Clerk-Maxwell | James | 1831-1879 | professor of experimental physics, University of Cambridge

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), one of the finest scientific minds in history, was mocked at school for his perceived stupidity. Though he had shown scientfic curiosity from a very young age, Maxwell's intelligence was not immediately obvious to his more literary-minded peers at the Edinburgh Academy, partly because of his interest in science, which they did not understand, and partly because of his reluctance to socialise with them. Whatever the reasons, he only slowly emerged from this isolation when his school marks began to show his exceptional talents. He went on to study at the universities in Edinburgh and Cambridge.

Maxwell wrote his first paper (which was delivered on his behalf, to the Royal Society of Edinburgh), on the subject of ovals, when he was just fourteen, and though most of its contents had already been explained by René Descartes (1595-1650), centuries earlier, it was a remarkable achievement for a fourteen-year-old. In his lifetime, Maxwell wrote another hundred and twenty-eight papers, on diverse subjects such as electromagnetism, the kinetic theory of gases, astrophysics, optics and the theory of colours, among others. It is, however, for his work in four key areas that he is famous: electromagnetism, astrophysics, comparative colourimetry and rarified gas dynamics. In electromagnetism, he described magnetic and electric effects as (undefined) changes in the ether and made the link between electricity, magnetism and light. In astrophysics, he won the Adams prize for his proof that the rings of Saturn are made of numerous small solid particles, rather than solid rings (to be stable, these would have to have their mass so concentrated in one area to make it visible as a satellite from Earth) or liquid. The study of rarified gas dynamics, which he invented, was another field in which he distinguished himself - he explained in terms of gas dynamics the motion of William Crookes' (1832-1919) 'radiometer', which had been taken as evidence that light could exert pressure, which would have confirmed the particle theory of radiation. Maxwell proved that the motion could be attributed to the effects of the rarified gas that remained within the near-vacuum that the radiometer resided in. Finally, Maxwell conducted a series of experiments on colour, in which he found out that any colour could be created by adding or subtracting any other three colours, and made a number of experiments to determine to what extent experience of colour is subjective.

Maxwell held the chair of natural philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen from 1856 until he lost it in the amalgamation of Aberdeen's colleges into the University of Aberdeen in 1860. In the same year, he was appointed professor at King's College, London, where much of his important work was carried out. He retired in 1865, to live at his home in Glenlair, until he was persuaded, in 1871, to become professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge. In this position, he founded the Cavendish Laboratory and supervised its construction. He occupied the chair at Cambridge until his untimely death at the age of 48.


James Clerk Maxwell was a lifelong friend of Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901). At the University of Edinburgh, he was influenced by James David Forbes (1809-1868) and at Cambridge by GG Stokes (1819-1903).

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

On the Stability of Saturn's Rings, ( 1859)

Illustrations of the Dynamical Theory of Gases, (1860)

Theory of Heat, (1870)

A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, ( 1873)

Matter and Motion (1876)

The Electrical Researches of the Hon. Henry Cavendish, (1879)

An Elementary Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, ( 1881)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1854: Awarded Batchelor of Science (BSc) degree, University of Cambridge

1856-1860: Appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy, Marischal College, Aberdeen

1857: Awarded Adams Prize

1860: Awarded Rumford Medal of the Royal Society

1860-1865: Appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy, King's College, London

1871: Appointed Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics, University of Cambridge


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Gillispie, Charles C, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, vol IX, ( New York , Scribner's, 1974)

Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, vol 10, (Edinburgh, 1880)

James Clerk Maxwell, (, University of St Andrews, 1997)