Perhaps no one in science has contributed as much to our daily lives than James Clerk Maxwell.

Whether you are talking on your cell phone, watching your favorite television program, surfing the web or using your GPS to guide you on a trip, these are all modern conveniences that were made possible by the foundational work of the 19th-century Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Though Maxwell didn’t discover electricity and magnetism, he did put in place a mathematical formulation of electricity and magnetism that built upon the earlier work of Benjamin Franklin, André-Marie Ampère, Michael Faraday and others.

Contributions

According to Doug West in his biography of Maxwell, the genius of Maxwell’s work was not limited to his study of electricity and magnetism. He made breakthrough contributions to geometric optics, color photography, photo-elasticity, the theory of Saturn’s rings, thermodynamics and more.

Maxwell was a polymath, a man of wide cultural and philosophical interests with a strong Christian faith. His influence across many areas of physical science has been enormous, with much of his work so far ahead of his time it would take years to confirm.  He was a man of ideas, and his ideas had some pretty impressive consequences. It was due in part to one of his breakthroughs, for example, that scientists would later uncover the significance of radio waves which are a result of electromagnetic activity. This of course then led to the use of radio communication and broadcast.

His work also paved the way for the use of radar to track planes high in the sky, as well as cell towers to beam signals to the phones we carry in our pockets. Thanks to his curiosity, a whole new world was discovered.

Biography   

James Clerk Maxwell was born on June 13, 1831. This is not a day that most of us remember, but it is one of great consequence. Without the mind of Maxwell, the scientific advancement of humanity would have been greatly stunted, if not arrested altogether.

Maxwell’s parents were Scottish advocate John Clerk Maxwell of Middlebie and his wife, Frances Cay. The Maxwell family normally lived on John’s country estate of Glenlair in the Scottish southwest, but citing the need to be near a proper hospital, Frances moved in with relatives in Edinburgh before she came to term.

It was Frances who would serve as Maxwell’s sounding board for all of his ideas, and it was also she that would provide him his rudimentary education. It appears that Frances did a remarkable job; Maxwell was soon able to recite long passages from English poets as well as from the Bible.

One of young Maxwell’s early milestones that paved the way was a scientific paper that he composed at the age of 14. The paper contained a detailed analysis of how curves could be fashioned with the use of a simple piece of string and focused on the possible use of mechanical devices to help draw geometric shapes. This treatise on shapes, lines and curves proved to contain much more than that.

Upon closer examination, it housed equations on a little something called bi-focal curves which would prove of import for future work with optics.

Just a couple of years later, at the age of 18, Maxwell would write his ground-breaking treatise called “On the Equilibrium of Elastic Solids.” This work would be important later on when Maxwell worked on the concept that shear stress can lead to double refraction in viscous liquids. Maxwell’s papers were considered to be rather ingenious by those who read them, but he was still considered too young to take his case to the Royal Society himself.

Maxwell  graduated from Trinity college in the year 1854 with a mathematical degree. Soon after having received his degree, he delivered a new mathematical treatise, “On the Transformation of Surfaces by Bending,” to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. This was a purely mathematical paper and perfectly exhibited Maxwell’s soon-to-be world-renowned skillset. His next major treatise was a paper about the nature of light titled “Experiments on Colour,” which he personally presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in March 1855. Soon thereafter Maxwell, now a fellow of Trinity, was asked to run the speaker’s circuit at his alma mater, lecturing students on the latest scientific breakthroughs. His amazing scientific work continued throughout his short life.  He died in 1879  at age 48.

Final Thoughts

Today, Maxwell is recognized as the greatest mathematical physicist since Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.  In addition to his work on electromagnetism, Maxwell also contributed to eight other scientific spheres: geometrical optics, kinetic theory, thermodynamics, viscoelasticity, bridge structures, control theory, dimensional analysis and the theory of Saturn’s rings. He also worked on color vision, producing the first ever color photograph. Maxwell’s unification of electricity and magnetism was his greatest contribution to physics. 

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.