James Clerk Maxwell

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He is a very happy man, and has improved much since the weather got moderate; he has great work with doors, locks, keys etc., and 'Show me how it doos' is never out of his mouth. He also investigates the hidden course of streams and bell-wires, the way the water gets from the pond through the wall and a pend or small bridge and down a drain ...

James Clerk Maxwell

Born: 13 June 1831 in Edinburgh, ScotlandDied: 5 Nov 1879 in Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
 
  James Clerk Maxwell was born at 14 India Street in Edinburgh, a house built by his parents in the 1820s, but shortly afterwards his family moved to their home at Glenlair in Kirkcudbrightshire about 20 km from Dumfries. There he enjoyed a country upbringing and his natural curiosity displayed itself at an early age. In a letter written on 25 April 1834 when 'The Boy' was not yet three years old he is described as follows, see :
He is a very happy man, and has improved much since the weather got moderate; he has great work with doors, locks, keys etc., and 'Show me how it doos' is never out of his mouth. He also investigates the hidden course of streams and bell-wires, the way the water gets from the pond through the wall and a pend or small bridge and down a drain ...
When James was eight years old his mother died. His parents plan that they would educate him at home until he was 13 years old, and that he would then be able to go the Edinburgh University, fell through. A 16 year old boy was hired to act as tutor but the arrangement was not a successful one and it was decided that James should attend the Edinburgh Academy. James, together with his family, arrived at 31 Heriot Row, the house of Isabella Wedderburn his father's sister, on 18 November 1841. He attended Edinburgh Academy where he had the nickname 'Dafty'. P G Tait, although almost the same age, was one class below James. Tait, who would become a close school friend and friend for life, described Maxwell's school days [39]:-
At school he was at first regarded as shy and rather dull. he made no friendships and spent his occasional holidays in reading old ballads, drawing curious diagrams and making rude mechanical models. This absorption in such pursuits, totally unintelligible to his schoolfellows, who were then totally ignorant of mathematics, procured him a not very complimentary nickname. About the middle of his school career however he surprised his companions by suddenly becoming one of the most brilliant among them, gaining prizes and sometimes the highest prizes for scholarship, mathematics, and English verse.
In early 1846 at the age of 14, Maxwell wrote a paper on ovals. In this work he generalised the definition of an ellipse by defining the locus of a point where the sum of m times the distance from one fixed point plus n times the distance from a second fixed point is constant. If m = n = 1 then the curve is an ellipse. Maxwell also defined curves where there were more than two foci. This became his first paper On the description of oval curves, and those having a plurality of foci which was read to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 6 April 1846. These ideas were not entirely new as Descartes had defined such curves before but the work was remarkable for a 14 year old.
Maxwell was not dux of the Edinburgh Academy, this honour going to Lewis Campbell who later became the professor of Greek at the University of St Andrews. Lewis Campbell was a close friend of Maxwell's and he wrote the biography [3] and its second edition [4]. These biographies make fascinating reading filled with personal memories.
At the age of 16, in November 1847, Maxwell entered the second Mathematics class taught by Kelland, the natural philosophy (physics) class taught by Forbes and the logic class taught by William Hamilton. Tait, also at the University of Edinburgh, later wrote in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1879-80) [4]:-
The winter of 1847 found us together in the classes of Forbes and Kelland, where he highly distinguished himself. With the former he was a particular favourite, being admitted to the free use of the class apparatus for original experiments. ... During this period he wrote two valuable papers which are published in our Transactions, on The Theory of Rolling Curves and The Equilibrium of Elastic Solids.
The University of Edinburgh still has a record of books that Maxwell borrowed to take home while an undergraduate. These include
Calcul Differentiel,Theorie de la Chaleur,Géometrie Descriptive,Optics,Mechanics,Scientific Memoirs,Willis, Principles of Mechanism .
Maxwell went to Peterhouse Cambridge in October 1850 but moved to Trinity where he believed that it was easier to obtain a fellowship. Again we quote Tait's article in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1879-80):-
... he brought to Cambridge in the autumn of 1850, a mass of knowledge which was really immense for so young a man, but in a state of disorder appalling to his methodical private tutor. Though the tutor was William Hopkins, the pupil to a great extent took his own way, and it may safely be said that no high wrangler of recent years ever entered the Senate-house more imperfectly trained to produce 'paying' work than did Clerk Maxwell. But by sheer strength of intellect, though with the very minimum of knowledge how to use it to advantage under the conditions of the Examination, he obtained the position of Second Wrangler, and was bracketed equal with the Senior Wrangler, in the higher ordeal of the Smith's Prizes.
Thomson [39] describes Maxwell's undergraduate days:-
... Scholars dined together at one table. This bought Maxwell into daily contact with the most intellectual set in the College, among whom were many who attained distinction in later life. These in spite of his shyness and some eccentricities recognised his exceptional powers. ... The impression of power which Maxwell produced on all he met was remarkable; it was often much more due to his personality than to what he said, for many found it difficult to follow him in his quick changes from one subject to another, his lively imagination started so many hares that before he had run one down he was off on another.
Maxwell obtained his fellowship and graduated with a degree in mathematics from Trinity College in 1854. The First Wrangler in that year was Edward Routh, who as well as being an excellent mathematician was a genius at mastering the cramming methods required to succeed in the Cambridge Tripos of that time. Maxwell remained at Cambridge where he took pupils, then was awarded a Fellowship by Trinity to continue work.
One of Maxwell's most important achievements was his extension and mathematical formulation of Michael Faraday's theories of electricity and magnetic lines of force. His paper On Faraday's lines of force was read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in two parts, 1855 and 1856. Maxwell showed that a few relatively simple mathematical equations could express the behaviour of electric and magnetic fields and their interrelation.
However, in early 1856, Maxwell's father became ill and Maxwell wanted to be able to spend more time with him. He therefore tried to obtain an appointment in Scotland, applying for the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy at Marischal College in Aberdeen when Forbes told him it was vacant. Maxwell travelled to Edinburgh for the Easter vacation of 1856 to be with his father and the two went together to Glenlair. On 3 April his father died and, shortly after, Maxwell returned to Cambridge as he had planned. Before the end of April he learnt that he had been appointed to the chair at Marischal College.
In November 1856 Maxwell took up the appointment in Aberdeen. When the subject announced by St John's College Cambridge for the Adams Prize of 1857 was The Motion of Saturn's Rings Maxwell immediately interested. Maxwell and Tait had thought about the problem of Saturn's rings in 1847 while still pupils at the Edinburgh Academy. Maxwell decided to compete for the prize and his research at Aberdeen in his first two years was taken up with this topic. He showed that stability could be achieved only if the rings consisted of numerous small solid particles, an explanation now confirmed by the Voyager spacecraft. In a letter to Lewis Campbell, written on 28 August 1857, while he was at Glenlair, Maxwell wrote:-
I have effected several breaches in the solid ring, and now am splash into the fluid one, amid a clash of symbols truly astounding. When I reappear it will be in the dusky ring, which is something like the siege of Sebastopol conducted from a forest of guns 100 miles one way, and 30,000 miles the other, and the shot never to stop, but go spinning away round a circle, radius 170,000 miles...
Maxwell's essay won him the Adams Prize and Airy wrote:-
It is one of the most remarkable applications of mathematics to physics that I have ever seen.
Maxwell became engaged to marry Katherine Mary Dewar in February 1858 and they married in June 1859. Despite the fact that he was now married to the daughter of the Principal of Marischal College, in 1860, when Marischal College and King's College combined, Maxwell, as the junior ...

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