James Clerk Maxwell

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was one of the greetes physicist in history. Like another great British physicist, Sir Isaac Newton, he investigated many different areas of physical science. Also like Newton, he contributed theories that opened new avenues of thought and scientific development.

Maxwell’s work on electricity, magnetism, and force fields was his greatest achievement. In this area of research, he built on theories that Michael Faraday had developed. Maxwell and Faraday exchanged ideas on this subject. (Faraday died in 1867).

Maxwell took Faraday’s idea and developed it into a complete electromegnetic theory. This theory explains how electrical current radiates energy-such as radio waves and microwaves-into space. Eventually the electromagnetic theory was applied to the physical properties of radioactive mterials and the energy they produce and to other types of energy as well.

Maxwell then applied principles of electromagnetic theory to light. He discovered that light behaves in the same way as electromagnetic forces and conclude d that light is a type of electromagnetic force.

The importance of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory can hardly be overestimated. For the most part, twentieth century technology would have been impossible without it. Inventions such as television, radio, radar, satelite communications, and many others are result of electromagnetic theory. In fact, communicaions as we know them would be unthinkable without Maxwell’s pioneering work. And without the long-distance communications made possible by electromagnetic waves, there would be no space exploration.

In the early 1870’s, descendants of Henry Cavendish endowed a scientific laboratory at Cambridge University. James Clerk Maxwell accepted the invitation to become the first Cavendish profesor of physics. He designed the laboratory and recruited its staff. Maxwell’s work wsa so successful that by the early 1900’s the Cavendish laboratory became perhaps the most important center for physics research in the world.

Maxwell went to Cambridge University eventually winning a mathematical fellowship and graduating with high honours. In 1856 he gained an appointment to the faculty of marischal College in Aberdeen, Scotland, near his family home. (His father however, died in that year). During this period, Maxwell married. In 1860 he joined the faculty of King’s College in London. There Maxwell stayed for five years, after which he retired to his family home in Scotland to devote his time to research. Retirement ended for him in 1871 when the unexpected invitation to establish the Cavendish laboratory came. Maxwell died, a relatively young man in his forties, in 1879.

Maxwell’s published scientific writings include Theory of Heat and Treatise on Elecricity and Magnetism.

Adapted from: Men and Women of Science. The World Book Encyclopedia of Science Vol. 8 Chcago 1995

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