James Clerk Maxwell is regarded as one of the world’s greatest physicists. With this biography, know more about his life and his contributions.

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Famous as
Mathematician & Physicist
Born on
13 June 1831 AD    Famous 13th June Birthdays
Zodiac Sign
Gemini    Gemini Men
Born in
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died on
05 November 1879 AD
James Maxwell
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Who introduced the concept of electromagnetic theory? Who presented the first durable color photograph? Who was the man behind the kinetic theory of gases? While these maybe three different questions, the answer to all of them confines in three words, James Clerk Maxwell. Regarded as the most important 19th century physicist, after Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, Maxwell’s contribution in the field of mathematics and physics not only made a significant mark in the history of science, but also laid the foundation for the many more discoveries which took place in the 20th century. His work on the electromagnetic field, the study of color vision and establishment of the Maxwell’s thermodynamic relations are deemed as the greatest advancements made in the field of physics. Maxwell's achievements concerning electromagnetism have been called the “second great unification in physics”, the first one being realised by Isaac Newton. To know more about this prolific scientist, read through the following lines.

Early Life
Born on June 13, 1831, James was the only surviving of the two children of John Clerk and Frances Cay. They came from the Clerk family of Penicuik, Midlothian, holders of the baronetcy of Clerk of Penicuik. Since his early days, Maxwell was an inquisitive child. The family’s move to Glenlair further added to his thirst for curiosity. Maxwell’s mother, Frances took up the responsibility of his early education but couldn’t completely fulfil the same due to her demise. Maxwell was only eight then. As such, young Maxwell’s education fell in the hands of his father, John and his sister-in-law, Jane, both of whom played an important role in the life of Maxwell. Though John hired a private tutor for James, this move did not be of much help as the tutor treated the young boy very harshly. As a result, John dismissed him and instead enrolled James to the prestigious Edinburgh Academy. During this time, James stayed with his aunt Isabella.
His Early Education
Grown up in Glenlair in isolation, young Maxwell found it hard to adjust at the Academy. However, he did not let his discomfort come in the way. Despite being mocked at by his fellow classmates and made fun of for his Galloway accent, Maxwell always took the criticism in a healthy spirit and never complained. It was only when Maxwell found friendship in Lewis Campbell and Peter Guthrie Tait that his social withdrawal ended. Such deep was their affection for each other that the trio remained friends for lifetime. Since the early days, Maxwell had been spell bounded by geometry. However, despite winning the school's scripture biography prize in his second year and being extremely talented, Maxwell’s academic work went unobserved. It was only when he won the school's mathematical medal and first prize for both English and poetry that Maxwell was noticed.
Unlike other children of his age, who paid utmost attention to school examination and performance, Maxwell’s interest were far and beyond. It was due to this that he was able to write his first scientific paper, Oval Curves at the tender age of fourteen. His work was presented by James Forbes, a professor of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University, to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as Maxwell was considered too young for the work presented. Soon after, at the age of sixteen, Maxwell left the Edinburgh Academy to enrol himself at the University of Edinburgh. Despite having the chance to switch to the University of Cambridge, Maxwell, instead, continued his undergraduate studies at Edinburgh. What was most favorable for Maxwell at the Edinburgh University was that the study wasn’t very demanding and as such, he had ample time to engross himself in private study, especially when he was back at home in Glenlair.
Maxwell, in his free time, experimented with improvised chemical, electric and magnetic apparatuses. However, his main concern was regarding the properties of polarized light. For the same, he constructed shaped blocks of gelatine, subjected them to various stresses, and with a pair of polarizing prisms viewed the coloured fringes which had developed within the jelly. It was through this practice that Maxwell discovered photoelasticity, which is a means of determining the stress distribution within physical structures. By the age of eighteen, Maxwell contributed two papers for the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. While one was titled, On the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids, which laid the foundation for an important discovery later in his life, the other one was in line with his first work, Oval Curves and was called Rolling Curves. Since Maxwell was once again considered too young to present the work, it was delivered to the Royal Society by his tutor, Kelland.
