History

James Clerk Maxwell as a young man.

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell is one of the most influential scientists of all time. Albert Einstein acknowledged that the origins of the special theory of relativity lay in Clerk Maxwell's theories, saying “The work of James Clerk Maxwell changed the world forever”.


Clerk Maxwell's research into electromagnetic radiation led to the development of television, mobile phones, radio and infra-red telescopes. The largest astronomical telescope in the world, at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, is named in his honour.


Photo: James Clerk Maxwell as a young man, courtesy of The Master and Fellows of Trinity College, Cambridge.

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More information about: James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh in 1831. He attended school in the city and later studied at the Universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge.

He was an intensely curious child, writing his first scientific paper at the age of 14. At 25 he became Professor of Physics at Aberdeen University's Marischal College.

In Aberdeen, Clerk Maxwell began to study the composition of Saturn's rings. For many years, scientists had been trying to understand why they did not simply break up, crash into or move away from the planet.

Clerk Maxwell spent two years researching the subject and wrote his detailed essay 'On the Stability of Saturn's Rings' in 1859.

He concluded the rings comprised a myriad of small solid particles. The Voyager space probes of the 1980s confirmed many of the conclusions drawn by Clerk Maxwell over a century before.

In 1860, Clerk Maxwell moved from Aberdeen to King's College London, where he remained until 1865.

He accepted an offer to return to Cambridge in 1871. He played a key role in the establishment and design of the now-renowned Cavendish Laboratory and became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics. The Laboratory was formally opened in 1874.

Throughout this period, Clerk Maxwell continued his research in a number of fields, including astronomy and mathematical physics.

In 1873, he developed the famous four Maxwell's equations which played a key role in Albert Einstein's work on the special theory of relativity. Einstein stated "The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell Equations of the electromagnetic field."

Clerk Maxwell’s discovery of the nature of electromagnetic waves forms the basis for much of the modern technological society we take for granted. Radio, television, satellite communications and the mobile phone have their origins in his work.

Physicist Richard Feynman said "From a long view of the history of mankind - seen from, say, ten thousand years from now - there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics."

As an acknowledgement of Clerk Maxwell's contribution to the furthering of scientific knowledge, the largest astronomical telescope in the world was named in his honour in 1987.

The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) is 15 metres in diameter. It is situated at Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, at an altitude of 4092 metres. The JCMT is used to study our solar system, distant galaxies and interstellar dust and gas.

In 1879, James Clerk Maxwell’s health began to fail. Following a summer visit to the family estate in Kirkcudbrightshire, he returned to Cambridge where he died on 5 November.