The Life and Science of James Clerk Maxwell
(1831-1879) Physicist and Mathematician
“The theory of relativity would have never been possible without the mathematical
equations first described by James Maxwell."
James Clerk Maxwell may not be a household name when it comes to scientists, but his contributions to the field ranks him with some of the great scientists of all time.He is mainly known for his ground breaking work in electromagnetics, spurring a field that has given rise to many of the great accomplishments of the twentieth century.His equations, which relate the effects of electricity and magnetism to one another, are key in the development of modern relativity theory and the development electrical components and electronic systems.Like many great scientists, Maxwell was ahead of his time and his equations were not completely understood by his peers, but as science and mathematics progressed the beauty and genius behind his equations was fully revealed.
On June 13, 1831, James Clerk Maxwell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.With the exception of an older sister that died at a young age, he was an only child.His father, John, was a lawyer who was in his forties by the time James was born.John was considered to be an intelligent, but somewhat eccentric man.When James was young, his mother, Frances Cay, died after a prolonged illness (believed now to be cancer).After his mother’s passing, James was raised by his father and his aunt, Jane Cay and lived on his family’s estate, Glenair in Edinburgh. (Tolstoy 1981 10-12)
Even at an early age, James showed a fascination with the world around him and an amazing memory.At the age of two, he had already begun to investigate mirrors and their effect on sunlight.At the age of eight, James could recite the 119th Psalm. One of James's favorite mischievous things to do as a child was to row a washtub in the family duck pond. The humorous 1841 drawing on the left is by a cousin of James and shows him rowing out of the reach of one of his tutors, who is trying to catch him with a rake (Campbell 1882 13-20).
Despite the active presence of his father and kind nurturing of his aunt, James’s childhood wasn't always happy.Like mainly children in the Victorian era, James’s tutors often used physical violence such as hitting him in the head with a ruler and pulling his ears until the bled to discipline him. It took some time before his father and aunt became aware of the problem, but once they did James's father decided to enroll his son in Edinburgh Academy.When James began to attend school there, his classmates tormented him relentlessly.He was often picked on because of his stuttering problems and was given the nickname “Dafty” for his eccentric personality (Tolstoy 1981 19-23).
As James became older, he began to take a more involved interest in science and...