Years at Cambridge
In the October of 1850, Maxwell enrolled himself at the University of Cambridge. By then, he had become an already established mathematician. While Maxwell initially attended the Peterhouse, before the end of his term, he transferred himself to the Trinity College as he thought it would be easier for him to obtain a scholarship therein. Maxwell’s years at the Trinity were very significant as it was there that a considerable part of his translation of his equations regarding electromagnetism was accomplished. Maxwell was elected to the elite secret society, which was known as the Cambridge Apostles. In the year 1851, under the guidance of William Hopkins, Maxwell learned immensely. Four years thence, in 1854, Maxwell graduated from the Trinity College with a degree in mathematics. Scoring a second position, first being bagged by Edward Routh, he earned himself the title “Second Wrangler”. Additionally, he was also awarded the Smith’s Prize.
Almost instantaneously after earning his degree, Maxwell read a novel paper to the Cambridge Philosophical Society entitled, On the Transformation of Surfaces by Bending. One of the few purely mathematical papers written by Maxwell, it depicted his growth as a mathematician. Instead of moving further, Maxwell preferred to remain at the Trinity College and thus, applied for a fellowship. Since the processing of the same was expected to take a couple of years, Maxwell thought of it as the best opportunity to pursue his scientific research. Additionally, since he was a research student, he wasn’t burdened with much task except some tutoring and examination duties. Maxwell’s interest in the nature and perception of colour, which had budded at the Edinburgh University, continued to baffle his mind and it was in this arena that Maxwell based his research.
Using the colored spinning tops invented by Forbes, Maxwell concluded the fact that white light would result from the mixture of red, green and blue light. In 1855, Maxwell penned his paper, Experiments on Color, which laid out his researched principles of color combination. This time, he was fortunate enough to present his paper by himself to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Meanwhile, earlier than usual, Maxwell was made a fellow of Trinity College on October 10, 1855 and was asked to prepare lectures on hydrostatics and optics, and to set examination papers. However, he did not serve this for long as he acted upon the recommendation of Forbes to apply for the newly vacant Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen in the February of 1856. Maxwell’s application was accepted and he was offered professorship at Aberdeen, in November 1856.
Years at Aberdeen University
Maxwell took up his new responsibility as the head of the department at the Marischal College with élan, despite being almost a decade and a half younger than any other professor. He engaged himself in formulating the syllabus and preparing lectures. Maxwell lectured 15 hours a week, which included a weekly pro bono lecture to the local working men's college. While he spent six months of the academic year at Aberdeen, the summers were spent at Glenlair. During this time, Maxwell’s directed his interest to a question as to how the rings surrounding the planet Saturn remained stable, without breaking up, drifting away or crashing into the planet. This subject, which eluded answers until then, drew up many eyeballs and became the topic for the 1857 Adams Prize.
His two years of perseverance paid the prize as Maxwell was awarded the £130 Adams Prize in 1859, for his essay, On the Stability of Saturn's rings. Additionally, he was the only entrant to have made enough research and submit his work. Maxwell’s findings were accepted and acclaimed as the right explanation for the question. Next, Maxwell went on to disprove mathematically the nebular hypothesis, forcing the theory to account for additional portions of small solid particles. In 1860, University of Aberdeen was formed from the merger of Marischal College and its adjoining King's College. Since the merger meant having one extra professor of Natural Philosophy, Maxwell, despite his immense contribution, went out of work. Upon being rejected from the Edinburgh University as well, which was vacated by Forbes, Maxwell headed to London, where he was granted the Chair of Natural Philosophy at King's College.
Years at King’s College
