The New Student's Reference Work/Maxwell, James Clerk-

Max′well, James Clerk-, a very remarkable English physicist and one of the most brilliant and profound minds known to the history of physical science. He was born at Edinburgh, June 13, 1831, and there received his early training, first at the Edinburgh Academy and afterward at the University of Edinburgh. In 1850 he went to Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1854. From 1856 to 1860 he held the chair of physics in Marischal College, Aberdeen, and for the next eight years a corresponding position in King’s College, London. Three years of retirement on his estate at Glenlair intervened between his London residence and his acceptance of the newly created chair of experimental physics at Cambridge, where he lived and worked almost to his death in 1879. Genius showed itself very early in his career; for at 15 a paper of his on a mechanical method of drawing Cartesian ovals was considered worthy of presentation to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His first great memoir was that which he offered in successful competition for the Adams prize in 1859. In this paper he proved from purely dynamical grounds that the rings of Saturn are made of discrete particles, else those rings would not be stable. His investigations on the Kinetic Theory of Gases placed him with Bernoulli, Clausius and Boltzmann as a founder of that science. Towering above everything else, however, is his Electromagnetic Theory. His work began with a paper on Faraday’s Lines of Force, which he later so extended and perfected that in his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism we have a complete theory of the entire subject from Faraday’s standpoint, that is, from the point of view which replaces all action at a distance by action through a medium. Ever since its publication in 1873 this been the standard treatment of electricity either in English or in any other language.

As early as 1864 Maxwell predicted that electrical vibrations, if they could be produced, would have the same properties as light-vibrations. It was not until 1888, nearly 20 years after Maxwell’s death, that Hertz showed how to realize these electric oscillations in the laboratory and proved that Maxwell’s equations had predicted the exact truth. These are precisely the electrical vibrations which Marconi and others have employed since 1896 in wireless telegraphy. This discovery of Maxwell’s may be stated more simply, perhaps, by saying that he showed that optics is merely one department of electricity.

His two small volumes on Matter and Motion and the Theory of Heat are marvels of elegance, conciseness and clearness. They should be read by everyone who wishes to know the man. His collected Scientific Papers have recently been published by the Cambridge Press.

Even this brief sketch would be incomplete without adding that, aside from scientific attainments, his modesty, genial humor and high Christian character endeared him to everyone who knew him. A more charming biography than the Life of James Clerk-Maxwell, by his friends Louis Campbell and William Garnett would be difficult to find.