Maxwell, Great Physicist Who Died Too Soon

James Maxwell is known for unification of electricity, magnetism and optics into a coherent body of knowledge.
james clerk maxwell biography, facts

James Clerk Maxwell was a renowned Scottish mathematician who built upon the works of English scientist Michael Faraday and revolutionized physics in whatever little time he spent on Earth.

His most important contribution was the unification of electricity, magnetism and optics into one coherent body of knowledge. Maxwell's research paved the way for technologies like radio, television, mobile phones and infrared telescopes.

Einstein said of Maxwell: The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell's Equations of the electromagnetic field. Planck added: He achieved greatness unequalled.

Early genius

When Maxwell was 13 years old, he won the Mathematics Medal and the first prize in both English and poetry. Following is one of his short poems:

The world may be utterly crazy
And life may be labour in vain;
But I'd rather be silly than lazy,
And would not quit life for its pain.

He published his first scientific paper at 14. The paper was written on a series of oval curves that could be traced with pins and threads, showing his love for geometry.


When he was 24, Maxwell used to set up examination papers for Trinity College. A year later, he became a professor of natural philosophy at Aberdeen University aged 25. Maxwell was at least 15 years younger than his colleagues.

There he studied the nature of Saturn’s rings for almost two years and compiled his observations in a detailed essay, titled: The Stability of Saturn’s Rings.

When Voyager spacecrafts went to space in the 1980s, they confirmed many of the conclusions that Maxwell had made over a century before.


Maxwell joined King's College, London in 1860. Here he forayed into works published by Faraday and also met him on several occasions. Michael Faraday, who was 40 years older than Maxwell, became an admirer.

Maxwell examined the behavior of electric and magnetic fields in his 1861 paper: 'On physical lines of force'. In 1862, while giving a lecture, he calculated that the speed of propagation of an electromagnetic field is same as the speed of light.

Thus, he went on to conclude that light is itself an electromagnetic disturbance which propagates through the space according to electromagnetic laws.

Last years

Maxwell resigned in 1865 and returned to his home in Scotland. He also frequented to Cambridge where he was supervising the construction of Cavendish Laboratory.

In 1871, aged 40, he was elected the first Cavendish Professor of Physics. Here he wrote three popular books called Theory of HeatMatter and Motion and A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism.
His famous twenty equations, which in their modern form are four partial differential equations, known as Maxwell's equations, first appeared in 1873.

In 1879, Maxwell reported difficulty in swallowing food. It was found that he had abdominal cancer, to which he succumbed the same year, at the age of 48.


In 1884, five years after Maxwell's death, Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist successfully produced electromagnetic waves in a laboratory as predicted by Maxwell.

Physicists say that Maxwell achieved for light what Newton had achieved for gravity: Unification. It took Maxwell's genius to collect the laws from the scattered pile of experimental evidence then at hand.

American physicist Richard Feynman wrote: Maxwell's equations didn't just change the world. They opened up a new one. Feynman labeled it the 'most significant discovery' of the 19th century.

Today, world's largest single-dish telescope that operates in submillimeter wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum is called James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in his honor.

Responsive Ad Slot

disqus, mystorymag
© 2019-2022
made with by vedang