1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Maxwell, James Clerk
MAXWELL, JAMES CLERK (1831–1879), British physicist, was the last representative of a younger branch of the well-known Scottish family of Clerk of Penicuik, and was born at Edinburgh on the 13th of November 1831. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy (1840–1847) and the university of Edinburgh (1847–1850). Entering at Cambridge in 1850, he spent a term or two at Peterhouse, but afterwards migrated to Trinity. In 1854 he took his degree as second wrangler, and was declared equal with the senior wrangler of his year (E. J. Routh, q.v.) in the higher ordeal of the Smith’s prize examination. He held the chair of Natural Philosophy in Marischal College, Aberdeen, from 1856 till the fusion of the two colleges there in 1860. For eight years subsequently he held the chair of Physics and Astronomy in King’s College, London, but resigned in 1868 and retired to his estate of Glenlair in Kirkcudbrightshire. He was summoned from his seclusion in 1871 to become the first holder of the newly founded professorship of Experimental Physics in Cambridge; and it was under his direction that the plans of the Cavendish Laboratory were prepared. He superintended every step of the progress of the building and of the purchase of the very valuable collection of apparatus with which it was equipped at the expense of its munificent founder the seventh duke of Devonshire (chancellor of the university, and one of its most distinguished alumni). He died at Cambridge on the 5th of November 1879.
For more than half of his brief life he held a prominent position in the very foremost rank of natural philosophers. His contributions to scientific societies began in his fifteenth year, when Professor J. D. Forbes communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a short paper of his on a mechanical method of tracing Cartesian ovals. In his eighteenth year, while still a student in Edinburgh, he contributed two valuable papers to the Transactions of the same society—one of which, “On the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids,” is remarkable, not only on account of its intrinsic power and the youth of its author, but also because in it he laid the foundation of one of the most singular discoveries of his later life, the temporary double refraction produced in viscous liquids by shearing stress. Immediately after taking his degree, he read to the Cambridge Philosophical Society a very novel memoir, “On the Transformation of Surfaces by Bending.” This is one of the few purely mathematical papers he published, and it exhibited at once to experts the full genius of its author. About the same time appeared his elaborate memoir, “On Faraday’s Lines of Force,” in which he gave the first indication of some of those extraordinary electrical investigations which culminated in the greatest work of his life. He obtained in 1859 the Adams prize in Cambridge for a very original and powerful essay, “On the Stability of Saturn’s Rings.” From 1855 to 1872 he published at intervals a series of valuable investigations connected with the “Perception of Colour” and “Colour-Blindness,” for the earlier of which he received the Rumford medal from the Royal Society in 1860. The instruments which he devised for these investigations were simple and convenient, but could not have been thought of for the purpose except by a man whose knowledge was co-extensive with his ingenuity. One of his greatest investigations bore on the “Kinetic Theory of Gases.” Originating with D. Bernoulli, this theory was advanced by the successive labours of John Herapath, J. P. Joule, and particularly R. Clausius, to such an extent as to put its general accuracy beyond a doubt; but it received enormous developments from Maxwell, who in this field appeared as an experimenter (on the laws of gaseous friction) as well as a mathematician. He wrote an admirable textbook of the Theory of Heat (1871), and a very excellent elementary treatise on Matter and Motion (1876).
But the great work of his life was devoted to electricity. He began by reading, with the most profound admiration and attention, the whole of Faraday’s extraordinary self-revelations, and proceeded to translate the ideas of that master into the succinct and expressive notation of the mathematicians. A considerable part of this translation was accomplished during his career as an undergraduate in Cambridge. The writer had the opportunity of perusing the MS. of “On Faraday’s Lines of Force,” in a form little different from the final one, a year before Maxwell took his degree. His great object, as it was also the great object of Faraday, was to overturn the idea of action at a distance. The splendid researches of S. D. Poisson and K. F. Gauss had shown how to reduce all the phenomena of statical electricity to mere attractions and repulsions exerted at a distance by particles of an imponderable on one another. Lord Kelvin (Sir W. Thomson) had, in 1846, shown that a totally different assumption, based upon other analogies, led (by its own special mathematical methods) to precisely the same results. He treated the resultant electric force at any point as analogous to the flux of heat from sources distributed in the same manner as the supposed electric particles. This paper of Thomson’s, whose ideas Maxwell afterwards developed in an extraordinary manner, seems to have given the first hint that there are at least two perfectly distinct methods of arriving at the known formulae of statical electricity. The step to magnetic phenomena was comparatively simple; but it was otherwise as regards electromagnetic phenomena, where current electricity is essentially involved. An exceedingly ingenious, but highly artificial, theory had been devised by W. E. Weber, which was found capable of explaining all the phenomena investigated by Ampère as well as the induction currents of Faraday. But this was based upon the assumption of a distance-action between electric particles, the intensity of which depended on their relative motion as well as on their position. This was, of course, even more repugnant to Maxwell’s mind than the statical distance-action developed by Poisson. The first paper of Maxwell’s in which an attempt at an admissible physical theory of electromagnetism was made was communicated to the Royal Society in 1867. But the theory, in a fully developed form, first appeared in 1873 in his great treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. This work was one of the most splendid monuments ever raised by the genius of a single individual. Availing himself of the admirable generalized co-ordinate system of Lagrange, Maxwell showed how to reduce all electric and magnetic phenomena to stresses and motions of a material medium, and, as one preliminary, but excessively severe, test of the truth of his theory, he pointed out that (if the electromagnetic medium be that which is required for the explanation of the phenomena of light) the velocity of light in vacuo should be numerically the same as the ratio of the electromagnetic and electrostatic units. In fact, the means of the best determinations of each of these quantities separately agree with one another more closely than do the various values of either.
One of Maxwell’s last great contributions to science was the editing (with copious original notes) of the Electrical Researches of the Hon. Henry Cavendish, from which it appeared that Cavendish, already famous by many other researches (such as the mean density of the earth, the composition of water, &c.), must be looked on as, in his day, a man of Maxwell’s own stamp as a theorist and an experimenter of the very first rank.
In private life Clerk Maxwell was one of the most lovable of men, a sincere and unostentatious Christian. Though perfectly free from any trace of envy or ill-will, he yet showed on fit occasion his contempt for that pseudo-science which seeks for the applause of the ignorant by professing to reduce the whole system of the universe to a fortuitous sequence of uncaused events.
(P. G. T.)