The Online Library of Knowledge

Great scientists

James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk MaxwellJames Clerk MaxwellScottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831–79) was best known for developing electromagnetic theory. He wrote his first scientific paper at the age of 14, describing the mathematical properties of curves and ovals, which was presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh (although he was too young to be allowed to present it himself). In 1859, Maxwell suggested that Saturn’s rings were made up of a vast number of independently orbiting particles which were arranged in a series of narrow rings. The following year, Maxwell developed the kinetic theory of gases, in which he showed a gas’s temperature was determined by the motion of its molecules. Maxwell’s famous equations, known as Maxwell’s Equations, showed that electricity and magnetism were actually the same force, called the electromagnetic force. The foundation for much of the technology we have today is built upon his equations.

Early life

Edinburgh Academy todayEdinburgh Academy todayJames Clerk Maxwell, aged 24James Clerk Maxwell, aged 24
James Clerk Maxwell was born into a wealthy family in Edinburgh on 13th June 1831. His father was a lawyer, and his mother died when he was only eight years old. He was brought up on his family’s estate, Glenlair, in Kirkcudbrightshire. From the age of 10, he attended the Edinburgh Academy. Having been raised in isolation on his father's countryside estate, the young Maxwell did not fit in well at first: classmates made fun of him for being a country bumpkin, calling him "Daftie".

At the age of 16, and increasingly inquisitive of the natural world around him, Maxwell continued his education at the University of Edinburgh, studying natural philosophy (the old name for physics) and mathematics. On graduating at 19, he moved to Cambridge University where he studied mathematics. He became a Fellow of Trinity College when he was 24.

James Clerk Maxwell was greatly admired by Albert Einstein, who declared “One scientific epoch ended and another began with James Clerk Maxwell.” When asked whether he, Einstein, had done great things because he stood on Newton's shoulders, Einstein replied: "No I don't. I stand on the shoulders of Maxwell".

© 2019 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile