figures
with more than two foci. His paper was read to the
**
Royal Society
**
of Edinburgh by an adult member because it was considered inappropriate
for a young boy to present it to the society himself. Although some of the
ideas in this paper had been discussed earlier by the renowned French
mathematician René Descartes, it was still an amazing achievement
for a teenage boy.

At sixteen, Maxwell entered Edinburgh University, where he studied physics, mathematics, and logic. Three years later he went to Cambridge University, from which he graduated in 1854 with a degree in mathematics.

In 1856 Maxwell became professor of
**
natural philosophy
**
at Marischal College in Aberdeen. There he became interested in the
theory of gases and in the study of electricity and magnetism. His
position as professor, however, was eliminated in 1860 when Marischal and
another college merged.

Maxwell spent the next five years at King's College in London. He successfully applied statistical methods to describe the movements of the tiny invisible particles of a gas, an approach adopted a century earlier by the Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli, but with less sophisticated mathematics. The Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann also studied the problem of gas behavior at the same time as Maxwell, and the names of both men are usually associated with the kinetic theory of gases.

Because of his overwhelming interest in the science of electricity,
Maxwell was drawn to the writings of the English physicist Michael
Faraday, who had begun publishing his three-volume
*
Experimental Researches in Electricity
*
in 1839. Faraday's approach was almost entirely experimental, and
Maxwell saw this as an opportunity to treat the subject in mathematical
terms. Beginning in the 1850s, Maxwell published several papers on
electricity, including the analogy between electricity and heat from a
mathematical point of view. These research efforts culminated in his
important writings in the 1860s and 1870s on electromagnetic theory and
his identification of light as an electromagnetic wave. Maxwell's
theoretical conclusions about electro-magnetism are summarized in a set of
four equations known as Maxwell's equations, which first appeared
in his
*
Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism
*
in 1873 and were later cast in their modern form by other physicists.

In 1865 Maxwell resigned his position in London and returned to his family estate Glenair in Scotland, where he continued his scientific work for five years. In 1870, however, a new chair and laboratory of physics were established at Cambridge University, and Maxwell eventually accepted an offer after two other physicists had refused. Maxwell continued his work in electricity and magnetism, organized the new laboratory, and edited the papers of Henry Cavendish for whom the laboratory was named. Early in 1879 Maxwell's health began to decline, and he died several months later during his forty-ninth year.

**
SEE ALSO
**
Boltzmann, Ludwig
;
Cavendish, Henry
;
Faraday, Michael
;
Magnetism
;
Physical Chemistry
.

*
Richard E. Rice
*

## Bibliography

Cropper, William H. (2001). "The Scientist as Magician: James Clerk
Maxwell." In
*
Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo
to Hawking.
*
New York: Oxford University Press.

### Internet Resources

Haley, Christopher. "James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) Mathematical Physicist." Available from http://65.107.211.206/science/maxwell1.html .

O'Connor, J. J., and Robertson, E. F. "James Clerk Maxwell." Available from http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/Mathematicians/Maxwell.html .

O'Connor, J. J., and Robertson, E. F. "A Visit to James Clerk Maxwell's House." Available from http://www-gap.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/HistTopics/Maxwell_House.html .

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