James Clerk Maxwell Biography

James Clerk Maxwell (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879). Scottish Scientist and Physicist, known as Maxwell, is considered the 19th-century physicist who had the most influence in the 20th century.

His Electromagnetic Theory, exposed in his four Maxwell equations, based on Michael Faraday’s earlier work, changed the world of physics forever, paving the way for Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Quantum Theory, Calorie radiation, as well as the Theory of the Structure of Atoms and Molecules.

His Electromagnetic Radiation Theory is the basis of the current technology used by television, radio, mobile phones, as well as infrared light telescopes. In fact, the world’s largest telescope, located at the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii, was named in his honor.

His contribution to Physics is considered on the same level as the discoveries made by Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, which is why he is also listed as one of the most influential people in history.

Early years and initial education

Maxwell was born on June 13, 1831, into a middle-class family, the only child. His father was a lawyer, his mother was forty at the time of giving birth, as his parents had married late. They soon moved into the edinburgh cottage Glenlair, which had been inherited by their father. At the age of eight, his mother died of abdominal cancer.

His initial education was carried out by a tutor, who had announced that Maxwell had learning problems, although he was always recognized for his curiosity and intelligence. In 1841, his aunt Jane Cay decided to drop the tutor, and send Maxwell to the Edinburgh Academy.

At the age of 14 he wrote his first article on Geometry. Two years later, he entered the University of Edinburgh, where he showed great passion for reading, and published two other scientific papers.

University Training

In 1850, he moved to the University of Cambridge, from where he finally graduated in 1854. That year he also won the Smith Award, which recognizes the best essay based on original research. He also won a scholarship to Cambridge, but returned to Scotland due to the deteriorating health of his father.

In 1856, his father died, a few months later, Maxwell was appointed professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Marischal in Aberdeen. There he met Maria Dewar, daughter of the rector of this University, whom he married in 1858. They had no children, giving themselves to each other unconditionally, as some biographers refer.

Saturn’s Rings

One of Maxwell’s great discoveries, during his stay in Marischal, took place in the astronomical area. For decades, Science had wondered why the rings of the planet Saturn did not break or move away.

After two years of observation, in 1859, Maxwell concluded and published an essay, entitled On the Stability of Saturn’s Rings, in which he noted that they were made up of solid particles. In 1980 the special Voyager probe confirmed what Maxwell had deduced 100 years later.

Maxwell retired from Marischal and assumed a teaching place at the King’s College in London, where he remained until 1865, when he decided to move into his home in Glenlair to devote himself fully to his research. However, he remained connected to the University of Cambridge, where he was one of the founders and director of the Cavendish Laboratory, as well as professor, during 1870.


Around 1830, Michael Faraday had signaled the connection between Electricity and Magnetism. Maxwel decided to go a little further, trying to turn Faraday’s physical theories into mathematical formulas.

He built a mechanical model in order to be able to materialize the Induction Act, where Faraday claimed that an alteration of the magnetic field causes an induced electromagnetic field.

Maxwell found that a displacement current was also originating, which could be produced by transverse waves, whose speed were very close to the speed of light, discovering electromagnetic waves and changing physics forever.

Eight years after Maxwell’s death, Heinrich Hertz proved in 1887, Maxwell’s theory, proving that electromagnetic waves could in effect be generated in a laboratory, giving way to the Radio era.

Written works and final years

Maxwell made his findings public in a work presented in 1864 with the Roya Society, under the title Dynamic Theory of Electromagnetic Field. Nine years later, in 1873, he edited his book Treaty on Electricity and Magnetism.

His other publications are Theory of Heat, made in 1871, and The Matter and the Movement in 1877. Among his scientific contributions are also the first color photograph, achieved in 1861, as well as the creation of structural engineering calculations that allows the support of the bridges.

He died of abdominal cancer on 5 November 1879 in Cambridge, England. His house was converted into a museum, where the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation now operates. He went down in history as one of the most important scientists, making way for a new world.

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Image source: theguardian.com

James Clerk Maxwell Biography
Source: Education  
July 27, 2019

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