Rampant Scotland Directory

Scottish Inventions and Discoveries
- Electromagnetic Theory of Light - James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

Born in Edinburgh on 13th June 1831, Maxwell showed early signs of curiosity but was nicknamed "daftie" by his fellow pupils at Edinburgh Academy. Nevertheless, he sent his first paper to the Royal Society in Edinburgh at the age of 15 and entered Edinburgh University at age 16. He moved to Cambridge University in 1850 and graduated there in 1854.

Maxwell became professor of natural philosophy at Marischal College Aberdeen in 1856 and in 1857 published a paper establishing that the rings of Saturn were clouds of dust. He moved to a professorial post in London in 1860 and while there, demonstrated colour photography for the first time (using a tartan ribbon). He also explained the movement of molecules in gases.

Returning to Edinburgh in 1865 Maxwell worked on electricity and magnetism, propounding the electromagnetic theory of light and that electricity travels at the speed of light. His equations established that electricity and magnetism are aspects of the same entity - electromagnetism.

He predicted the existence of radio waves in 1865, paving the way for radio, TV and electronics and so can be considered to be the father of electronics. His "Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism" containing the famous Maxwell equations was published in 1873. But it was only in 1887 when Heinrich Hertz discovered the existence of radio waves that his calculations became accepted. Nowadays, the Encyclopaedia Britannica describes his Treatise as "one of the most splendid monuments ever raised by the genius of one man."

Maxwell proposed many other theories that weren't proved until long after his death. For instance he suggested that when a charged particle was accelerated, the radiation produced has the same velocity as that of light.

Albert Einstein (pictured here) put on record (on the centenary of Maxwell's birth) that James Clerk Maxwell's work had resulted in the most profound change in the conception of reality in physics, since the time of Isaac Newton. And Richard Feynman said that "there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century was the discovery of the laws of electrodynamics."

Maxwell became the first professor of experimental physics at Cambridge University in 1871 and established the famous Cavendish Laboratory there. While at Cambridge he published Matter and Motion, a general summation of the physical science theory. He died on 5th November 1879 and is buried in the village of Parton, Dumfriesshire.

In 2006, the 175th anniversary of his birth was marked by a consortium of civic, university, learned society and educational bodies organising a series of events during the year to bring the little known achievements of James Clerk Maxwell before young people and a wider general public. See the Maxwell Year 2006 Web site and James Clerk Maxwell Foundation.

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