Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/May 1880/Sketch of James Clerk Maxwell

PSM V17 D008 James Clerk Maxwell.jpg



AMONG the present generation of English physicists none have attained to greater eminence, or have made more valuable additions to this department of science, than the late Professor Maxwell. The splendid promise that his accomplished work gave of future work makes his death, at the early age of forty-nine, at the height of his powers, an irreparable loss to science. An accomplished mathematician, an unexcelled experimenter, he was peculiarly fitted to carry on those delicate researches in the domain of molecular physics by which he made it his own, and in which he was without a rival. Possessed of a vivid imagination, he had that power of holding it well under control, and making it subservient to the conditions of scientific investigation, that belongs only to the highest types of mind, and which is essential to the best and most valuable work in science. Though possessed of the power of direct and lucid exposition, he was never what is termed a popular lecturer. The subjects he considered, and his condensed form of presenting them, debarred any, save those whose knowledge was sufficiently extended, from following him in his exposition. But, by the students who enjoyed the privilege of attending his lectures, he was regarded as a teacher of the greatest value, though at times somewhat difficult to follow. Of a kindly and genial disposition, Professor Maxwell secured the affectionate regard of those with whom he came in contact, and to many his death comes as the double loss of a companion in work and of a valued friend.

Professor Maxwell was born in the year 1831, being the only son of John Clerk Maxwell, Esq., of Middlebie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. When eight years old his mother died, and his father thereafter lived a retired life on his estate, devoting himself to the education of his son and the care of his property. He received his early education at the Edinburgh Academy, and after leaving there entered the University of Edinburgh. In 1850 he went to Cambridge, from which he was graduated in 1854, as second wrangler. In the following year he became a Fellow of Trinity College, and a year later accepted the position of Professor of Natural Philosophy in Marischal College, Aberdeen, which he held until the fusion of this and King's College. He succeeded Professor Goodeve as Professor of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy in King's College in 1860, and remained there until the death of his father in 1865, when he retired to his estate in Scotland. None of these positions had been entirely in accordance with his tastes, or such as to give full scope to his abilities. Such an opportunity as in every way suited him was opened to him in 1871, by the invitation of the University of Cambridge to the newly created chair of Experimental Physics, which he held until the time of his death. Shortly after his acceptance of the position, the Cavendish Laboratory, with a complete equipment of apparatus, was presented to the university by the Duke of Devonshire, and it is due to the superintendence of Professor Maxwell that this laboratory is so excellently adapted to its purpose.

During the winter of 1878 and 1879 Professor Maxwell's health failed him, and in the spring he betook himself to Scotland in the hope of regaining it. He was not improved by his trip, and he therefore returned to Cambridge, where under the treatment of Dr. Paget he grew better, and hopes were entertained of his recovery. The improvement, however, was not lasting, and he rapidly grew weaker until his death, on the 5th of November last.

Professor Maxwell commenced original work at an early age, and his contributions to the “Transactions” of societies and scientific periodicals have been voluminous. A mathematical paper “On the Description of Oval Curves, and those having a Plurality of Foci,” was submitted by him to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, through Professor Forbes, before he was fifteen. While at the University of Edinburgh he contributed two elaborate papers to the Edinburgh Royal Society, one on the "Theory of Rolling Curves," and the other on the "Equilibrium of Elastic Solids."

