James Clerk Maxwell was a Scottish physicist who is best known for developing the electromagnetic theory, or the theory that electricity comes from changes in a magnetic field. Maxwell is considered the scientist of the 19th century who had the most influence on the study of physics in the 20th century, and is ranked with the likes of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.
Let’s get into some facts!
James Clerk Maxwell Facts
1. He paved the way for important theories in physics
Through his various experiments, Maxwell showed that visible light in just one type of electromagnetic radiation, along with radio waves and microwaves and the like. This discovery paved the way for important developments in physics such as quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of relativity, an interesting fact about James Clerk Maxwell.
2. James Maxwell was born late into his parent’s marriage
James Maxwell was born into a comfortable middle class family when his mother was 40. His father was a lawyer. Originally, their last name was Clerk, but the last name Maxwell was added on when they inherited the Maxwell estate.
3. He had to be rescued from a boring tutor
His early education was left up to a very boring tutor who said James was a slow learner. That was not the case, Maxwell was a very clever, curious boy. He was just painfully bored by the tutor, an interesting fact about James Clerk Maxwell. Eventually, Maxwell’s aunt, a woman named Jane Cay, rescued him from this less than stimulating life and sent him to school in Edinburgh where he was better able to live up to his potential. It makes one wonder if many students who do badly in school are simply bored. A good teacher can make a world of difference.
4. Maxwell published his first scientific paper at 14
As a student, Maxwell didn’t care much about his grades, or how he did on exams. It was all about the learning for him. He read about everything he could get his hands on, and was able to publish his first scientific paper at the age of 14. His paper was on a series of oval curves that could be traced with pins and threads, showing his love for all things geometric, that which has to do with shapes and forms.
5. He was better with geometry than straight mathematics
That preference for shapes played out in Maxwell’s performance, as well. He thought of nearly everything through a geometric model. He would have rather worked with shapes than analyze mathematical formulas. In fact, Maxwell presented several formulas that were proved with incorrect math. However, he was really good with the math of shapes and physical object. A very well-respected math professor said that Maxwell was one of the most extraordinary people he had ever met, that it seemed impossible for Maxwell to think incorrectly about anything in physics.
6. James Maxwell had a rough patch, but his luck turned around.
After his schooling, Maxwell was offered a fellowship, or opportunity to continue his education while working. He turned it down, however, because his father’s health was getting worse, and Maxwell wished to spend time with him in Scotland. In 1856, Maxwell was chosen to be the professor of natural philosophy at Marischal College, but before he was able to take the job, Maxwell’s father died. He and his father were very close, so it was a huge loss, and Maxwell mourned for some time.
Life goes on, however, and eventually Maxwell did take that job as a professor. Not for long, though, because Marischal College merged with King’s College, which already had a professor of natural philosophy. An interesting fact about James Clerk Maxwell is that he was kicked out. He applied for an open space at Edinburgh College, but they chose someone else for the position.
Maxwell’s luck finally started to turn around when he was brought on as the professor of natural philosophy at King’s College in London. The five years he spent there were the most productive of his life. He published his two famous papers on the electromagnetic field. He also did a demonstration of color photography using red, blue, and green color filters. He studied the thickness and movement of gasses and created a standard for electrical units.
7. Maxwell was able to affirm his theory
Many theorists are unable to have their theories confirmed during their lifetime, but experiments that Maxwell did measuring units of electricity created by a magnetic field affirmed his theories. The readings he got from a displacement current when he agitated a magnetic field were the same velocity as that of the speed of light. He had to conclude that light was made out of the same stuff as the electromagnetic field.
8. Even his retirement was devoted to science
After five years of important work, Maxwell retired to his family estate. Even in retirement, though, Maxwell had more science to do. Most of his retirement was dedicated to a comprehensive paper on electromagnetism. He also did some more work with gasses. He would visit London every summer to help grade exams at Cambridge, and was able to tour Italy, an interesting fact about James Maxwell.
Maxwell died of abdominal cancer in 1879 at the same age his mother died, also of abdominal cancer. He had a wife, but no kids. His research allowed people to create an electromagnetic field in a laboratory, which, in turn, gave rise to controlled radio waves and other important inventions. A scientist named Heinrich Hertz was able to demonstrate the creation of radio waves in a laboratory 8 years after Maxwell’s death. Without Maxwell’s work, we would not have radio, or any of the inventions that came from radio.
I hope that this article on James Maxwell facts was helpful. If you are interested, visit the Historical People Facts Page!