Maxwell’s years at the King’s College can be termed as the most industrious and fruitful one, for he not only received the Royal Society's Rumford Medal in 1860, but also was elected to the Society in 1861. The concept of dimensional analysis, which we know of it now, was first displayed by Maxwell during this time. It is also during these years that Maxwell’s contribution in the fields of electricity and magnetism came in. His paper, On Physical Lines of Force, published in 1861, was released in four parts, and presented Maxwell’s model for electromagnetic induction, consisting of tiny spinning cells of magnetic flux. While the first part dealt with the nature of electrostatics and displacement current, the last part discussed the rotation of the plane of polarization of light in a magnetic field, now known as Faraday Effect. Maxwell resigned from his chair at the King’s College in 1865 and along with his wife, returned to Glenlair.
Later Years
In 1871, Maxwell penned a textbook by the title, Theory of Heat. The same year, he was elected as the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge. Maxwell was given the responsibility of the development of the Cavendish laboratory. For the same, he looked into every matter concerning the progress of the building, including purchase of the very valuable collection of apparatus. Five years later, he released an elementary treatise, Matter and Motion. Maxwell’s last great contribution to science was his editing of the electrical researches of Henry Cavendish. It was due to this edited material that the world came to know of Cavendish’s research in the mean density of the earth and the composition of water
Personal Life
James Clerk Maxwell tied the nuptial knot withKatherine Mary Dewar, who was the daughter of Reverend Daniel Dewar, Principal of Marischal whom Maxwell had befriended. The auspicious ceremony took place on June 2, 1858, in Aberdeen. Not much is known of the duo’s marital life, except for the fact that Katherine assisted Maxwell in the laboratory and worked on his experiments in viscosity.
Death & Legacy
Just like his mother, Maxwell too died of abdominal cancer on November 5, 1879. He was 48 years of age at the time of his death. Maxwell was interred at the Parton Kirk, near Castle Douglas in Galloway, Scotland. Due to his immense contribution, he was ranked 91st on the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Other than that, Maxwell has been bestowed with a number of honors. A mountain range on Venus has been named Maxwell Montes, while the rings of Saturn are termed as Maxwell Gap. The largest submillimetre-wavelength astronomical telescope in the world, with a diameter of 15 metres, is known by the name James Clerk Maxwell Telescope.A compound derived CGS unit measuring magnetic flux is termed the maxwell (Mx). Additionally, the building in the University of Edinburgh, housing the schools of mathematics, physics and meteorology is called the James Clerk Maxwell Building. The University of Salford's main building is also named after this great mathematician.
Honoring his contribution as the Professor of Natural Philosophy from 1860 to 1865,theKing's College Londonhas a building by the nameJames Clerk Maxwell building at its Waterloo campus.The university also has a chair in Physics named after him, and a society for undergraduate physicists. The streets in Cambridge and Aberdeen's Kincorth area bear his name, just as the Maxwell bridge, which is a bridge circuit involving resistors, a capacitor and an inductor. Furthermore, there is a statue of him at the Edinburgh George street. In 2006, to mark his 175th anniversary, £4 million James Clerk Maxwell Centre of the Edinburgh Academy was opened. Very recently, James Clerk Maxwell’s contribution to the world of science has been commemorated by his induction in the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame in 2012.


1831 :

James Clerk Maxwell was born

1839 :

His mother passed away

1845 :

Wrote his first scientific paper, Oval Curves

1847 :

Enrolled at the University of Edinburgh

1849 :

Contributed two papers for the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1850 :

Enrolled himself at the University of Cambridge

1854 :

Graduated from the Trinity College with a degree in mathematics; Awarded the Smith's Prize

1855 :

Attained fellowship in the Trinity College

1856 :

Applied and offered Chair of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College

1858 :

Married Katherine Mary Dewar

1859 :

Awarded the Adams Prize

1860 :

Received the Royal Society's Rumford Medal

1861 :

Elected to the Royal Society; Published his paper, On Physical Lines of Force

1865 :

Resigned from his chair at the King's College; Published his work, A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field

1871 :

Penned a textbook by the title, Theory of Heat; elected as the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge

1876 :

An elementary treatise, Matter and Motion was released

1879 :

James Clerk Maxwell passed away

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