During his college course in Cambridge he developed the germs of his future important work on electricity and magnetism, in a paper on "Faraday's Lines of Force," and five other papers on the same subject were contributed by him to the "Philosophical Magazine" during 1861 and 1862. Only a few months after obtaining his Cambridge degree in 1854, he contributed to the Cambridge Philosophical Society a remarkable paper on the "Transformation of Surfaces by Bending." In 1857 his paper on the "Motions of Saturn's Rings" obtained for him the Adams prize in the University of Cambridge. He received in 1860 the Rumford medal from the Royal Society for his "Researches on the Composition of Colors" and other optical papers. The subject of color Professor Maxwell has treated with great success, both experimentally and theoretically, his papers on the subject extending from 1855 to 1872. His important paper on a "Dynamical Theory of the Electro-magnetic Field," in which he endeavored to explain electric and magnetic forces by means of stresses and motions of the medium, and thus do away with the notion of action at a distance, was read before the Royal Society in 1864, and printed in the "Transactions" of that year. His contributions to the Kinetic theory of gases form one of the most important and valuable of his investigations. His first paper on this subject appeared in the "Philosophical Magazine" of 1860, and he at different times since published various others. Before him, Clausius had made a great advance by his explanation by this theory of the relation between the volume, temperature, and pressure of a gas, the cooling of it by expansion, and the slowness of diffusion and conduction of heat in it. An investigation was also made by him of the relation between the length of the mean free path of a particle, the number of particles in a given space, and their least distance when in collision. Maxwell by an investigation of the collisions of a number of perfectly elastic spheres, first when they are all of the same mass, and then when they are of different masses, reached the law of Gay-Lussac, that in a unit of volume there is the same number of particles in all gases when at the same temperature and pressure. He also explained gaseous friction, and showed that the coefficient of viscosity is independent of the density of the gas. The approximate length of the mean free path was first deduced by him from data furnished by Stokes.

Pursuing the same subject, he made a few years later a valuable series of experimental investigations on the viscosity and internal friction of air and other gases, the results of which were brought to the attention of the Royal Society in 1866. A paper on "A Method of making a Direct Comparison of Electrostatic with Electro-magnetic Force, with a Note on the Electro-magnetic Theory of Light," was also presented to that body in 1868. He took great interest in graphical statics, and contributed in 1869 a paper on the subject, under the title "On Reciprocal Figures, Forms, and Diagrams of Forces," to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Besides his numerous articles giving the results of investigations, a few only of which are above mentioned, he contributed to the "Encyclopædia Britannica" the articles "Atom," "Attraction," "Capillary Action," "Constitution of Bodies," "Diagrams," "Diffusion," "Ether," "Faraday," and "Harmonic Analysis." Of the works published by Professor Maxwell, that on "Electricity and Magnetism" is his most important, giving the results of his laborious life in this department of physics. Besides this, a work on "The Theory of Heat," and a small text-book on "Matter and Motion" have been published by him. To these must be added his recently published volume on the "Electrical Researches of the Hon. Henry Cavendish," which he has enriched with copious and valuable notes.

Of his more important pieces of experimental work, that connected with the determination of the British Association Unit of Electric Resistance and his verification of Ohm's law made by him at the Cavendish Laboratory, should be here mentioned.

Professor Maxwell was Fellow of the Royal Societies of Edinburgh and London, and of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, and a voluminous contributor to their "Transactions." In 1872 he was elected Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and in the same year was created honorary LL. D. of Edinburgh, while in 1876 he received the honorary degree of D. C. L. at Oxford. He was appointed honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of Boston, in 1874; member of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, 1875; and honorary member of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1876. He was also correspondent in the mathematical class to the Imperial Academy of Sciences, Göttingen; corresponding member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, Vienna; and associate of the Amsterdam Royal Academy of Sciences.

Professor Maxwell did not confine himself to scientific research and exposition, but occasionally appeared in the field of literature with poetic effusions of a satirical character on scientific subjects.

Professor Tait, in his review in "Nature" of Professor Maxwell's work, hopes "that these scattered gems may be collected and published, for they are of the very highest interest, as the work during leisure hours of one of the most piercing intellects of modern times. Every one of them contains evidence of close and accurate thought, and many are in the happiest form of epigram." Two samples of this poetic work are given by Professor Tait, one of which we append:

"To follow my thoughts as they go on,

Electrodes I'd place in my brain;
Nay, I'd swallow a live entozoön,

New feelings of life to obtain."